Unique images of England's 'unseen' urban poor are unearthed in Tasmanian museum

A unique collection of 19th-century watercolours that offer a rare insight into England's urban poor has been found in a drawer in a back room at a Tasmanian museum.

The 51 paintings, which depict beggars, street sweepers and pedlars in the 1820s, represent a remarkable piece of social history, according to David Hansen, the senior art curator at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart.

The portraits are the work of a little-known English artist, John Dempsey, who travelled the country in search of subjects. Most are dated and record the places where they were executed as well as, in many cases, the names and occupations of the sitters.

While numerous pictures exist of aristocrats and land-owners from that era, the poor and working classes were almost never painted as individuals. "These are images of the previously unseen," said Mr Hansen. "They are a slice through a social class. They are quite extraordinary."

That view is shared by British art historians, including the noted Constable specialist, Michael Rosenthal. Mr Rosenthal examined the watercolours and said he had never seen anything like them. The National Portrait Gallery in London is considering exhibiting them.

It is not clear how the folio ended up in Tasmania. It was donated to the museum in 1956 by a man named C E Docker, but his background is unknown. Mr Hansen has contacted every Docker in Hobart, but has failed to glean any information about the mystery benefactor.

For decades, the portraits were wrongly attributed to another English painter of that time, George Scharf. They were not regarded as particularly interesting. The museum's curators forgot that they existed.

It was only when the print room was relocated that they came to light. Mr Hansen, who found them, said: "I thought 'what the hell are these?' I knew there was very little imagery of the English working classes from that late Regency/ early Victorian era. To find that quantity and that quality, with that wide geographical range, and with the names attached, was pretty amazing."

The handful of other portraits of the poor from that era are sentimental and sanitised. Dempsey's are raw and realistic. "They have a compelling verisimilitude and documentary fidelity," said Mr Hansen.

"They bring a whiff of the 1820s into the early 21st century." Dempsey travelled from Plymouth to Scotland, and from Liverpool to Great Yarmouth. He painted porters, bootmakers, town criers and veterans of the Napoleonic wars.He painted "lunatics", and people with missing limbs and deformities.In the most of art of that period, the working classes are either relegated to the background, or "made digestible to a middle-class audience", according to Mr Hansen.

"Dempsey's people are very unpalatable. They are hairy, ugly, spotty. They live a grim existence, in dire poverty." He said the watercolours were astonishingly detailed. "You see every carbuncle, every missing tooth, every stitch of ragged clothing. It is almost a scientific presentation. The subjects are like specimens, like butterflies on pins. Dempsey is an anthropologist of the underclass."

Of the artist himself, little is known. Mr Hansen calls him "a bare whisper in the literature of art history". An itinerant miniaturist, Dempsey later became a successful cutter of silhouette portraits. But his clumsy rendering of anatomy suggests he had no academic training.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor