In this lecture fashion historian Hilary Davidson explores the significance of the fraying collars, patched coats, and ill-fitting shoes of English painter John Dempsey’s people, in the context of early 19th century clothing.
Travelling throughout the English in search of subjects, little-known portraitist John Dempsey made enchanting watercolour images of street people in the first half of the 19th century.
Dempsey's personalities provide a rare insight into the individuals who populated small towns across Britain. There are bellmen and beggars; hawkers and match-sellers; old soldiers, poets, eccentrics; and the physically and mentally disabled. Dempsey’s works and travels, in a time of limited transportation, also mark the eventual downturn in the fortunes of travelling painters with the emergence of photography.
Remarkable in their incisive realism and provide a fresh perspective and rare visual documentation of people otherwise overlooked by history, Dempsey’s portraits bring to life the fictional worlds of writers like Charles Dickens, presenting a vivid and distinctive survey of street people in British cities and towns. In doing so, Dempsey provided a rare insight into the clothing that does not survive in museums, that slips through the cracks, that in its day was resold, remade, and recycled until there was nothing left.
HILARY DAVIDSON is a dress and textile historian who was formerly curator of fashion and decorative art at the Museum of London. She has researched Austen-age fashion for a decade and is currently completing a major book on dress in the British Regency world for Yale (2018). Her most recent lecture at The Johnston Collection was Reconstructing Jane Austen’s Silk Pelisse (2017).
This lecture is supported by The Friends of The Johnston Collection.
image: John Dempsey (English, 1801-1877), Black Charley, Norwich, 1823, collection of Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, presented by C. Docker, 1956