It may seem an odd thing to do at one’s leisure on a beautiful tropical island, but I spent much of my midwinter break a few weeks ago re-reading Bleak House. Partly inspired to do so by Dempsey’s People, I was also on the look-out for portraits because, I now realise, Charles Dickens’s mighty novel is absolutely crammed with them.
Those of you who are active in social media circles may be aware that through the past week I have unleashed a blitz on Facebook and Instagram in connection with our new winter exhibition Dempsey’s People: A Folio of British Street Portraits, 1824−1844 (Thursday 29 June until Sunday 22 October 2017). As the exhibition curator David Hansen points out in his beautiful catalogue essay, it is a sad irony that this lovable artist, John Church Dempsey (1802/03−1877), to whom we owe so much for preserving the mostly humble, certainly fugitive identity of 54 individuals (an unusually large proportion of whom are known and named), should himself remain so shadowy a figure. Much of what we know about him is contained in his surviving portraits, of which a folio of 51 was in 1956 presented by Conrad Docker to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, and another ended up in the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa in Wellington. This is the first time that they have been shown as a complete set.
...This specimen, however, creaks and wobbles at the lower end of the spectrum. The spatial arrangements are as unerringly wonky as they are ambitious. Consider the smorgasbord of problems this artist has set for himself... The architecture alone—the splendid alcove with painted ceiling decoration and arched windows; the niche, pediment, columns and pilaster—poses challenges that are worthy of the most ambitious painter, but are here, despite a tremendous struggle, if not wholly botched certainly not met with anything like the precision of an established master.
After it was established by legislation at Westminster in 1824 (193 years ago) the site chosen for the new National Gallery was Trafalgar Square, because you could drive there from Chelsea, Mayfair or St Marylebone, but it was also within easy walking distance for many far less affluent Londoners who lived not far east of there. Upon arriving, visitors would enter the National Gallery on an absolutely equal footing, free of charge, and experience there, each in his or her own way, the transformative power of great works of art.