Wednesday, 23 August 2017

British Street Portraits in Australia

Charles McGee, the London crossing sweeper from the 1820s, is fairly well known from  'London Life' prints,  but this is an unfamiliar  portrait by John Dempsey. Showing the shock of white hair, top hat and cudgel that must have been McGee's trademarks, it's in a sequence of 50 images that were presented to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in 1956, presumably by the descendant of a migrant.
Dempsey is described as an 'itinerant artist', which makes him sound blood-brother to his subjects, which is probably misleading.  The sequence is rather like a 'Cries of London' series, illustrating street vendors, but has a wider remit, and is in watercolour, therefore unique, although possibly conceived for a hand-coloured print edition; if so, are any copies known?
  Of the 50 sitters, three are of African ancestry, and the other two are in Norwich.
This figure is called 'Cotton'.  I'm assuming it's because he is selling reels of thread, though the image isn't quite clear, and the nickname may be an indirect allusion to his supposed earlier life in the  cottonfields of the American South.  His hat is a bit battered, like that of so many street vendors as portrayed in prints like these and those in Vagabondia.
The third figure is more  surprising, however.
'Black Charley' is a bootmaker, standing in the doorway of his shop, wearing a smart sprigged waistcoat in best Regency style, a snow-white stock, frock coat, breeches, gaiters and indoor shoes.  He looks plump and prosperous, hardly a street-seller. His shop has boots and shoes for gents and ladies and children.

This fascinating collection is currently on display at the Australian National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.  The full sequence is online here LINK

There's also a full catalogue, available here LINK

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