Recently another portrait has come to light, but this time dating from Bloomfield’s years of decline and destitution.
John Dempsey.—“Robert Bloomfield, the poet, 1823”.—Watercolour.—24.2 x 17.8 cm.—Collection : Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (AG585), presented by Conrad Docker, 1956.—Inscribed verso, pencil: George Robert Bloomfield Aged 57 1823; on secondary support, ink: Robert Bloomfield (the Poet)—1823.
The artist is John Dempsey (1802/03-1877), an itinerant painter who created portrait miniatures and cut silhouettes across the length and breadth of Great Britain, from Plymouth to Kilmarnock, Liverpool to Scarborough. While Dempsey’s technical skills in areas such as perspective are sometimes lacking, his faces have a haunting, highly-detailed naturalism.
At the end of the 18th century, a substantial new consumer class was emerging. Before the widespread adoption of photography in the 1850s, a small army of artisan painters such as John Dempsey supplied this expanding market with modest, domestic images of themselves. Dempsey’s clientele might not be able to afford to commission a large portrait from a major artist, but could pay for a miniature from a lesser-known one such as himself.
In 1996, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery had to relocate its extensive collection of works on paper. Towards the end of the stock-taking, on a lower shelf in a file marked U for Unknown, a collection of full-length, nineteenth-century watercolour portraits was discovered, of vivid character and astonishing quality. There were fifty-one portraits in the file in watercolour, gouache and pencil, and dating mostly from the 1820s. The portrait of “Tommy Raeburn, the Ayrshire Hermit” bore the inscription “J. Dempsey Pinxt”. John Dempsey’s long exile from British art history was over.
In 2017, “Dempsey’s people: a folio of British street portraits 1824–1844” was displayed for the first time at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra (Thursday 29 June until Sunday 22 October). It brought together 52 miniatures (51 from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and 1 from the New Zealand National Library) painted by the itinerant artist John Dempsey over two decades. But these aren’t paintings of aristocrats and gentry. They are portraits of town criers, match-sellers, chimney-sweeps, street-food vendors, crippled soldiers, and other characters populating the urban landscape of Regency-era and early Victorian Britain. Remarkable in their incisive realism and providing rare visual documentation of people otherwise overlooked by history, Dempsey’s portraits present a vivid and distinctive survey of street people in British cities and towns. The paintings of street people were his way of advertising his talents.
By 1823, Bloomfield’s fame was pretty well over, despite having had a piece published in The Ladies’ Monthly Museum in that year. David Hansen, curator of the exhibition “Dempsey’s People” at the National Portrait Gallery (Canberra) comments
In Dempsey’s picture he is a tragic wreck, his thin, grizzled hair hanging lankly over his forehead and collar, his bloodshot, rheumy eyes staring vacantly into space. His coat is in rags: the right elbow is holed, a button on the left side hangs by a single thread. A web of yarn dangles off the end of his workbench, tacks and offcuts litter the ground. Even The farmer’s boy himself, the model of rural decorum, the shining example of Georgic virtue, is displaced and beaten by the forces of modern economics.
Yet, there is resistance here too--a pathetic poet’s dignity. A small volume peeps from behind his right sleeve, there is a manuscript scroll on the floor, and a bottle of ink and a quill stand amongst the shoe lasts, needles and knives (Hansen 2017, 226).The images in the Dempsey portfolio were in all likelihood painted for demonstration purposes. Dempsey’s practice appears to have been that when he visited a new town, he would paint a full-length watercolour portrait of a local “character”—a blind beggar, a bathing attendant in a seaside town, the Ipswich town crier—and post this up in the inn where he was lodging to advertise his skills. By depicting well-known street people, the most visible “remarkable characters” of each town that he visited, Dempsey could all the more easily convince potential clients of his capacity to capture a “speaking likeness”. So this was Bloomfield’s fate—reduced to the level of a local character in Shefford—a man who was once a famous poet.
[Samuel Williams (?) after John Dempsey].—“George Bloomfield”.—Wood engraving in Hone’s Table Book. Vol. II, p. 815.
Dempsey’s watercolour seems at one point to have found its way into the hands of William Hone who used it to illustrate (apparently erroneously) a Table Book article on Bloomfield’s brother George. Dempsey’s pencil inscription :
George Robert Bloomfield Aged 57 1823is ambiguous, though correct as to Robert’s age. (Robert was born in 1766; George in 1758. Curiously, another brother, baptised “George Robert Blomfield [sic]” at Honington, 20 Jun 1757, presumably died in infancy.) What worries me is that the other portraits include “Ann ‘Old Nanny’ Chapman, Bury St Edmunds” and George was resident in Bury St Edmunds while Robert lived in Shefford. Did Dempsey ply his trade even in a very small place like Shefford? But if it is George, why is he shown in a state of destitution like his brother?
Sources and Further Reading
David Hansen.—“Dead Poet’s Society”.—Siglo (University of Tasmania).—No 12 (2000), 21-28.
David Hansen.—“‘Remarkable Characters’: John Dempsey and the representation of the urban poor in Regency Britain”.—The British Art Journal.—Vol.11 no1 (1 January 2010), 75-88.
David Hansen.—Dempsey’s People : a Folio of British Street Portraits 1824–1844.—Canberra : National Portrait Gallery, 2017.
A scholarly publication accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, Australia.
William Hone.—The Table Book. Vol. II.—London : Hunt & Clarke, 1827.
Freeman Marius O’Donoghue.—Catalogue of engraved British portraits preserved in the ... British Museum.—6 vols.—London : British Museum, 1908-25.
Bloomfield’s portraits are listed in vol.1, pages 204-05.