189: Three of the Lowly People of the 1820s by John Dempsey

The understandable fuss over Tudor musician John Blanke is not just due to the early (c 1500) date of his image but to the identification of his name and other details [see Miranda Kaufmann, Black Tudors: The Untold Story (London: Oneworld, 2017) pp 7-31]. We have later portraits and images of people of African descent in Britain, some unidentified – a male once thought to be Equiano is in Exeter, and Samuel Johnson’s assistant Francis Barber is not the man whose portrait hangs at Johnson’s house in London [see Michael Bundock, The Fortunes of Francis Barber (New Haven: Yale UP, 2015) pp 213-218].

Black servants were far from rare and they appear in British group portraits of their employers, whose estate records can reveal names but little more. The poor were unimportant. That makes the watercolours of John Church Dempsey (c. 1802-1877) very interesting for he portrayed the lowly. Fifty-two paintings of street people include three black men.

‘Cotton’, who sold thread, ribbons and cotton in the streets of Norwich, was painted around 1823. ‘Black Charley’ was a boot and shoe mender who, if clothes are our guide, had a successful shop in Norwich in 1823….

Charles McGee, a London crossing sweeper painted around 1821, was well-known and there are three other prints of him. He seems to have been a Jamaican. Peter Fryer in his Staying Power (London: Pluto, 1984), p 231 has a paragraph about McGee or M’Gee.

The images were exhibited in Hobart, at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and an illustrated catalogue was published. To see Dempsey’s images look at:


This exhibition and Dempsey were brought to my attention by Michael Graham-Stewart. Many thanks.

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