The Life of John Church Dempsey (1802-1877), artist

John Church Dempsey found his way on to my radar as we have previously looked at a couple of his paintings, ‘Black Charley‘ and ‘Jemmy, The Rockman‘ and so, I wanted to find out a little more about his life.

John was baptised in 1802 at the non-conformist chapel in Walcot, Bath, to parents Edward and his wife, Martha. Edward was possibly the master of St. Michael’s Poorhouse, in Bath, who died in 1826 from apoplexy, but further proof is needed to confirm this at present. According to baptism records, John appears to have been an only child and possibly born later in their marriage.

In 1819 at Bedminster, Somerset there is a curious marriage entry for a John Church Dempsey to a Hagar Maber. If this was his marriage and there’s no reason to doubt it, then he married at a mere 17 years old. There is no sign of his bride after their marriage, nor any evidence of her demise so far, so quite how long this marriage lasted remains unknown.

1, Chapel Row, Bath. Google maps
1, Chapel Row, Bath. Google maps

Two years after this marriage John was advertising his services as a portrait painter in the Bath Chronicle of 13 December 1821, the property still exists as you can see from above. Given that he was a mere 19-years-old, it seems highly unlikely that he had received any formal training as an artist, so perhaps just a natural talent for capturing likenesses.

And this one just a couple of days later.

Quite how much time John spent living in Bath seems unclear, as his paintings seem to show that during the 1820’s he travelled all around the country from north to south and east to west, over a period of just two years, during which time he painted at least 51 paintings of some fascinating characters, perhaps he thought he would achieve more by painting ‘ordinary people’ rather than the great and the good who lived Bath to take the waters and socialise.

He then seems to vanish for a number of years, reappearing in 1841 in the St James’s district of Bristol where he continued to work as an artist and was living with someone by the name of Sarah. It seems unclear as to who this Sarah was, but she was about 7 years his junior and not from the county. The 1841 census was a little vague on information so it was impossible to tell who this woman was at that stage.

Mark Custings, known as Blind Peter and his boy, Norwich, 1823 by John Dempsey. NPG, Australia
Mark Custings, known as Blind Peter and his boy, Norwich, 1823 by John Dempsey. NPG, Australia

However, three years later John married for a second time, interestingly his new wife was Sarah Neal Muirhead, the widow of Alexander Muirhead of Alverstoke near Fareham, Hampshire. John and Sarah married at nearby Portsea, so it seems feasible that his new wife was the one named on the 1841 census and perhaps it just took them a while to make their relationship legal.

Their marriage entry confirmed that John was also a widow and that his father, Edward, was a gentleman, as was John. John has been described as a semi-itinerant, quite how that description befits a gentleman I’m not quite sure.

Wilkerson, Crier, Ipswich 1823 by John Dempsey NGP Australia
Wilkerson, Crier, Ipswich 1823 by John Dempsey NGP Australia

In 1845, not only was John an artist but both he and Sarah were running a stationery shop and from there they were not only selling art-related material but also dealing in pictures, lamps and chandeliers.

This diversion from his art was perhaps due to lack of funds as the following year he was declared a bankrupt. The couple moved from their home to one on Barr’s Street, Bristol sometime after this where John was to continue working as an artist, but also interestingly, took on an additional role as a tin plate worker.

By the 1860s clearly, John was aware of the progression of the medium of photography and this fairly new technology was one that John was to embrace as he described himself as a ‘photograph artist’ on the 1861 census.

Dempsey, John Church, fl 1820s-1870s :Rev John H Bumby, late General Superintendant of Wesleyan Missions in New Zealand. Published by J Dempsey, Artist, Gallery of Likenesses, Lower Arcade, Bristol [ca. 1840]
Dempsey, John Church, fl 1820s-1870s: Rev John H Bumby, late General Superintendant of Wesleyan Missions in New Zealand. Published by J Dempsey, Artist, Gallery of Likenesses, Lower Arcade, Bristol [ca. 1840]
He obviously felt this new technology wasn’t for him and by 1871 he returned to being a landscape artist, so right back to where he began his career. John was to die on 9th February 1877 at his home, 32, Upper Arcade, Bristol. Sarah lived for a further 24 years, spending the remainder of her life living at Trinity Almshouse, Bristol.

There are still many of his paintings in the collection which need to have their stories told … maybe one day they’ll all be clearly identified.

Bunman, Plymouth by John Dempsey NPG Australia
Bun man, Plymouth by John Dempsey NPG Australia


Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette 7 December 1826

Births, Marriages and Death registers

Featured Image 

‘The Singing Minstrel’, Billy Button (b.c.1778–1838). John Church Dempsey (1802–1877)  Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

14 thoughts on “The Life of John Church Dempsey (1802-1877), artist

    1. Sarah Murden

      My understanding is that they were originally presented to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, by C. Docker, 1956 and were more recently curated by guest curator Dr David Hansen, Associate Professor with the Centre for Art History and Art Theory at the ANU.


      1. Michael Rosenthal

        David Hansen discovered the watercolours around 1998, instantly realised their worth, and, thanks to funding from Mellon was able considerably to augment out knowledge of both Dempsey and his sitters, about both of whom nothing was known. The NPG in Canberra was persuaded to exhibit them, and Hansen’s book/catalogue won the prestigious Berger prize for the best book published on British art history for 2018. This is some achievement for a volume dealing with what is often not recognised as art, and for a scholar having to work at long distance.


  1. nklein

    Thank you for this, Sarah. I was unaware of Dempsey until ‘Black Charley’ – he’s a great find. It’s always so refreshing to see portraits of non-toffs from the Georgian era!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sarah Murden

      I must admit he was relatively new to me too and there seemed to be very little online about his life, so I thought it might be good to fill in some of the gaps.


  2. Robert L Markowitz


    I came across your informative site in the process of researching a recent acquisition. Thought I would share information about a recently acquired portrait. Could possibly be of interest and would add some information to what is already online? I do believe that it indicates that in his later years, he settled down and produced much more standard portraits in a place not previously noted. Though this portrait is not as compelling as those he did of “street people”, probably they paid the bills a bit better.

    I first became aware of John Dempsey when I stumbled upon one of his wonderful miniature silhouettes depicting a schoolboy enhanced with bronze paint. In a junk shop in New Hampshire, USA, no less.

    Recently, I came across one of his watercolor portraits on paper. This time dirty and neglected in another junk shop, this time in Maine, USA. Cleaned up nicely.

    The portrait is oval with its original oval matte and square bird’s eye maple veneered frame. The original back board has the remnants of a small printed label. The framer? The oval format and matte are similar to that used for what is believed to be a much earlier portrait of John Rutherford, “The Tatooed Englishman”. The size of the portrait is 17 1/2 inches by 15 1/2. It is a 1/2 length portrait of a seated handsome well-dressed younger Caucasion male with a drapery swag in the background. He appears to be quite sane and without a physical infirmity!

    It is signed “J. Dempsey
    April 28/54”.

    On the back of the painting in wonderful florid script in graphite is written:

    “J Dempsey
    April 28, 1854”

    There are an additional several lines of writing in graphite which I cannot make out. I see some numbers…I think it’s the price?

    So, it appears that he was doing more standard portraits in Woolwich mid-century. I could not find any mention online that he had worked there.

    Bob Markowitz


    1. Sarah Murden

      Hello Bob

      How interesting, what a great find. We do know that Dempsey was working in Woolwich c1824, as he painted the ‘match woman’ and the ‘blind beggar’ there, so it’s feasible that this portrait was painted at that time. Equally, if it was one of his ‘haunts’ perhaps it was somewhere he returned to carry out a commissioned work.


      1. Robert Markowitz


        Very interesting.

        Given the date on the painting, 1854, he must have returned later in life.

        Something of a restlessness wandering soul?



          1. Robert Markowitz

            Yes, absolutely.

            In America, in the same time period, there itinerant artists who traveled sometimes over rather great distances considering how difficult land travel was @ that time, rendering portraits & silhouettes (also part of Dempsey’s trade).

            They, sadly, rendered quite a few postmortem portraits, especially of children. Any like that attributed to Dempsey?

            And they too were rendered obsolete by photography.



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