Dempsey, John Church

Date and place of birth:
born 02.05.1802, Bath. bapt. 09.05.1802, Monmouth St. Moravian Chapel, Bath
Date and place of death:
dec. 09.02.1877, 32 Lower Arcade, Bristol
(fl) ca.1821 - ca.1873
Known places of work:
Widely itinerant: England, Scotland, Ireland
Known techniques:
Cut-work and painted on card, paper and possibly ivory
Known materials:
Paper, card and possibly ivory
Papier mâché, rectangular maplewood, ebonised wood and reeded ebonised wood


Born in Bath in May 1802, JOHN CHURCH DEMPSEY (1802-1877) pursued an extensive itinerant career encompassing towns and cities in England, Scotland and Ireland between the 1820s and the 1850s. A skilled profilist, he is equally well-known today for insightful watercolour studies of 'street people' recorded during his journeyings.

Full-length, half-length and bust-sized profile shades are recorded. Equally adept at cut-work or painting on card, his cut-work was rated by McKechnie of such skilled craftsmanship that discerning a work's cut edge was 'almost impossible'.

Often painted with considerable panache, full-length works can be bronzed or coloured, with sitters posed standing on paving slabs or planked floors where the artist's signature is sometimes placed. Full-length works can also be captioned, sometimes wittily, in Dempsey's notably distinctive hand.

Bust-sized works in plain black, bronzed or coloured are recorded, though without a signature attribution can be problematic. However, common to most are long slanting bust-line terminations, under which Dempsey occasionally initialled or signed his name. Extremely rare jewellery-sized profiles are also known, though whether painted on paper, card or ivory is, at present, unknown. No gum arabic is applied to any attributable work.

Dempsey's initial artistic endeavours are recorded in four BRISTOL MERCURY advertisements between the 12th of November and the 20th of December 1821.

The first relates "Mr. J. Dempsey, Portrait Painter...[offered from 1 Chapel Row, Bath]...instruction in LANDSCAPE PAINTING in oil and watercolour, VELVET PAINTING, FLOWER DRAWING and PERSPECTIVE on the simplest principles..."However, the final advertisement stated " the recommendation of two families of distinction, he intends taking likenesses in oil at a reduction of one-half the general charge..."

With a sizable number of artists already established in Bath, it's doubtful, even with a price adjustment, that 19-year-old Dempsey drew enough custom for a sustainable income, and with his second wife due to give birth in August 1822, both circumstances likely induced him to pursue a potentially more remunerative career 'on the road'. And the following year inscriptions in his portfolio of 'street people' locate him in Hampshire, Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. London and Nottingham are visited in 1824, Yorkshire and Northumberland in 1825 and Durham in 1826.

With a virtual absence of recorded advertising prior to the late 1830s, it's unknown whether Dempsey painted profile shades in the 1820s, though a need to maximise the profitability of his tourings would suggest it likely. A late 1840s Liverpool handbill for Dempsey's "Profile and Likeness Establishment" bolsters the theory.

Cannily targeting departing emigrants and travellers, Dempsey emphasised his "...26 years' practice at various seaports..., [and recommended the opportunity of sitting for a] ...valued memento of affection...for distant friends". Terms given were "Likenesses in Shade 3d, Bronzed 6d, Coloured 1s 6d and upwards...".

It appears that as early as the mid-1830s Dempsey was also offering his services as a picture cleaner and restorer. In a letter to the STAFFORDSHIRE ADVERTISER of the 19th of December 1835, Dempsey explained the absence of the late Marquis of Stafford's portrait from the town's Shire Hall was due to his "...professional services founded on 15 years' practice..." being employed to repair and clean the work.

Between 1839 and 1868 Dempsey is listed in 14 trade directories. ROBSON'S 1839 directory locates him in Birmingham, SLATER'S of 1848 in Liverpool, while the POST OFFICE and MELVILLE'S directories record him in Woolwich, again presumably targeting emigrants and perhaps the town's garrison, as Woolwich was a point of embarcation.

The 10 remaining directories locate him in Bristol. Emphasising his connection to the town in the BRISTOL MERCURY of the 12th of September 1857, Dempsey advertises his "...thirty years before the Bristol Public as an ARTIST...".

Generally trading from a number of addresses in the town's Lower or Upper Arcade, Dempsey advertises himself variously as an Artist, Teacher of Drawing, Picture Cleaner and Restorer, Photographer, and in the 1871 Census a Landscape Painter.

In May 1845, probably having overdiversified, the LONDON GAZETTE listed Dempsey bankrupt and revealed the extent of his stock-in-trade as a Stationer, Artists' Colourman, Picture Dealer, and dealer in Lamps and Chandeliers. Three years later, seemingly solvent, SLATER'S directory locates him an "Artist" in Liverpool.

The 1851 Census surprisingly records Dempsey a 'Tinplate Worker and Brazier'. Located at 3b Barr St., Bristol, Dempsey, his 3rd wife and an octogenarian tinplate worker shared the abode. However, the same year HUNT & CO's directory records him an "Artist" of Upper Arcade. Patently, both business strands were pursued in tandem.

Like many mid-century profilists confronted with a downturn in demand due to photographs becoming accessible to mass-market pockets, Dempsey advertised himself "The Popular Photographer" in a September 1857 issue of the BRISTOL MERCURY. He last advertises as a photographer in WEBSTER'S directory of 1865.

Dempsey's final directory entry appears in 1868 when SLATER'S lists him a "Picture Restorer", while his final newspaper advertisement appears in the BRISTOL MERCURY of 27th April 1872, offering "BANNERS & FLAGS painted with artists' colours...on the best silk manufactured".

Extensive research in 2020 has revealed aspects of John Church Dempsey's personal life in some detail:

His father Edward Dempsey (1756 - 1826) was born in Stradbally, Ireland. His mother, Martha Payne (1765 - 1828) was born in Sherborne, Dorset. Married at Walcot St.Swithin's, Bath in June 1788, Esther, the first of 2 offspring, was baptised in the town in October 1789.

In October 1798, Edward and Martha were 'received into the congregation' of the Non-Conformist Moravian sect in Bath. Both, after a probationary period, became 'communicants' the following year. At the time the Monmouth St. Chapel's officiating minister was John Church (dates N/K) and when John Cburch Dempsey was baptised there on the 9th of May 1802, it appears he was named after the preacher.

In 1811 the chapel register records Esther, Dempsey's sole sibling, was 'admitted to the Holy Communion on her sick and deathbed' on the 27th of October 1811. 'Happily departed', she died aged 21, 17 days later.

Listed a 'servant' in chapel records, at some point Edward Dempsey became Master of St. Michael's Poorhouse. Buried at Bath St. Michael on the 10th of December 1826, his obituary "Yesterday died of an Apoplexy, Mr. Dempsey, master of St. Michael's poor-house " appears in the BATH CHRONICLE of the 7th of December. The death, though not the date of "Mrs. Dempsey...[aged 63]...Mistress of St. Michael's Poorhouse", appears in the BATH CHRONICLE on the 13th of February 1828. Coincidentally, as Martha Dempsey, aged 63, was buried the same day in Bath's Moravian burying-ground, it can be safely inferred the profilist's parents ran the Poorhouse.

If the artist's formative years were spent in proximity to such a concentration of the penniless, it's perhaps unsurprising he developed a keenly observant eye when later, as an adult, he took to recording 'street people'.

On the 15th of August 1819, Dempsey married by banns at St.John's Bristol. His intended, Hagar Maber (1791 - 1820) was 28. He was 17. As a minor, the marriage legally required the consent of his parents. None is recorded. Eleven months later, Hagar died. Baptised in April 1791 in Lillington, a hamlet near Longburton, Dorset, to William and Betty Maber, she was buried as Hagar Dimsey (sic) on the 8th of July 1820 at St. Mary's Longburton, as were both parents in 1836. Over 20 miles from Longburton, the abode of all 3 at the time of their deaths is given as the Somerset village of White Lackington. The cause of Hagar's demise or whether, at the time, Dempsey was with her, is unknown.

By December 1821 at the latest, though no marriage record has surfaced, Dempsey began a relationship with Sabina Elizabeth Sartain (1793 - 1864), one of 9 siblings born to Elizabeth (1764 - 1824) and Richard Sartain (1764 - 1802), a Bath-born carpenter and builder.

Nine years Dempsey's senior, in August 1822, she gave birth in Bath to his only known offspring, Edward John. Baptised in December at Bath's Countess of Huntingdon's Chapel, he was buried aged 9 in April 1832 at the town's Wesleyan Walcot Chapel.

At some point between 1832 and 1840 their relationship foundered, as in the 1841 Census, the artist is recorded in Bristol 'married' to a Sarah Dempsey. Sabina is next recorded as Sabina Sartain Dempsey, 'widow', when she married Charles Bell (dates N/K), a Paddington Wharfinger, at St. Anne's, Soho in January 1848. Next appearing in the 1861 Census in Devizes, Wiltshire, where several siblings had settled, she was recorded a teacher at her niece's school. Interred at the town's Baptist chapel, she died in October 1864.

On the 5th of May 1844, at St. Mary's Portsmouth, Sarah Neal Muirhead (1809 - 1901) 'widow' became Dempsey's 3rd wife. Interestingly, she was still marrried at the time... In March 1833 she had wed licensed waterman Alexander Muirhead (1807 - 1870) at Alverstoke, Hampshire. A son born in August 1834 died 2 months later.

The marriage register records both Dempsey and his deceased father as 'Gentlemen'. Sarah's father is opaquely recorded as ' Neal - Gardener'. Between 1851-1901 Bristol census returns consistently show Sarah's birthplace as Fareham and her birth year as 1809.  Records show her born to Elizabeth Neale (1790 - 1831) and John Coker (1791 - 1877) on the 25th of October 1809 in Fareham. Both parents were single - Coker was a gardener. After her husband's death, Sarah Dempsey became an almswoman at Bristol's Trinity Almshouse, dying there in November 1901, aged 92..

John Dempsey's obituary is recorded in the 23rd of February 1877 edition of the WESTERN DAILY ADVERTISER: "February 9th at 32 Upper Arcade, John Church Dempsey aged 75" .

Revised 20 September 2023 (Brian Wellings)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  





Additional research about John Church Dempsey:

Source: McKechnie (Author of, British Silhouette Artists and their Work 1760-1860)

Dempsey, John Church (McKechnie Section 1)
Dempsey, John Church (McKechnie Section 2)
Dempsey, John Church (McKechnie Section 6)

Source: Joll (Hon. Secretary of the Silhouette Collectors Club and Editor of the Club's newsletter)

Dempsey, John Church (SCC Newsletter April 2009)