Gypsy Encampment


Within a rocky landscape is situated a large, cave-like dwelling constructed of leaves and branches. Six adult figures and two small children sit or squat around a smoky fire, while two additional figures approach the encampment with freshly caught fish. Most of the figures have short-cropped hair and are partially covered by hooded cloaks.

Primary Works: 

Dissertation on the Gipseys (London, 1807)

Accession Number: 

Thordarson T 1836

Height (in centimeters): 


Width (in centimeters): 

This image is the plate opposite the introduction in Dissertation on the Gipseys: representing their manner of life, family economy, occupations & trades, marriages & education, sickness, death & burial, religion, language, science & arts. &c &c: with an historical enquiry concerning their origin & first appearances in Europe, by Heinrich Moritz Gottlieb Grellmann (London, 1807).
1744 Vagrancy Act

The 1744 Vagrancy Act mandated that gypsies, beggars, strolling actors, peddlers and gamblers refusing to work for usual or common wages could be whipped or imprisoned by local magistrates (Mayall 258). In this way, any person refusing to participate in a wage-based system of labor was deemed criminal.

1810 Licensing Act

The 1810 Licensing Act required the licensing of vagabonds, gypsies, hawkers and peddlers (Hawkes 13). This system of identification contributed to the surveillance of wandering persons and helped to enforce local ordinances specifying the maximum stay of non-residents in a town or its outskirts.

Poor Laws

Throughout this period legal settlement remained a prerequisite for poor relief, meaning that the illegally settled, unsettled or wandering poor were routinely excluded from community or church-based assistance (Lloyd 117). Through the so-called “Speenhamland system,” parishes subsidized wages according to the parishioner’s need, determined by the cost of bread and number of dependents (Lloyd 115). In this way, most discussions of poverty revolved around the adequacy or inadequacy of earnings, and thus excluded those who did not participate in a wage-based economy.


The process of consolidating and enclosing commons, wastelands and open fields into private holdings demarcated by fences, walls, hedgerows or trenches originated in the late medieval period, but experienced an unprecedented surge in England between 1793 and 1815 (McCalman 496). In many regions the process of enclosure eroded customary rights, including the right to graze animals, gather wood (estover), fish (piscary), cut peat (turbary), and glean wheat or produce left after the harvest (Janowitz 155). Like the agricultural laborers that depended on access to common lands to supplement their meager incomes, the members of nomadic or wandering classes attempting to live off the land were adversely affected by the loss of these customary rights.
The prints which populate Dissertation on the Gipseys seem to have been gleaned from a variety of sources, and Grellmann never explicitly connects text to image. Thus, it is up to the reader to make such connections. While a number of passages discuss the housing of gypsies more generally, in the following excerpt Grellmann explicitly connects gypsy living conditions with their perceived status as a distinct race:
The Laplanders, Samoieds, as well as the Siberians, likewise, have brown yellow-coloured skins, in consequence of living, from their childhood, in smoke and dirt, in the same manner as the Gipseys: these would, long ago, have been divested of their swarthy complexions, if they had discontinued their filthy mode of living. (H. Grellmann, Dissertation 13)

The gypsy encampment is a recurring theme in Romantic poetry, but one that inspired very different feelings in different authors. In the following two poems by John Clare and William Wordsworth, respectively, we find contrasting interpretations, ranging from idealization and yearning to anxiety and disgust:

"The Gypsies’ Evening Blaze" (1820)
To me how wildly pleasing is that scene

Which doth present in evening’s dusky hour

A group of gypsies centered on the green

In some warm nook where Boreas has no power,

Where sudden starts the quivering blaze behind

Short shrubby bushes nibbled by the sheep

That mostly on these shortsward pastures keep,

Now lost, now seen, now bending with the wind:

And now the swarthy sybil kneels reclined,

With proggling stick she still renews the blaze,

Forcing bright sparks to twinkle from the flaze.

When this I view, the all-attentive mind

Will oft exclaim (so strong the scene pervades)

“Grant me this life, thou spirit of the shades!” (Clare 1-14)

"Gypsies" (1807)

Yet are they here?—the same unbroken knot

Of human Beings, in the self-same spot!

Men, Women, Children, yea the frame

Of the whole Spectacle the same!

Only their fire seems bolder, yielding light:

Now deep red, the colouring of night;

That on their Gypsy-faces falls,

Their bed of straw and blanket-walls.

--Twelve hours, twelve bounteous hours, are gone while I

Have been a Traveler under open sky,

Much witnessing of change and chear,

Yet as I left I find them here!

The weary Sun betook himself to rest.

--Then issued Vesper from the fulgent West,

Outshining like a visible God

The glorious path in which he trod.

And now, ascending, after one dark hour,

And one night’s diminution of her power,

Behold the mighty Moon! this way

She looks as if at them—but they

Regard not her:--oh better wrong and strife

Better vain deeds or evil than such life!

The silent Heavens have goings on;

The stars have tasks—but these have none.

(Wordsworth 1-28)
There is a consistent tension in Romantic descriptions of gipsies between celebrating the freedom of nomadism and bemoaning the squalid conditions of homelessness. This print visualizes this tension by giving us images of both dignity and depravity and by simultaneously suggesting the idyllic and the condemnable conditions of a wandering existence.
Beggar. Ethnicity. Gypsy. Mobility. Nomadism. Racial classification. Encampment.
The Romantic tension between an emphasis on the idyllic freedom of gypsies and the simultaneous homelessness accompanying such freedom is reflected in the antithetical tones of Wordsworth’s and Clare’s poetic descriptions (quoted above). The above print visualizes this tension by giving us images of both dignity and depravity. The young boy on the far right with elevated heel, raised leg, and prominent staff seems to mediate between the movement of the Apollo Belvedere and Giambologna’s statue of Mercury, while the figure directly to his left exhibits the gentle contrapposto, curved left arm, and bowed head of the Farnese Hermes. These figures, and to a lesser extent the female figure at the threshold of the hut, retain an elegance and stature denied those figures crouching within the rustic hovel. While the nudity of the young fisherman is made innocent by the subtle quotation of a classical ideal, the undignified squat of the print’s central figure is used to underscore the poverty and shame of homelessness. Exposed to view in such an inelegant position, the artist seems incapable of articulating the genitals of the crouching man, though they are clearly delineated on the fisherman figure. This image seems to celebrate the mobility and self-sufficiency of the gypsy while simultaneously suggesting that in their temporary stasis they become increasingly savage and unclean.
Ethnographic images such as these strove to classify gypsies as an identifiable racial group, and to differentiate between particular types of gypsies (such as the rugged, Amazonian gypsy woman and the decrepit and elderly gypsy hag). Such images were included in both encyclopedic volumes of novel persons, which attempted to archive eccentric types, and more focused, scholarly treatises on the supposed cultural and biological differences of England’s domestic other.
Clare, Jonathan. "The Gipsies' Evening Blaze." “I am”: The Selected Poetry of John Clare. Ed. Jonathan Bate. New York: Farrar, 2003. 25. Print.

Grellmann, Heinrich Moritz Gottlieb. Dissertation on the Gipseys. London: William Ballintine, 1807. Print.

Hawkes, Derek and Barbara Perez. The Gypsy and the State: The Ethnic Cleansing of British Society. Oxford: Alden P, 1995. Print.

Janowitz, Anne. “Land.” An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture 1776-1832. Ed. Iain McCalman, et al. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. 152-161. Print.

Mayall, David. Gypsy Identities 1500-2000: From Egipcyans and Moon-men to the Ethnic Romany. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

McCalman, Iain, et al. An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture 1776-1832. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.

Wordsworth, William. "The Gipsies." Selected Poetry. Ed. Stephen Gill and Duncan Wu. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. 151. Print.
"Gypsy Enclave" 1807

Artist Unknown


Plate opposite the introduction in Dissertation on the Gipseys: representing their manner of life, family economy, occupations & trades, marriages & education, sickness, death & burial, religion, language, science & arts &c. &c &c: with an historical enquiry concerning their origin & first appearances in Europe. Heinrich Moritz Gottlieb Grellmann (London, 1807).