The case of John Hancock, a neglected Pre-Raphaelite sculptor

Sculpture continues to occupy an uncertain place in Pre-Raphaelite scholarship, and is still much overlooked. The original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood included a sculptor, Thomas Woolner (1825-92), who was also an accomplished poet; he and a close associate of the Brotherhood, Alexander Munro (1825-71), are the two names which generally spring to mind when the subject of Pre-Raphaelite sculpture is discussed. It should not be forgotten, moreover, that one of the PRB’s primary motives was, ‘most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues’ (my emphasis). Notable examples include Woolner’s Puck, a work which actually predates the PRB’s founding, and Munro’s Paolo and Francesca, which exists in several versions in plaster and marble (below). Both sculptors were also known for their portrait busts and medallions of contemporary writers, thinkers and religious figures.

Puck 1845-7 Thomas Woolner 1825-1892 Presented by the Patrons of British Art through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1991
Thomas Woolner, Puck, 1845-7. Plaster, 49.8 x 35.5 x 28 cm. Tate.
Alexander Munro, Paolo and Francesca, 1852. Marble. Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.
Alexander Munro, Paolo and Francesca, 1852. Marble, 66 x 67.5 x 53 cm. Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.
Thomas Woolner, Alfred Tennyson, 1856. Plaster, circular, 26 x 26 cm. Tate.
Thomas Woolner, Alfred Tennyson, 1856. Plaster, circular, 26 x 26 cm. Tate.

On more than one occasion Munro’s Paolo and Francesca has been cited as the best example of Pre-Raphaelite sculpture, because of its treatment of a medieval literary subject (from Canto V of Dante’s Inferno) and close attention to naturalistic detail. Yet it also reveals the shortcomings of sculpture as a primary Pre-Raphaelite medium: white marble carries immediate classical associations and lacks the bright, intense, hyperreal colouring of Pre-Raphaelite painting, while the work itself is confined (out of necessity for the sculptor) to the two figures alone, without the detailed and richly symbolic setting which would naturally surround them in the pictures of Millais, Hunt and Rossetti. There is visual and documentary evidence, however, that Munro’s composition was closely in dialogue Rossetti’s own drawings and watercolours of the doomed lovers from Dante in the 1850s (below).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Paolo and Francesca, c. 1855. Pencil, 22.5 x 16.7 cm. British Museum.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Paolo and Francesca, c. 1855. Pencil, 22.5 x 16.7 cm. British Museum.

In the midst of all these examples the name of John Hancock (c.1825-69) has rather fallen by the wayside, despite the fact he was very closely involved with the Brotherhood in its earliest years. The majority of his works are now lost or untraced and details of his biography remain somewhat sketchy, thus contributing to a gradual erasure of his talent and reputation over the years. William Michael Rossetti, the PRB’s key documenter during its formation and long after its dissolution, is also partly responsible — he appears to have taken a strong disliking to Hancock from the outset, acidly calling him ‘an ungainly little man, wizened, with a long thin nose and squeaky voice’. This was even though his brother Dante Gabriel was good friends with the sculptor; Rossetti wrote to Walter Deverell in January 1848 that he would be ‘at Hancock’s studio for some time till the Exhibition, all day & every day’, mentioning that he ‘hope[d] this time to drag Hancock & Munro’ to the next meeting of the Cyclographic Society, a drawing club which was an immediate precursor to the PRB. Hancock was also present at several meetings regarding The Germ, the PRB’s short-lived magazine. As a result of this friendship Hancock produced one of the earliest likenesses of the 19-year-old Rossetti in September 1846, a portrait medallion which apparently set a precedent for those by Woolner and Munro (below). William Michael did at least admit, years later, that the medallion was ‘very near to the true appearance of my brother in those early and teeming years’, when considered alongside the softer, more Romantic self-portrait the artist famously drew the following year. The medallion, which was later reproduced as an engraving, survives in the collection of Wightwick Manor.

John Hancock, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1846. Plaster, circular, 20 x 20 cm. National Trust, Wightwick Manor & Gardens.
John Hancock, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1846. Plaster, circular, 20 x 20 cm. National Trust, Wightwick Manor & Gardens.
Engraving by Paul Jonnard after John Hancock, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1846), . Printed in The Magazine of Art, vol. 12 (1888-9), p. 24.
Engraving by Paul Jonnard after John Hancock, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1846). Published in The Magazine of Art, vol. 12 (1888-9), p. 24.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Self-portrait, 1847. Pencil and white chalk on paper, 20.7 x 16.8 cm. National Portrait Gallery.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Self-portrait, 1847. Pencil and white chalk on paper, 20.7 x 16.8 cm. National Portrait Gallery.

Hancock’s most famous surviving sculpture is probably Beatrice, which was first shown at the Royal Academy in 1850 and went on to be exhibited as a plaster version at the Great Exhibition of 1851, no less (below). It is now on public display in the V&A, in the room dedicated to the Great Exhibition — though clumsily placed on a raised level in the corner, and unable to be viewed in the round as it was originally. Beatrice received much praise as a ‘poetic’ subject at the time, with the sculptor Henry Weekes, upon seeing the sculpture in 1851, writing: ‘Will [the visitor] not stop before the beautiful spiritualised figure of Beatrice […] and become for a moment absorbed in expression as is the plaster itself?’

John Hancock, Beatrice, c. 1851. Painted plaster, 183 cm. Victoria & Albert Museum.
John Hancock, Beatrice, c. 1851. Painted plaster, 183 cm. Victoria & Albert Museum.
Hancock's Beatrice on display in the V&A.
Hancock’s Beatrice on display in the V&A today.

Like Munro, then, Hancock successfully depicts a subject from Dante which was also favoured by Rossetti — however, Hancock’s is all the more significant because it presents the female figure at the core of Dante’s spiritual mythos, Beatrice Portinari. The base of the sculpture is inscribed ‘Guardami ben, ben son, ben son Beatrice [Look at me well; I am, I am indeed Beatrice]’, and an extract from one of Rossetti’s sonnets translated from Dante’s Vita Nuova, which Hancock undoubtedly knew from his early friendship with the artist, accompanied the work in the Great Exhibition catalogue:

Last All Saints’ holiday even now gone by,
I met a gathering of damozels;
She that came first, as one doth who excels,
Had Love with her bearing her company;
A flame burned forward through her stedfast eye
Most like the spirit in living fire that dwells;
Gazing with that meek courage which prevails
O’er doubt. I saw an angel visibly
As she passed on…

This describes one of Dante’s first sightings of Beatrice in Florence as she walked by the Arno, a pivotal moment in the poet’s life. Hancock has her striding forward (an impression heightened when the work is viewed from the side), and adds those naturalistic Pre-Raphaelite details in the dress rippling round her feet, in her pointed medieval slippers and her streaming hair crowned with a garland of flowers. The latter can also be taken as a halo of stars, implying that Beatrice simultaneously occupies the earthly and heavenly spheres — Rossetti, of course, later explored this liminal theme in Beata Beatrix, similarly a ‘portrait’ of Beatrice. It is interesting to compare the two artists’ use of clasped hands, an upturned face and a halo effect; moreover, viewers of Hancock’s saintly woman must look up at her from a lowered position, as if taking on the reverential role of a worshipper — she looks away from us, far over our heads into some unseen distance. She could just as easily be a Gothic sculpture in a medieval cathedral, and indeed Hancock’s practice of painting the plaster a sepia or ochre colour to disguise its whiteness was described by one critic (referring to his now-lost sculpture Maidenhood) as ‘barbarous’ (in this case meaning non-classical).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, 1864-70. Oil on canvas, 86.4 x 66 cm. Tate.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, 1864-70. Oil on canvas, 86.4 x 66 cm. Tate.

Other surviving works by Hancock are Penserosa, a marble statue he was specially selected to create for the Egyptian Hall at Mansion House, London, from 1860-2; and a series of bas-reliefs for the former National Provincial Bank of England in Bishopsgate, London, from 1864-5 (now called Gibson Hall and used primarily as an events venue).

John Hancock, Penserosa, 1860-2. Marble, 186 cm. Mansion House, London.
John Hancock, Penserosa, 1860-2. Marble, 186 cm. Mansion House, London.

For reasons unknown, his artistic career petered out in the mid-1860s and he died in October 1869 at just 44 years of age. It is worth quoting a notice in the Athenaeum in full:

The obituary of the 17th inst. notices the death on that day of John Hancock, a sculptor, who not many years since achieved a considerable reputation, which appeared likely to increase. As is not unfrequent in artistic honours, the progress of the sculptor was somewhat suddenly stayed and not renewed. Ill health is reported as the obstacle to Hancock’s advancement. Many will remember with pleasure a statue by him representing the ‘Beatrice’ of Dante, in the ‘Vita Nuova,’ which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850, and other less important works. [‘The Athenaeum’, 23 October, 1869, p. 535]

Hancock’s posthumous status in Pre-Raphaelite sculpture is still much in need of a resurrection, and this post merely scratches the surface. The hope is that more of his works — some 30 in number — will come to light as awareness of them increases.


Further information

There is some secondary literature about Hancock scattered in various publications. Some notable examples are:

  • Thomas Beaumont James, ‘John Hancock: Pre-Raphaelite Sculptor?,’ in Pre-Raphaelite Sculpture: Nature and Imagination in British Sculpture, 1848-1914, ed. Benedict Read and Joanna Barnes (London: Lund Humphries, 1991), pp. 71-76. See also pp. 104-108 for 5 works by Hancock in this exhibition.
  • Benedict Read, ‘Was there a Pre-Raphaelite sculpture?,’ in Pre-Raphaelite Papers, ed. Leslie Parris (London: Tate, 1984), pp. 97-110.
  • Julius Bryant, Magnificent Marble Statues: British Sculpture in the Mansion House (London: Paul Holberton, 2013), pp. 92-95 (for Penserosa).
  • Tim Barringer, Jason Rosenfeld and Alison Smith, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (London: Tate Publishing, 2012), p. 66 (for a small bronze version of Beatrice).

For mentions of Hancock in primary sources, see:

  • William E. Fredeman, ed., The P.R.B. Journal: William Michael Rossetti’s Diary of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood 1849-1853 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).
  • Fredeman, The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Vol. 1, The Formative Years, 1835-1862: 1835-1854 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002).

For an up-to-date biography and list of works, see the entry on Hancock in The Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain.

Much of the material in this post is derived from an assessed essay I wrote for my Masters.


The Kubrick Connection: some Pre-Raphaelite references in ‘Eyes Wide Shut’


Stanley Kubrick’s final masterpiece, Eyes Wide Shut, was first released in July 1999, only a few months after the director’s death. It quickly gained notoriety because of its strong sexual content and its unusually long shooting period which ran from November 1996 to Feburary 1998. On a more gossipy note its two stars, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, were still married at the time. Critics and audiences were left baffled; its deliberate languid atmosphere and slow pacing is mesmerising to some but frustrating to others, while it was (and still is) alternatively viewed as an art film or pornography, or both. More recently Eyes Wide Shut has been subject to various Illuminati theories, often focusing on the infamous ritualistic masked orgy which takes place in a secluded country mansion halfway through the film (heavily censored in US releases). When I re-watched the film a while ago, I noticed some interesting Pre-Raphaelite details and thought I’d share my ‘findings’. Caution: there will be spoilers, and some images may be NSFW.

As the film’s striking poster makes clear (above), Eyes Wide Shut is adapted from the 1926 German-language novella Traumnovelle (often translated into English as Dream Story) by the Viennese doctor and dramatist Arthur Schnitzler. To quote the blurb of the 1999 Penguin edition: ‘Like his Viennese contemporary Sigmund Freud, Schnitzler was a bold pioneer in exploring the dark tangled roots of human sexuality.’ In adapting the novella Kubrick relocated the story from fin-de-siècle Vienna during Carnival season to modern-day New York during Christmas, though the central characters and narrative thread remain virtually the same. Kubrick’s reputation as an archetypal perfectionist director who controlled the details of every aspect of production, from sets to sound design, goes without saying. It is therefore intriguing that when Cruise’s character Dr Bill Harford (named Fridolin in Schnitzler’s book) enters a cafe near the end of the film, our attention is directed to two reproductions of Pre-Raphaelite paintings hanging on the walls. The first is John William Waterhouse’s Ophelia (1894) by the door when Harford walks in; the second is Rossetti’s Astarte Syriaca (1877) prominently placed over the table at which Harford sits (below).


John William Waterhouse, Ophelia, 1894. Private collection.
John William Waterhouse, Ophelia, 1894. Private collection.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Astarte Syriaca, 1877. Oil on canvas, 185 x 109 cm. Manchester City Galleries.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Astarte Syriaca, 1877. Oil on canvas, 185 x 109 cm. Manchester City Galleries.

Both paintings echo events in the film’s narrative, also reflecting its mood of sensuality, ritualism and exoticism. The cafe scene takes place the night after the masked orgy, during which Harford, having infiltrated a secret society, is unmasked and sworn to keep silent about what he has seen (below).


During his inquiries into the strange events of the previous night, Harford is followed through the Manhattan streets by a man who is apparently keeping an eye on him — as a distraction he stops at a newspaper stand before going into the cafe. Kubrick’s mis-en-scène often reflects the psychological states of his characters, through the use of colours, camera angles and intertextual references. As a clear example of this, the black-and-white print of a reclining woman directly behind Harford when he sits down changes to what looks like a more chaotic, nightmarish image in the next shot (below).

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Knowing Kubrick this is far from being a continuity error. The second picture brings to mind the lustful revelries he witnessed the previous night, and foretells the newspaper’s revelation in the next shot — the masked woman who saved his life at the orgy has apparently been found dead of a drug overdose (below). As in Schnitzler’s Dream Story, Harford then visits the city morgue and sees her body. Unlike Schnitzler’s novella, it also transpires that this is the same woman Harford had encountered at a party at the very beginning of the film, a prostitute unconscious from an overdose in an upstairs bathroom. Are you confused yet? Waterhouse’s Ophelia, depicting the tragic moment before a woman’s death by drowning, is therefore an apt inclusion in the film’s decor.


Rossetti acknowledged that Astarte Syriaca, one of his late monumental masterpieces, was influenced by Eastern mythology. Astarte, the ancient Syrian goddess of love more formidable than Aphrodite or Venus, looms large from a 6-foot canvas against a solar eclipse, symmetrically flanked by two torch-bearing angels. With her broad shoulders, long limbs and neck, heavy lips and abundant wavy hair, she is an imposing, Michelangelesque figure. Viewers who stand before the painting are placed on a lower level; ‘with the face removed to the top of the tall canvas,’ writes Prettejohn, ‘the viewer feels abject or subordinated, like a kneeling worshipper before a religious image.’ Jane Burden Morris’s facial features and bodily proportions were heavily stylised by Rossetti, almost to the point of abstraction, and we wrote a strange sonnet to accompany the picture:

Mystery: lo! betwixt the sun and moon
Astarte of the Syrians: Venus Queen
Ere Aphrodite was. In silver sheen
Her twofold girdle clasps the infinite boon
Of bliss whereof the heaven and earth commune:
And from her neck’s inclining flower-stem lean
Love-freighted lips and absolute eyes that wean
The pulse of hearts to the spheres’ dominant tune.

Torch-bearing her sweet ministers compel
All thrones of light beyond the sky and sea
The witnesses of Beauty’s face to be:
That face, of Love’s all-penetrative spell
Amulet, talisman, and oracle,–
Betwixt the sun and moon a mystery.


It is possible that Kubrick intended the reproduction of Astarte Syriaca hanging in the cafe to refer back to the sensual ritualism of the masked ball, in which a man dressed in a red cloak and hood and carrying a staff and smoking censer paces the circle of women, in a large hall with Middle-Eastern architecture (below). The masked woman who sacrifices herself to save Harford is also symmetrically framed in a statuesque manner against a flattened, abstracted background from a similarly low vantage point — though this is a rather more tenuous link to Rossetti’s painting. In a more general sense, the inclusion of Astarte Syriaca is in keeping with the film’s dreamlike tone, which uses repetition (of locations, characters, music, colours, camera shots) to lull viewers into its slow rhythm.


Eyes Wide Shut is also rich with references to the Viennese art of the 1900s which inflects Schnitzler’s original literary text. The paintings adorning the walls of Bill and Alice’s large apartment are reminiscent of Klimt and the Symbolists, and Kubrick’s continual, strategic use of mirrors, reflections and masks carry clear connotations of fantasy and identity. As a final point, for some reason one of the final shots of Kidman in the film reminded me of Rossetti’s Helen of Troy, or indeed any of the artist’s studies of  women with long feathery curls.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Helen of Troy, 1863. Oil on panel, 31 x 27 cm. Hamburger Kunsthalle.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Helen of Troy, 1863. Oil on panel, 31 x 27 cm. Hamburger Kunsthalle.