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 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T05857
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.

Advertisements

The Love of Dante: ‘Dantis Amor’ (1860)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Dantis Amor', 1860
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Dantis Amor’, 1860

I thought it would be nice to discuss the namesake of my blog’s url, dantisamor. It’s a typically Rossettian title with allusions to Dante Alighieri and divine love and with a Latin or Italianate feel to it, so I thought it would make a pretty-sounding WordPress name! Contextually, Dantis Amor also has connections with that divine palace of Art which I am sadly yet to visit, Red House, and therefore with William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Let’s see why.

Rossetti painted Dantis Amor, which translates as ‘Dante’s Love’, on a panel on the door of a settle in Red House, Bexleyheath, which had been built in 1860. ‘More a poem than a house,’ in the words of Rossetti, Red House was designed by the architect Philip Webb as the home of William Morris and his new bride Jane. While today Bexleyheath has been absorbed into the suburbs of London, in the 1860s it was still very much a rural village miles from the city, and Red House was actually built on the land of an orchard. Its name derives from the colour of its bricks, and its distinctive style, based on medieval vernacular buildings, went on to influence Arts and Crafts architecture in the nineteenth century and beyond. Morris intended it to become a locus of artistic energy and collaboration, with the Burne-Joneses (Edward was also recently married, to Georgiana MacDonald), Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Ford Madox Brown and other artists and poets frequently visiting of the household. Many accounts of lively parties and garden gatherings survive. Elaborate, collaborative schemes were put in place to decorate the walls, windows and furnishings of the house with paintings and hangings, all in the medieval manner. Beautiful murals by Rossetti, Burne-Jones and others, which were (shockingly!) covered over with panelling and whitewash by later tenants, are still being uncovered today. In the airy, barn-like drawing-room upstairs stands the large, heavy settle whose cupboard doors were originally painted with scenes by Rossetti — these were removed sometime before 1863. Dantis Amor, the central panel, is now in the Tate, and was included in the 2012 exhibition along with two other Dante-themed panels (below) from the Red House settle (although they were only displayed in Washington).

Red House, Bexleyheath, Kent. Designed by Philip Webb in 1859, construction completed in 1860. View from the central half-quadrangle.
Red House, Bexleyheath, Kent. Designed by Philip Webb in 1859, construction completed in 1860. View from the rear garden. Image copyright National Trust.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Salutation of Beatrice in Florence' and 'The Salutation of Beatrice in the Garden of Eden', 1859. Like 'Dantis Amor', these two panels were also painted on the cupboard doors of the Red House settle.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Salutation of Beatrice in Florence’ and ‘The Salutation of Beatrice in the Garden of Eden’, 1859. Like ‘Dantis Amor’, these two panels were also painted on the cupboard doors of the Red House settle. Note the winged figure of Love bearing a sundial in the middle.

The complex iconography of Dantis Amor — and almost all of Rossetti’s other Dante-themed paintings — is derived from a literary source, Dante’s autobiographical La Vita Nuova (The New Life) (1295), in which the medieval Italian poet immortalises his unrequited love for Beatrice Portinari. It was a fundamental favourite of Rossetti’s, who even produced a translation of it in as early as the 1840s. His father, the Italian political exile Gabriele Rossetti, was an eminent Dante scholar, and J. B. Bullen writes of ‘the imaginative life of the Rossetti household [being] dominated by the figure of Dante Alighieri.’ Much has been written of Dante Rossetti growing up to live in a Dantesque dream, venerating and beatifying Elizabeth Siddal as Dante did Beatrice. According to the Rossetti Archive, the title ‘Dantis Amor’ has a threefold meaning, referring to Dante’s love of Beatrice, God and Love itself, even though Dante himself does not appear in the painting. The colour palette of Dantis Amor is just gorgeous, with its blend of rich golds, royal blues and fiery reds. Standing at the centre is the allegorical figure of Love, as an angel with sweeping scarlet wings, a golden robe and a halo of auburn hair. The composition is strikingly geometric, divided up into diagonal, symmetrical segments. Framed in a crescent moon in the bottom left corner is the head of Beatrice — she looks diagonally up to the haloed head of Christ in the top left. A bottom-left to top-right diagonal separates two celestial realms: the golden world of Christ, filled with radiant sunbursts, and the nightly world of Beatrice, patterned with gold and silver stars. Here Rossetti visualises the final words of Dante’s Divine Comedy, ‘Love which moves the sun and the other stars.’

Detail of Christ
Detail of Christ. The Latin inscription, ‘qui est per omnia saecula benedictus’, is the last line of ‘La Vita Nuova’ and means, ‘Who is eternally blessed’.
Detail of Beatrice
Detail of Beatrice. The facial features are probably those of Elizabeth Siddal.
Detail of the winged Love, holding an unfinished sundial
Detail of the winged Love, holding an unfinished sundial

The angel Love holds a long bow and arrow, at an angle which counterbalances the other diagonal, and also what looks at first glance to be a big white bowl. This is in fact an unfinished sundial; a completed drawing for the picture (below) shows that its shadow would have pointed to the 9th hour. For Dante, the number 9 had deep, symbolic connections with Beatrice: he was nine years old when he first met her (she was eight), his love for her lasted for nine years, and she supposedly passed away at nine o’clock. Since Beatrice was represented by the number 3 (also indicative of the Holy Trinity), she could be tripled to make 9. The angel’s sundial points to this number in memory of the hour of her death, as in Rossetti’s later painting Beata Beatrix (see links below), and is thus an indication that Dantis Amor portrays the moment of Beatrice’s transfiguration into heaven. The figure of the sundial-bearing Love can also be seen on the frame between the other Red House Dante painting previously shown above, and a preparatory drawing for this shows the angel in a similar attitude. Clearly, it was an image which fixated Rossetti.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Dantis Amor', design for the Red House painting. This finished version shows the sundial pointing to the 9th hour.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Dantis Amor’, design for the Red House painting. This finished version shows the sundial casting its shadow on the 9th hour, and it’s labelled with 1290, the year of Beatrice’s death.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Dantis Amor', study of Love with a sundial and a torch, 1860
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Dantis Amor’, study of Love with a sundial and a torch, 1860. Like the drawing above, this picture bears the date of Beatrice’s death, apparently on the 9th June. The Latin inscription, ‘quomodo sedet sola civitas’, is the last line of the ‘Divine Comedy’ and means ‘Love which moves the sun and other stars’.

So, there we have it. Hopefully it’s now clear why I’ve chosen such a typically Rossettian name for this blog!

*

Further information

  • Extensive images of the newly-restored murals in the living-room of Red House can be found on Claudia Fiocchetti’s blog. I’m dying to go and see the paintings in situ soon! A video about the discovery and conservation of a Biblical-themed mural, possibly a collaborative venture between William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown and Elizabeth Siddal, can be seen on Youtube.
  • Rossetti explored the theme of the dying Beatrice in one of his most popular paintings, Beata Beatrix, which exists in several versions (the most famous is now in Tate Britain). The painting uses the features of Elizabeth Siddal, who had died in 1862, and many regard the painting as Rossetti’s haunting memorial to his deceased wife and muse. To view the painting and listen to audio commentary by Alison Smith, see the BBC Desperate Romantics website.
  • A videoed lecture from Yale University about Dante’s La Vita Nuova.