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.
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).
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.
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?’
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).
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).
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.
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.