If I were to participate in the Outings public art project featured in my last post, the image that I would convey from the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum to the streets of Salem would be a small mezzotint of John Hancock made by Salem engraver-silversmith Joseph Hiller after a John Singleton Copley painting from the early 1770s. There are actually two of these Hiller prints extant (at least), and I would love to see them side by side (I guess I can!). The Peabody Essex print is actually the second state: the Shepard Fairey-ish image in the collection of the National Museum of American History is an earlier impression. The Hiller prints were made about 1775, after Hancock has assumed the role of President of the Continental Congress, as is a third print after Copley rendered by the British engraver William Smith: the smuggler patriot was now famous on both sides of the Atlantic. I think there is an interesting comparison to be made here: the close-up, unframed impressions of the American Hiller are more intimate and immediate than Smith’s version, even though the latter’s techniques seem to have stood the test of time a bit better.
Joseph Hiller (1746–1814) after Copley, The Hon. John Hancock, Esq., ca. 1775. Inscribed lower left border “Jos. Hiller fecit.” Mezzotint with watercolor, 9-7/8 x 7-7/8 inches. Courtesy, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem; and The Hon. John Hancock, Esq., ca. 1775, National Museum of American History; William Smith (1750-1825?) after Copley, The Hon. John Hancock, Esq., ca. 1775, National Portrait Gallery.
I think I’m drawn to these images because Hancock has always been one of my favorite founding fathers: certainly the one with whom I had the earliest and most immediate connection because of his still-standing wharf and warehouse in my hometown. Later on, when I moved to Massachusetts and became interested in preservation issues, the images and story of his martyred mansion became the cautionary tale. And I must admit that his portrayal by the British actor Rafe Spall was just about the only thing that kept me watching the History Channel’s Sons of Liberty miniseries a few months ago.
Two more Hancocks. The source: John Singleton Copley’s portrait, c. 1770-72, Massachusetts Historical Society; a Salem-printed broadside from the end of Hancock’s term as president of the Continental Congress and “the first year of American Independence”, National Portrait Gallery.