When the American Revolution began to escalate in the late spring of 1775, people wanted to see images of its leaders: Englishmen and -women in particular, were eager to see the “rebel officers” that dared to defy the Empire. So English publishers began issuing printed portraits of George Washington, Israel Putnam, Charles Lee, Benedict Arnold, John Hancock and others which were imaginative, to say the least. The mezzotints issued by London publisher “C. Shepherd” were particularly so, and particularly popular, both in Great Britain and on the Continent, where a succession of publishers took even further license. Supposedly Shepherd’s images of General Washington were based on original drawings by one “Alexander Campbell of Williamsburg in Virginia”, but Washington himself commented “Mr. Campbell whom I never saw (to my knowledge) has made a very formidable figure giving him a sufficient portion of Terror in his Countenance”.
I love these prints! Both the idea and the reality of them. At the British Museum, you can see a representative sampling of the original 1775 prints, but there were many variations issued over the next three years, investing them with increasing currency. And then they found their way into illustrated texts after the Revolution: only in the later nineteenth century have I see the word “spurious” attached to them. Also “curious”. As you can see below, Major General Charles Lee looks remarkably similar to General George Washington….and now that I look at him, Israel Putnam too! All those Americans look alike.
Colonel Benedict Arnold looks similar, presented while still “rebellious” by one of C. Shepherd’s competitors, John Morris. Even General William Howe, whose image was published coincidentally with these rebel officers, looks familiar, though I am distinguishing him here by presenting him in color. John Hancock’s bust portrait is the only really distinctive image among these prints: perhaps because he was not a soldier. Supposedly it was “done from an Original Picture Painted by Littleford”, but no one seems to know who Littleford was. More likely the 1774 portrait of Copley was the source although it doesn’t look very Copley-esque.
I was drawn to these prints this weekend when I spotted two French derivatives in an upcoming Swann auction: their embellishment made them even more charming, but at the same time they are even more removed from their original subjects. And something is altered in the translation: Hancock is President of the “Congrés Englo-Amériquain” and Putnam “Chief at the engagement of Bunc-Kershill near Boston 17 June 1775”.
I don’t usually subscribe to those specially-designated days–you know, Boston Cream Pie Day or Talk Like a Pirate Day–preferring the old saints’ days of yore with all of their associated traditions and folklore, but I am acknowledging National Handwriting Day today simply because I like the written word almost as much as I like the printed one, and scripts almost as much as fonts. And I fear penmanship might be on its way out. This Day was established by an entity with a vested interest, the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association, all the more reason to ignore it, but they chose John Hancock’s birthday as the day and I welcome any occasion to acknowledge Mr.Hancock, one of my favorite founding fathers. I learned a lot about penmanship pedagogy a few years ago when I fell in love with a calligraphic cat and plunged myself into the world of nineteenth-century American writing manuals, but now I think the seventeenth century is a more important era in the development of writing instruction, at least in England. Influenced and inspired by continental influences like Jan van den Velde’s 1605 book, Spieghel der Schrifkonste (Mirror of the Art of Writing), English writing became penmanship, separated from “orthography” or grammar, segregated into a variety of hands and scripts, standardized through the dissemination of a succession of manuals and “copy books”. All those Victorian flourishes and calligraphic creations? Old news.
Above: writing samples from the early seventeenth century: a 1620 pen-in-hand engraving after Jan van den Velde, c. 1620, Metropolitan Museum of Art; a page from van den Velde’s influential Mirror of the Art of Writing, c. 1605; and title page of Martin Billingsley’s The Pen’s Excellencie, or The Secretaries Delight (1618).
Below: in the later seventeenth century, it was all about “Colonel” John Ayres, master of a writing school in St. Paul’s Churchyard “at the sign of the hand and pen” in London, and the author of a series of copy books published in many editions between 1680 and 1700, including The Accomplish’d Clerk or Accurate Pen-man and The New A-La-Mode Secretarie or Practical Pen-Man (both 1682-83).
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, TheHon. JohnHancock, 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.