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Saturday, May 10, 2014

John William Hancock

(Originally published 2 March 2013 after I had been dropped a line by Jess Nevins (gatherer of Fantastic Victoriana and annotator of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), who asked whether I could find some information on Hancock).

John Hancock was a contributor to the Clifford Bax/Austin Osman Spare magazine The Golden Hind, contributing a Blakean pen-and-ink sketch to the January 1923 issue.
God of Israel. The first God creating from his own body Adam & Eve. Thrusting them away from him that he may continue his inward turning search for his God, who in the form of a winged soul is flying into the beyond.
The same issue contained a small, three sentence biographical sketch, which revealed: "This artist drowned himself in Regent's Canal, London, aged only 22. It was found after his death he had been suffering from Bright's Disease for two years. He spent his boyhood in Canada and his teens in the East Midlands."

John William Hancock was actually born in Cape Colony, South Africa, in 1896. His father, William John Hancock had been born in Camden Town, Middlesex, on 24 February 1864, the son of a clerk in the General Register's Office. In 1881, William John was working in London as a wholesale draper's assistant but, within the next few years had moved to South Africa where he married Susannah Davidson – born in Honington, Warwickshire, in 1863 – in Cape Town in 1892.

John William was the second of two children; his elder sister, Berta Elizabeth Hancock, was born in Cape Town in 1893 and in 1901 was to be found living with her grandmother in Putney, London. Her brother was supposedly raised in Canada, returning to England at the age of 12 (c.1908).

The next sighting of John William is in the 1911 census when the family are reunited and living at 3 Royal Terrace, Northampton. John is now 15 and an art student, whilst his father is a secretary and agent for the Unionist Political Association. His sister was married in Hampstead in 1917 to Charles Scriven, a 2nd  Lieutenant in the Northants Yeomanry. Berta was said to be living at All Souls, London, at the time and it seems likely that the whole family had moved down to London. (William John Hancock died in Hampstead, London, in 1934, aged 70; Susannah, his wife, was living in Watford, Herts., when she died in 1946, aged 83.)

John William Hancock's activities over the next few years are unknown. Whether he managed to convert his art training in Northampton into commercial success in London is unknown, although given his obscurity it seems unlikely. Living at 29 Alexandra Road, South Hampstead, Hancock was last seen on 2 November 1918. On 17 November, his body was discovered in the Regents Canal.

His death was described as a tragedy of Bohemia. He apparently left behind a heap of manuscripts of allegorical stories and poems and a great many drawings, described as "remarkable in a sustained and inventive vein of high symbolism". In November 1922, an anonymous correspondent for the Manchester Guardian noted: "This week a number of water-colours and drawings have been taken to Birmingham for exhibition in the foyer of the Repertory Theatre." A memorial volume of Hancock's drawings, poems, and essays was said to be in preparation for publication but nothing more was heard. His appearance in the January 1923 issue of The Golden Hind may well have been his last.

Update: 10 May 2014.
Three examples of John Hancock's work appeared in the short-lived Colour magazine in 1918-19.

Hancock also illustrated the children's book Come Unto These Yellow Sands by Margaret L. Woods (London, John Lane The Bodley Head, 1915), a copy of which was sold on eBay recently (for £74.99)—from which sale the images below were derived.

With thanks to Lesley Heming of transpontinebooks (via Abebooks or eBay) for scans of Hancock's artwork from Colour.

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