LOCAL HISTORY: Art Meets Craft to Show the Versatility of One Man's Skill; A Talented 18th Century Engraver Turned His Hand to Fine Art Portraits and Other Works of Art

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Byline: By CHRIS UPTON

We have long since lived with the distinction between fine art and applied art. Paintings and drawings go into one room, vases and medals and jewellery into another.

It's not a difference earlier societies would have recognised.

A Greek vase painter would have told you he was doing exactly the same thing as Phei-dias was up to on the Acropolis.

One man who shows that this distinction is more for convenience than anything else is Robert Hancock.

Hancock's long life (he died aged 87) took up most of the 18th century and a fair chunk of the 19th.

In his earlier years Hancock was producing the designs for ornamental vases and plaques, objects you're likely to find in a museum.

Towards the end of his life he was exhibiting at the Royal Academy and doing pencil and chalk sketches of the Romantic poets, a collection now housed in the National Portrait Gallery.

So what do we know about this talented and versatile man, who could turn his hand to anything from an ink-stand to a teapot and from copperplate to pencil and chalk?

Les than we might want to, is the short answer. But let's make what we can of the biographical details.

Robert Hancock was born in the Worcestershire village of Badsey, just to the east of Eve-sham, in 1730 or 1731.

When he was about 15-years-old he was sent to Birmingham as an apprentice to an engraver, George Anderton.

Learning the art (or craft) of engraving would have occupied the next seven years of Hancock's life, before, suitably equipped with a trade, he headed for London to make a living in china, if that's not a contradiction in terms.

The mid-1750s were crucial years in the history of the porcelain industry. Until this point all English porcelain and enamels had to be hand-painted, following the tradition in the East itself.

But Great Britain was industrialising and that went for applied art too.

Around 1753 the technique was invented of transferring designs from an engraved copperplate onto a vase or plaque by means of adhesive pigments.

The method allowed for the mass production of objects, but clearly relied heavily upon the skill of the engraver.

Exactly where in London Robert Hancock got to deploy his skills is open to doubt, but he seems to have collaborated with (and learnt from) French artists such as Louis Philippe Boitard in engraving the designs for Birmingham enamels. What is certain is that in 1756 Hancock had left the capital for the Midlands again, to offer his services at the Worcester Porcelain Manufactory and here he would be staying for the next 20 years or so.

It's generally accepted that Worcester porcelain was at its best in these years - at the time when transfer printing was first introduced at the factory - and Robert Hancock can take a deal of the credit for that.

There are some who claim that Hancock was the actual inventor of the technique. This may not be the case, but he was undoubtedly there at the dawn of it.

Many of his designs Hancock produced for the Worcester output were not original, being copied from paintings and model books - and that, I suppose, is why museums tend to distinguish between fine and applied art.

But his skill and the delicacy of his designs remain outstanding examples of the art of the engraver.

It's unfortunate for those wanting to assemble his work that Hancock rarely signed pieces, probably for the same reason that the original image was not his.

When he did sign, it was with a rebus (a punning picture) of a hand and a cockerel. One such signed enamel snuff-box from south Staffordshire (probably Bilston) of a tea party is now in the Victorian & Albert Museum. …