J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

John Hancock's five-o'clock shadow

On 24 May, Sotheby's will auction a John Singleton Copley portrait of John Hancock. According to the auction house's description, this painting came down from the family of Gov. Hancock's nephew. The governor's only son died at a young age in a skating accident, so he made his nephew his main heir, just as he'd been his own uncle's main heir.

You can't see the painting at Sotheby's without registering with the site, but I took the risk. It closely resembles the Copley portrait you can see courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society (thumbnail detail shown here). Hancock's cheeks and chin are a little less swarthy in the new offering, but it's clear from both portraits that he had thick, dark facial hair as a young man. One significant difference in the family portrait is a curtain and a window behind the merchant, instead of a plain background—more ostentatious symbols of wealth.

Hancock also had Copley paint a full-figure image of himself, now owned by Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, and commissioned a portrait of his uncle Thomas for Harvard College. In the early 1770s both Hancock and Copley owned property on the same side of Beacon Hill overlooking Boston Common, but they were on opposite sides of the political issues.

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