Tucked safely away in the Nichols House Museum’s archives are roughly three hundred photographs that make up the “Nichols Family Photograph Collection.” The collection is divided into five categories: individual portraits, group portraits, gardens and landscapes, buildings, artwork and decorative arts. The bulk of the photography collection is portraiture, followed closely by images of gardens and landscapes, unsurprisingly based on the Rose Nichols’ career as a landscape architect. Photos grouped in the “artwork and decorative arts” series make up only twenty-seven of the collection’s photos. While many of the photos in the artwork and decorative arts series appear to be photographs of collection objects taken and distributed by established museums, a very small number of photos stand out as something slightly different–student work. Three photos in the collection show figurative sculptures that appear to be made of plaster, each with a handwritten inscription on the back: “Walker Hancock – American Academy in Rome.”
Walker Hancock was an American sculptor who lived from 1901 to 1998. He is most well known for his monumental works, including the Pennsylvania Railroad Memorial, and his
role as one of the Monuments Men, recovering artworks that had been looted by the Nazis during World War II .
Hancock studied sculpture at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art before being awarded the Prix de Rome fellowship which allowed him to study at the American Academy in Rome from 1925 to 1929 . It was during his time at the American Academy of Rome that he designed the three sculptures that appear in the Nichols Family Photograph Collection.
Two of the sculptures appearing in these photos, Bagpipe Player and Boy with Squirrel were eventually cast in bronze and are found in several museums across the country but the third sculpture of two mermaids in a loose embrace, does not appear to have been completed. A very telling inscription handwritten in blue ink across the front reads “unfinished.” While the two completed models are photographed on slightly more formal pedestals, the two mermaids are seen on top of a rough looking table draped with a wrinkled piece of white fabric. Some scratchy pencil lines drawn on the photo from the base of the sculpture moving up through the two figures suggests Hancock’s design was intended as a fountain. Two copies of this photograph also exist in the photography archives of the American Academy in Rome. The records of these photos also indicate that the work was never resolved as the copies are archived under two different names, Marine Sculpture and Fountain Group .
While this work seems to have been left “unfinished” it appears to have been a precursor for Hancock’s work, Triton, a piece that Hancock designed as a fountain for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City .
The Nichols Family’s connection to Walker Hancock does not seem to be documented outside of Rose Nichols’ possession of these three photographs. It is not surprising that Rose had an interest in Hancock’s sculptures based on her use of fountains and statuary in the gardens that she designed. While Rose may not have worked with Hancock directly or utilized any of his statuary in her designs, she did own a pair of small statues made by Hancock’s friend and contemporary, Paul Manship, depicting Adam and Eve.
Hancock and Manship both studied at the American Academy in Rome, and were both associated with the sculptural style of “modernized classicism” . Manship and Hancock were educated in sculpture in the early twentieth century, prior to the Great Depression. Unfortunately for these two sculptors as well as many of their contemporaries, bronze casting was often out of the question during the Depression due to financial constraints. Many trained sculptors during this period worked in carved wood and plaster instead of bronze. A renewed interest in modernized classicism in the 1980s allowed for many of these models to finally be cast in bronze, including one of Hancock’s most well received works, The Diver. While many of Hancock’s statues were given new life throughout the 1980s, this fountain seen in Rose Nichols’ photo collection has remained “unfinished.”
”Society of Fellows News.” American Academy in Rome. American Academy in Rome, Feb. 2015. Web. 3 Aug. 2016.
”The Monuments Men.” Hancock, Capt. Walker K. Monuments Men Foundation, n.d. Web. 03 Aug. 2016.
 “Fellows’ Work Collection, 1910-1960.” Digital Humanities Center. American Academy in Rome, n.d. Web. 03 Aug. 2016.
 Howlett, D. Roger. “Thirties Sculpture in the Manship Tradition Reborn in the Eighties.” The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts 16 (1990): 28. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 20 July 2016.
 Ibid. 24.
By Emma Welty, Curatorial and Administrative Specialist.