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The biography of Robert Ball Hughes is written across the pages of history in numerous books and articles.  His artwork remains today for us as a testament of his genius. David E. Brown

    There is no single text that completely chronicles Ball Hughes' life and works.  I would like to refer the reader to the book below as a starting point and to the Sketch of the Life of Robert Ball Hughes by Mrs. E. Ball Hughes.
    Good Old Dorchester by William Dana Orcutt. Cambridge: John Wilson & Son, UP, 1893, pp. 379-389. (This is the best and most insightful glimpse into the life of Ball Hughes and his family)  It's available for viewing and download at Google Books or a paperback reprint is available for purchase from Amazon.com.

Below is an excerpt from Orcutt's book:

"The following biographical sketch, published in 1843, some fourteen years after he took up his residence in this country, gives us an excellent idea of his early life:"

"Ball Hughes the Sculptor. — This gentleman was born in London on the 19th of January, 1806 [sic]. He early evidenced a taste and talent for moulding [sic], and a somewhat whimsical circumstance at length decided him in the choice of his profession.

About the year 1818, his mother observed that the ends of wax candles constantly disappeared from the candlesticks; and indeed that sometimes whole ones were also missing. At length, on making some inquiry, it was found that our young genius Ball was the one who had thus robbed the old gilded candelabra of their wax ornaments.

The next thing to be ascertained was why he did it; and, being pressed by his father to tell the truth and avoid a flogging, he confessed to taking them to enable him to copy in wax a picture which hung in the garret representing the Wisdom of Solomon.1"

The work was brought down, and the spirited bas-relief he

had made at once decided Mr. Hughes to place him in the studio
of Edward Hodges Bailey,2 with whom he remained seven years.
1 This bas-relief was afterwards cast in silver, and is still in the possession of the family.
2 Bailey was one of
Flaxman's favorite pupils, and in 1843 was one of the greatest living sculptors.  (Note that Flaxman was a RA Professor of Sculpture at the time Ball Hughes attended)

Here we find him successfully competing for all the prizes awarded by the Royal Academy, and obtaining —

1st. —The large silver medal for the best copy in bas-relief of the Apollo Belvidere [sic].

2d. — From the Society of Arts and Sciences a silver medal for (a copy of) the Barbarini Fawn ([sic] (in 1820, Craven).

3d. —A large silver medal for the best original model from the life.

4th.—A gold medal for an original composition of Pandora, brought by Mercury to Epimetheus. Also a series of lectures, by Baron Opie and Fuseli.

These were all obtained before he was of legal age (of 21 in England at the time)." We find him next engaged on busts of the royal family, including the Duke of Sussex, the Duke of Cambridge, and a small statue of George the Fourth, which he ordered to be cast in bronze.

During a professional residence in the beautiful mansion of the late Earl of Leicester, he met several American gentlemen, who so interested him in their descriptions of our great republic as to decide him, shortly after his marriage (1829) [sic], to visit us.

Among a number of works which he has done among us may be mentioned his beautiful marble statue of General Alexander Hamilton, unfortunately destroyed with the Exchange at the great fire in New York; a magnificent marble alto-relief to the memory of Bishop Hobart in Trinity Church; a group of Uncle Toby and Widow Wadman, now in the (Boston) Athenaeum; the inimitable statue of little Oliver Twist, which makes us more than ever in love with sculpture; an admirable equestrian statue of General Washington, originally intended for Philadelphia, but, owing to want of funds, never executed."

    Eliza Ball Hughes describes the same events in the first installment of The Sketch of the Life of Robert Ball Hughes at The Early Years: 1804-1829.
    I looked into the beautiful mansion of the Earl of Leicester (mentioned above) where Ball Hughes had a professional residence, probably in the mid-1820's (He was there in 1827 according to Mrs. E. Ball Hughes).  Thomas William Coke (1754-1842), 1st Earl of Leicester (pronounced LESS-tur) lived in Holkham Hall at the Holkham Estate. I contacted the Holkham Archivist but she said that she knows of no works by Ball Hughes at the estate today.

    The following account of Ball Hughes in London by John Neal gives us a rare account of Ball Hughes early works and personality.

Hughes the Sculptor by John Neal (1793-1876) from American Phrenological Journal Vol. 49.--No. 8, New York: March 1869, p. 98:

"This eminent artist, generally known here, through a strange misapprehension, as "Ball" Hughes, was a man of great originality and fine genius; but wayward, whimsical, and capricious. When I first knew him, he was modeling small figures of men and animals, and grouping them, as they never had been grouped before, since the days of Benvenuto Cellini, for Rundell and Bridges, the great London goldsmiths. I believe I had some influence in persuading him into modeling from life. He began, if I do not mistake, with a head of Jeremy Bentham, and I stood at his elbow, hour after hour, and day after day, while he was working out a magnificent problem, which he cast aside without finishing, just when it began to be the philosopher himself. Not long after this, he came to this country and brought forth—in plaster—his "Uncle Toby and the Widow," a charming affair, full of archness and truth and old-fashioned humor—but somehow or other, none of these earlier conceptions of his ever appeared in marble, and therefor like Thom's "Tam O'Shanter," in freestone, will be sure to crumble and pass away, before another generation are permitted to see them."

"With a bilious nervous temperament, a fine spirited head, large Ideality, a graceful bearing and a generous loving nature; with remarkable power of adoption, and adaptation, and uncommon talents, Mr. Hughes might have been almost anything he chose, though I have always been sorry that he gave up altogether modeling for the goldsmiths; for in that narrow field of art, he was unmatchable. And here I am reminded of Powers, the sculptor, with whom I had a somewhat similar experience, but of whom I shall speak in my next paper."
    Note that the American author and art/literary critic, John Neal, traveled to London in late 1823 and stayed until 1827. He apparently became quite acquainted with Ball Hughes during his time in London.

Recent Biography's

    Paintings and Sculpture in the Collection of the National Academy of Design, Volume 1, 1826-1925, by David B. Dearinger, New York, NY: Hudson Hills Press, (National Academy of Design), 2004, p. 288. The text only is also available at the National Academy.

Cushing and Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): pp. 281-284. 
The text only is also available at the Boston Athenæum.

A short biography of Robert Ball Hughes is available in the book: Dorchester: A Compendium by Anthony Mitchell Sammarco, Charleston: The History Press, 2011, pp. 61-63. Sammarco is a Boston Historian and an author of over 60 books. See the Preview of the book on Google Books.

The Mystery of "Ball Hughes" Name

    Neal's comment in his article above about the name "Ball" made me wonder if Ball Hughes acquired this name for himself by a misunderstanding or for some other reason unknown to us.  I didn't know when and how Robert acquired the middle name “Ball” since it didn't appear to be a family name.
    Robert was going by the name "Robert Balls (with an "s") Hughes" when he entered the Royal Academy in 1818. According to the Royal Academy of Arts Archivist, Mark Pomeroy, the register of the RA records his middle name as "Balls."  In 1819, he won a silver medal in the Premium competition for a model after an antique cast and in 1822, he won another silver medal for a model after a life model. In both cases his name is recorded by the RA as “Ball”, not "Balls." That makes 1819 the earliest record of Robert using the name Robert Ball Hughes.
    A copy of his record of marriage to Eliza Mary Wright from All Souls Church, in the Parish of St. Marylebone, in the County of Middlesex, November 2, 1828, also shows his name as "Robert Balls Hughes." The copy of the marriage record was obtained by a descendant of Ball Hughes in 1891 and passed down through the Brown family.
    I wondered if both of these references to "Balls" could be be misspelled in transcription? He was never known as Robert Balls Hughes after his marriage record in 1828. Since his arrival in New York in 1829, he was known as Robert Ball Hughes. Every reference to Robert Ball Hughes in articles and books has his middle name spelled “Ball,” without an "s." To add more confusion, Eliza called him “Balls” in a letter to Col. John Trumbull in 1834.
    According to the Brown family genealogy prepared by Ball Hughes grandson, George Edward Brown, Ball Hughes fathers name was John Hallett Hughes (1773-1824/1827).  He was a carriage maker of Long Acre (street), Middlesex according to the Sketch of the Life of Robert Ball Hughes by Mrs. E. Ball HughesHis mothers maiden name is believed to be Amelia Susannah Rogers, who was a cooper in London according to a court record from 1796.
    The answer was found in Ball Hughes record of baptism (see the Mystery of Ball Hughes Birthdate, below). He was listed as "Robert Balls Hughes of John Hallett & Amelia Susanna" The mystery of Ball Hughes name has been partially solved but we still don't know why his parents gave him the middle name “Balls” or when and why he changed it to “Ball.” See Wikipedia article about "given name."
    Robert Ball Hughes is not the son of Capt. Ball, R.N. as suggested by Sidney Lee in Dictionary of National Biography (1891).  Therefore, Robert Ball Hughes is not related to Edward Hughes Ball Hughes (1798-1863), aka "The Golden Ball" or "Golden Ball Hughes."  Edward Ball legally changed his name to Edward Hughes Ball Hughes in 1819.  I wonder if Robert ever met Edward, perhaps at Holkham Hall?

The Mystery of Ball Hughes Birthdate 

    There is also a discrepancy in Ball Hughes' year of birth.  This makes a difference because he was so young when he entered the Royal Academy in 1818. Most sources since one in 1843, quoted by Orcutt in Good Old Dorchester, cite Jan 19, 1806.  Only The American Cyclopedia: A Popular Dictionary of General Knowledge, Volume IX by Ripley and Dana, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1874, cites 1804 as his year of birth.  According to a family genealogy prepared by his Grandson, George Edward Brown, and Ball Hughes grave monument in Cedar Grove Cemetery, his date of birth was Jan. 19, 1804.
    Ball Hughes' daughter, Georgina, was quoted in an article about Ball Hughes in the (Boston) Sunday Globe in March 1907 as saying that her father was born in 1806.  You would think that his family would have known his actual birth year.  To add more confusion, a death notice from The New England Historical & Genealogical Register For the Year 1868, Vol. XXII says he died at age 62.  He would have been 64, not 62, if he was born in 1804.
    Note that Ball Hughes would have been only about 12 years old when he entered the Royal Academy and about 17 when he won the gold medal from the Royal Academy in 1823 if he was born in 1806.
    According to the Royal Academy of Arts Archivist, Mark Pomeroy, "Robert Balls Hughes entered the schools 3 Sep 1818, aged 14, as a sculptor...Fourteen is a young age at which to enter the Schools.  Among the students entering at roughly the same date were William Bewick, William Boxall, Edwin Landseer (who was 16) and Richard Westmacott Jr. the sculptor."
    This was still not the proof I was looking for. I thought that a baptismal record from a church in London, England might help settle the birthdate question, but which church? And now we have the answer.  The clue was the name of Robert's parish on his marriage record. I contacted the parish of Saint Martin in the Fields, located in Trafalgar Square in London. I was referred to the City of Westminster Archives that keeps parish records from the London area.
    According to the Parish Register of St. Martin in the Fields for February 1804Robert Balls Hughes was born on 19 Jan 1804, making him 14 when he entered the Royal Academy and almost 19 when he won the gold medal in 1823. The entry from the parish register for the baptism on 17 Feb 1804 is “Robert Balls Hughes of John Hallett & Amelia Susanna 19 Jan 1804.” We don't know how his birth year became recorded as 1806 in many reference works or why some members of his own family thought he was born in 1806 after his death.
    The information on the baptismal record was uploaded to the International Genealogical Index by the City of Westminster Archives after my inquiry. I don't think I ever would have learned this information without the marriage record containing Robert's parish name. The information from the baptismal record can be viewed on the International Genealogical Index here.

"My object in visiting [this country] was to see the state of the Arts in this New World and endeavor to put up one or two national monuments to bear witness some future day to my having been here." (June 27,  1831)


Critics & Admirers

    Robert Ball Hughes had his share of critics, and admirers. The sculpture critics praised his sculpture but ignored or were not aware of his engraving the modified Seated Liberty design for the U.S. Mint and the popularity of his poker sketches. The Numismatists, Pyrographers, and Pyrography collectors of today are much more interested in the full body of his work, including his sculpture. I thank them for their diligence in researching and preserving his artwork.
    The terms “eminent artist” and “genius” appear over and over in the writings about Ball Hughes. Some of them are recorded below in chronological order:
    Hughes was described by a reviewer for the American Monthly magazine in 1834, as "the first sculptor in America." (Dearinger 2004)
    John Watts de Peyster called Ball Hughes “an eminent artist but a (irresponsible) vagabond, like so many artists.”
“Robert Ball Hughes was an artist of unquestionable genius and a genial and exceedingly social gentleman. The “Dead Christ” in the Roman Catholic Church at South Boston, which burnt a few years since, and the bronze statue of Bowditch at Mount Auburn, have been regarded as among his best works; but his “Uncle Toby,” “Little Nell,” and other productions, have likewise received the commendation their excellence of conception and execution merited. His “poker sketches,” so called, were unique and curious, and full of strength and grace. Some of them were admirable as portraits. His “Fisher Boy” was also “a thing of beauty.” Mr. Hughes was born in London, but had spent a large part of his life in this country, where he made many friends, who found him abounding in anecdote and information, possessed of remarkable taste and skill in his profession. Pure-minded and single-hearted, he was kind, generous and hospitable--an affectionate husband and father. He was a pupil of Flaxman and Bailey [sic], and a member of the Royal Academy [sic]. The Duke of Devonshire showed his appreciation of his talents by becoming the owner of his Oliver Twist.”
    See the Obituary for Robert Ball Hughes for the complete text from the Boston Daily Evening Transcript, Friday, March 6, 1868, that this article was quoted from. Note that even at the time of Ball Hughe’s death, there was inaccuracy about his being a member of the Royal Academy. I previously thought that this occurred many years later when descendants in the Brown family may have assumed that he was an “RA.” See the Sketch of the Life of Robert Ball Hughes for more information.
    James Grant Wilson and John Fiske (1887) wrote: “Mr. Hughes also lectured on art, and attracted attention by his sketches that he made on with with a hot iron.”
    Samuel L. Gerry (1891) (one of the original members of the Boston Art Club in 1854) wrote:
“And now flits across the memory a brilliant sculptor, whose familiar face and tall figure were well known in our streets. Ball Hughes was without controversy a genius, as is evidenced by his well-known group of the Widow Wadman and Uncle Toby, and the fine statue of Bowditch,--both I think in the Art Museum. He was cut down in the prime of life, yet not by the hand of death. Many knew him in his later years by poker drawings, which he did for small returns. It was like “a giant cracking nuts.” We have never had in Boston natural powers for art superior to his. In all his obliquities he was a gentleman.”
    William Dana Orcutt (1893) said: ”The productions of Ball Hughes, the sculptor, were characteristic of the artist himself, --strong, faithful, and original. His work was distinctly his own, and at once impressed the spectator with conviction that it was a true portrait of that which it was intended to express.”
    Orcutt also records from an article in a New York paper published at the time of the unveiling of the Statue of Hamilton in that New York: "The artist, Ball Hughes, Esq., has produced a work which does him the greatest possible credit. Hundreds of our most respectable citizens, who were intimately acquainted with General Hamilton, besides a great number of artists, pronounced it a most chaste and perfect piece of sculpture, and an exact likeness. Mr. Hughes, should he never execute another work of the kind, has, in the judgment of all who have seen it, acquired a fame that will at least live as long as himself." (How prophetic)
    Orcutt says later: "Mr. Hughes manifested his artistic nature in more ways than one. He excelled, among other things, in executing what are known as "poker sketches."
    Lorado Taft (1903) wrote speaking of Ball Hughes significance in American sculpture:
”But, for all his training, Ball Hughes's significance in American sculpture is historical rather than artistic. ... It is remarkable that a man of Mr. Hughes's facility should have produced so little. Perhaps he realized early that he had no great revelation to make, and resolved to hold his peace. This is not literally true, however, for tradition has not suppressed the fact that in his later years Mr. Hughes was wont to deliver lectures on art, thus making himself honorary founder of the formidable line of “talking sculptors" in this country. Whatever may be the verdict of posterity regarding his work, -- and posterity may not even take the trouble to consider it at all, -- it is certain that the name of Ball Hughes will be remembered. However uninspired, he chanced to be the first to do certain things important in the physical evolution of his art, and no history of American sculpture can omit him.”
    William Dunlap (1918), Vice-President of the National Academy of Design, said of Ball Hughes: “In later life he attained especial notice by his sketches burned in wood with a hot iron.”
    While other American sculptors traveled to Italy to study, Albert TenEyck Gardener (1945) records: “Robert Ball Hughes, another member of this group of stay-at-homes, was an emigrant from London who frittered away his Royal Academy training making wax portraits and dabbling in the dubious art of pyrography (drawing pictures in shingle with a hot poker) in Dorchester, Massachusetts, without ever seeing the holy city of art.”
    Edward Deland Lovejoy (1946) said; “Late in life he turned from sculpture to the lowlier art of so-called poker drawings, which had quite a vogue.”
    Wayne Craven (1984) said:
“Although he [Ball Hughes] is much better known today for his larger works, he was the finest modeler of wax portraits in the second quarter of the 19th century anywhere in the country.”... “After the casting of the Bowditch statue, Robert Ball Hughes began to slip into obscurity.”...”Over the years his “Hamilton” had been destroyed; his equestrian statue had twice been turned aside; and most of his other ideal works remained in plaster, for lack of a patron who would pay to have them carved in marble. The sculptor continued to do minor works--cameos, wax medallions, and so forth--and even for a while amused himself by burning images into a piece of wood with a hot poker. After the mid-1850's he seems to have given up on sculpture altogether...”
    Craven also writes:
“One can only wonder why Hughes did not receive more patronage. Not only did private individuals and municipal governments fail to avail themselves fully of the genius he had to offer, but also the federal government--which between 1830 and 1860 was commissioning tons of sculptural adornments for the buildings in Washington--never once considered making use of Hughes' ability, though they employed many Italian artisan-stonecutters. Although Hughes received his training in England, it was in America that nearly all his artistic activity occurred. But Robert Ball Hughes' special significance as a transitional figure is that he arrived at the moment when the United States was beginning to rear her own corps of gifted sculptors and no longer found it necessary to rely entirely on imported talent. As Hughes began his first works in New York City, John Frazee had already modeled his first portrait busts; Horatio Greenough had begun his career in Italy; and Hiram Powers was about to start modeling portraits in Cincinnati. Within the decade both Powers and young Thomas Crawford were to journey to Italy to begin life-long residences there. Thus, at about the time of Hughes' arrival, one epoch in American sculpture came to a close and another began.”
    James-Gadzinski and Cunningham (1997) said “Hughes passed his later years in relative obscurity. With few patrons, he was reduced to making cameos and wax medallions. He even took up pyrography, the technique of burning drawings into wood.”
    Wayne Craven, author of Sculpture in America, replied in March 2009 to an inquiry I made of him with these kind words: 
"Thank you for informing me about your website on Ball Hughes.  He was a favorite of mine when I was writing Sculpture in America, simply because he was by far the best, most gifted sculptor working in America during his era. It's a pitty America wasn't quite as ready for sculpture as it might have been and encouraged him more with more commissions... I'm glad you have established a website and I'll look forward to following it."

Robert Ball Hughes died on March 5, 1868, at age 64, and is buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery in Dorchester, MA across from his first home on Adams St.

    Read Eliza’s touching account of Ball Hughes' final hours and his death in her arms on pp. 45-49 of the Sketch of the Life of Robert Ball Hughes at Passing Out Of The Shadow: 1868.

The Last Word

    Robert Ball Hughes was just a man, a very talented man, who loved art and life. He had his faults and failings as we all do. He was a loving husband and father and was known for being very socialable.
    In the words of his wife, Eliza:
“... I wish you to remember him as a sculptor of great talent indeed a man of genius–which showed itself in whatever he touch'd.”
    See Portrait of Robert Ball Hughes for portrait by John Trumbull. 

Further Reading:

Robert Ball Hughes article on Wikipedia
AskART.com The Artists' Bluebook (Note that Robert Ball Hughes biography on Ask Art is accessible freely to anyone every Friday. )
And in order of publication date:
Uncle Sam and His Country, or, Sketches of America, in 1854-55-56 by Alfred J. Pairpoint. London: Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., 1857. pp. 9-21. (see Part I, Chap. I, Outward Bound--the Packet Ship, for an account of a trip to America on a packet ship in the 1850's)
Hughes the Sculptor by John Neal (1793-1876) from American Phrenological Journal Vol. 49.--No. 8, New York: March 1869, p. 98.
Appletons' Cyclopeadia of American Biography, edited by James Grant Wilson and John Fiske.  New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1887., p. 302.
Dictionary of National Biography Vol XXVIII by Sidney Lee. New York: Macmillan & Co., 1891, pp. 187-188.
The Fire Etcher's Work preview page from New York Times
The Fire Etcher's Work full text from New York Times
Etching With Fire by Franklin Smith from American Magazine: Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, Vol. XXXIV.--July to December, 1892. pp. 113-125.
The History of American Sculpture by Lorado Taft. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1903, pp. 97-98.
Remarks on the Monument to Bishop Hobart, Sculptured by Ball Hughes from A History fo the Parish of Trinity Church in the City of New York, Part 10 or IV? by Morgan Dix.  New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, The Knickerbocker Press, 1906, Appendix I., pp. 485-488.
The Athenaeum Gallery, 1827-1873, by Mabel M. Swan, Boston: 1940
"Yankee Stonecutters: The First American School of Sculpture, 1800-1850" by Albert TenEyck Gardner.  Published for The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Columbia UP, 1945, pp. 6, 20, 67, & 75.  Available on Questia by subscription or through JSTOR at many university libraries.
The Poker Drawings of Ball-Hughes (with biographical information)
Studies of American Painters and Sculptors of the Nineteenth Century by Georgia Stamm Chamberlain.  R.S Chamberlain, 1965. Available through JSTOR.
Sculpture in America by Wayne Craven. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1968 & 1984.
American Sculpture in the Museum of American Art of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts by Susan James-Gadzinski and Mary Mullen Cunningham. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1997, pp. 28-30.
Paintings and Sculpture in the Collection of the National Academy of Design, Volume 1, 1826-1925, by David B. Dearinger, New York, NY: Hudson Hills Press, (National Academy of Design), 2004, p. 288. The text only is also available at the National Academy.
Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenaeum by Cushing and Dearinger, eds.,  Boston Athenæum, 2007, pp. 281-284. The text only is also available at the Boston Athenæum.
Robert Ball Hughes -- More Than a Coin Designer? Adobe PDF iconby John Dannreuther in the April 2007 issue of Rare Coin Market Report, the Members magazine of the PCGS Collectors Club, available here courtesy PCGS, a division of Collector's Universe (NASDAQ:CLCT). Article is also available at http://www.pcgs.com/articles/article_view.chtml?artid=5783&universeid=313&type=1.
See Descendants for information about Robert Ball Hughes descendants.
last update 3/27/2013
For noncommercial use, Copyright David E. Brown 2008-2013 
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