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Falstaff Examining his Recruits

Sir John Falstaff Examining The Recruits
Provided For Him By Justice Shallow
By Ball Hughes, 1859
Courtesy of Frederick R. Brown III


"Sir John Falstaff Examining The Recruits
Provided For Him By Justice Shallow"--
Painted by John Gilbert. --From the Exhibition of the British Institution
Signed: John Gilbert, 1858
As it appeared in the Illustrated London News, February 12, 1859, p. 153
Courtesy of John Weedy
    Compare Ball Hughes poker sketch to John Gilbert's woodblock engraving of his painting above. Also compare to Gilbert's oil painting at Shakespeare Illustrated by Emory University.

Inscription, verso:
"This Sketch (of Sir John Falstaff examining the Recruits provided for him by Justice Shallow' from a Picture by John Gilbert) was Burnt with a Poker.
Boston. Sep1859.
Ball Hughes.  Fecit."
The parenthesis may have been added later for clarity. Click on any image to view the original in more detail.

Closeup of Inscription

Closeup of Signature

 Closeup of additional text

 The text above appears to say:
"? ? Exprefsly [expressly] to the order of B F Brown Esq.  
With the honest ability of the Artist
B.H. Sept. 1. 1859"

    Benjamin Franklin Brown, mentioned in the verso above, married Ball Hughes younger daughter, Augusta, in 1852 and was a successful Boston merchant.
   Ball Hughes wife, Eliza, writes about Ball Hughes new-found art form, "Pokerisms" as she called them in the Sketch of the Life of Robert Ball Hughes, pp. 35-37:
"And being complimented on his new work. The sculptor said, very well for the present, but don’t for a moment suppose I am going to give up clay, Marble or Bronze to ‘Burn Wood!
But the singular fact about these Pokerisms is. That he got pleased with producing such pictures as Falstaff and his followers (from Gilbert’s picture). It is burnt on a piece of wood 18 ½ inches wide, by 12 ½ high, and contains fifteen figures.
Then the Trumpeter standing beside his horse this is larger than the other! Also a Monk a wonderfully fine picture Rubens in his study! Choosing the wedding dress (from Goodall) all these are marvellous [sic] productions, and I think it gave him pleasure to produce them, and himself really wonder’d at this new power which had come to him, and enabled him to do anything he attempted.
Mrs. Hughes would often fix the price on these Pokerisms, and they were always sold, as soon as finished, and usually bespoken and letters would come from other cities asking if there were any for sale.
B. F. Brown who in 1852 married Mr. Hughes youngest daughter – has some of the finest Mr. Hughes ever burned. Falstaff and followers_ The Monk a wonderfully fine Pokerism_ the three witches of Macbeth from Fuseli’s picture_ The choosing the wedding drefs [dress] from Goodall’s and several smaller ones.
Mr. Hughes frequently burnt a picture in one forenoon. But some were very elaborate and took a couple of days."
    William Dana Orcutt records in Good Old Dorchester  Cambridge: John Wilson & Son, UP, 1893, pp. 382-383:
"Mr. Hughes manifested his artistic nature in more ways than one. He excelled, among other things, in executing what are known as "poker sketches." These are pictures made on whitewood, the only tools used being pieces of iron, which were heated to a white heat. Every touch of the hot iron leaves a mark which cannot be effaced, and the work is so trying to the nerves that only a short time each day can be devoted to it. The effects of color can only be appreciated when seen. It seems incredible that such artistic results could have been produced in this way. Among the works of this kind, many of which are now in the possession of Mr. Hughes' son-in-law, Mr. Benjamin F. Brown, may be mentioned "The Trumpeter," "The Monk," "Falstaff Examining his Recruits," — embracing a dozen or more figures, —"Rembrandt," "Don Quixote," "Shakespeare," "Rubens," and "The Scotch Terrier.""

    This poker sketch has been in the Brown family for 150 years.
    Sir John Gilbert (1817-1897) was a British artist who was known for the illustrations and woodcuts (woodblock engravings) that he produced for the Illustrated London News. He also produced illustrations for books, including Shakespeare's plays. Sir John Falstaff is a fictional comic character that appears in three plays by William Shakespeare (1564-1616).
The oil painting by Gilbert illustrates a scene in Henry IV, Part 2.

    Ball Hughes probably copied a woodblock engraving of Gilbert's painting that appeared on page 153 of the Illustrated London News, Feb 12, 1859 (the same year as Ball Hughes poker sketch). The full page engraving was titled "Sir John Falstaff Examining the Recruits provided for him by Justice Shallow," the same title that Ball Hughes referenced. The Illustrated London News was the world's first illustrated weekly newspaper and no doubt was available in Boston. The history of the ILN and back issues are available on John Weedy's Illustrated London News website at  http://www.iln.org.uk/.
    The title of Gilbert's original oil painting, from the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery, is actually "Sir John Falstaff Reviews His Ragged Regiment (1859)." An earlier oil painting from 1728 by William Hogarth (1697-1764) was titled "Falstaff Examining His Recruits." This was a popular scene for many illustrators and painters and Hogarth's title for it may have remained the popular title.
    Many subjects of Ball Hughes poker sketches were literary characters. See also the Introduction to Shakespeare Illustrated, by Emory University, for information about the relationship between painters and poets. 
last update 9/9/2012
For noncommercial use, Copyright David E. Brown 2008-2012