New York: 1829-1838

Welcome to the second installment of the Sketch of the Life of Robert Ball Hughes by Mrs. E. Ball Hughes. 

    At the end of the last installment, we learned that Ball Hughes was rebuffed by President Andrew Jackson for the Washington Monument in the Spring of 1829. While in Washington, Ball Hughes carved busts of President Jackson, Chief Justice Marshall, and others, which he completed in June 1829. Ball Hughes then returned to New York before deciding whether to return to England.
Text of handwritten pages 6-14 with original punctuation:
... Soon after his arrival in New York, he was introduced to dear old Coll John Trumbull . the celebrated Painter _ and he persuaded Mr. Hughes to make a statuette of Genl [Lt. Col.] Alexander Hamilton stating that the N York Merchants were wealthy, and that he did not doubt _ that if they saw a sketch that pleased them _ they could easily be prevailed upon to give an order for one . profiting by this excellent advise Mr. Hughes went at once to work and completed an exquisite statuette

It was exhibited, pronounced perfect by Colnl Trumbull who had known him


personally.  It was seen by the Merchants who at once waited on Mr. Hughes and ask’d him for an estimate of a life size statue carved from the finest Carera [sic] marble.  The sculptor delighted at the prospect of doing this work before returning home, sent them a very moderate estimate agreeing to carve it from a block of the finest Italian marble for $5000 . Themselves to send for the marble and deliver it free of all expences [sic] at his studio _  I am writing of that which took place in 1829 when the voyages from Italy were very long and expensive!  But they at once complied with his request and he had a stable converted into a superb studio . at the corner of White St. and Broadway – and while this was being done Colnl Trumbull got him the large gallery full of antique statues near the City Hall . which beautiful collection had been made by Edward Livingston _ while he was


Minister in France _  Here Mr. Hughes at once commenced his large model, and while waiting for the marble made some beautiful Busts _ Colnl Trumbull who was at the time I am describing Painting some of his Pictures which now adorn the Capital at Washington was kind as a Father to the young sculptor and it was while he was making the model for the Hamilton statue that he sat [for] the Colnl for the beautiful Portrait now in Mrs. Hughes’ possession – which we understand is will’d to the Art Museum of Boston – together with the one of herself also painted in 1830.

As soon as the marble for the Hamilton statue arrived it was convey’d to his new studio in White St. – while waiting for it Mr. Hughes had sent to London for a good pointer and carver, and he was now capable of undertaking any large work .  Mr. Bramman [?] had worked for Mr. Bailey while Mr. Hughes

was there _ and Mr. Hughes made him his foreman.

  In the stable studio corner of Broadway and White St. was exquisitely finished the first marble statue carved in America and afterwards placed in the Merchants’ Exchange Wall St. N York in 1833 [1835].  New York was proud of it, and well might be!  The Hamilton family were enthusiastic.  It was indeed a thing of beauty, but not to be “a Joy forever!  For in that destructive fire which burnt a third of the city, and laid in ruins the Merchants’ Exchange and half of Wall St. the beautiful marble statue was crushed!!!!

I read from Mrs. Hughes scrap book the following notice of this grand work in a newspaper dated April 20th just after its erection in General [Col.] Hamilton’s statue.  The execution of this work was entrusted


to Ball Hughes . an artist of celebrity now a resident among us:  who has just completed the work, the statue was placed on a Pedestal, in the centre of the large Exchange room several weeks ago, and the finishing touches having been gone through with – The statue is now approved to Public view – We have paid a visit to the Exchange for the for the purpose of viewing this work of art, and expressing our opinion of its merit.  But as we were so fortunate as to meet with our venerable and highly esteem’d friend Colnl John Trumbull there we prefer to adopt his sentiments, which cannot fail to receive the assent of the Public _   The venerable artist told us, he consider’d it an admirable likeness of the Genl. [Col.] with whom he had been very intimate, and as a specimen of art, almost equal to anything he had ever seen.  He added there are very few pieces of statuary in Europe superior to this, and I do not think there are twenty five sculptors in the universe, who


surpass this work!

Then after describing the pose of the statue the paper added . “ The erection of this statue reflects great credit upon the liberality of the Merchants of New York and is calculated to add imperishable fame to the name of Ball Hughes.

One evening in 183[5]               Mr. Hughes was quietly reading, when the continued ringing of the fire bells alarm, caused him to ask where the fire was, and if near Wall Street?  he was told that it was not near there, and the wind was in another direction!  but as the noise, and voices increased, and people seem’d greatly excited . Mr. Hughes said he would go and see what Americans called a large fire and putting down his book . put on his hat and Sallied forth.

“I shall never forget (said Mrs. Hughes) the intense grief of my dear Husband when he return’d home at four o’clock in the morning, his face pale and haggard

and as he threw himself into a chair saying _  “My statue has gone with the Merchant’s Exchange, they are both a mass of ruins.”  He was inconsolable!  and remained so for weeks! indeed until his attention was called to a new work.

After the death of Bishop Hobart the Warden’s and members of Trinity church decided to get up a marble _ monument 2 his memory.  They called on Mr. Hughes to make them a design _ and send them an estimate of its cost.  They desired an Alto relief – and he made them a beautiful one representing the good Bishop dying in the arms of Faith.  The committee highly approved of it, and begged he would begin at once.  The price of the work in finest Italian marble was to be $2500, but when it was finished, they kindly sent by their Rector the Revd.


Dr. Berrian a check for another $1000 This showing their appreciation of the beautiful work, was most gratifying to himself and family . and put him once more in harmony with the outer world:  when we are happy the air seems to breathe fragrance around us.  The Light and joy within reflect themselves upon all without.  About this time Mr. Hughes made a very fine statuette of Governor Clinton and although he had orders for several busts . after sending to England for his group of the Shepherd boy which had been exhibited in the Royal Academy on its arrival in New York it was so deservedly admired, that after it was sold to Mr. Charles Wilkes – he could not rest without again exercising his Ideality  – and commenced a group which he had long contemplated doing  This was Uncle Toby, and Widow Wadman  It was destin’d for the Duke of Sussex who had given him the order to make


it at his leisure.  The group was most beautifully finished, but owing to its having occupied so much time, to the neglect of more profitable work.  Owing to money troubles it never cross’d the ocean, and was finally purchased by Mr.       Edwards of Boston.  All honor to his name!  who having purchased it for a small sum, and hearing of the regret expressed by the family that it should have been so sacrificed, at once wrote to them saying, that he would give it back if they desired it.  The offer was declined but his kindness is well, and gratefully remember’d.  and Boston has it. The Washington Monument was now being agitated in Philadelphia, and around 37. or 1838 Mr. Hughes became anxious to try for it.  he had already made a model and determined to remove there with his family  He most earnestly desired some Large work before returning again to England ...


    In this installment, we see Eliza speak of the beginning of her husband’s sculpture career in America. Absent is any mention of the birth of their two children, Georgina (1829-1911) and Augusta (1832-1914), in New York. She speaks fondly of Col. John Trumbull (1756-1843) being like a father to Ball Hughes. She mentions Trumbull’s portrait of her husband and the companion portrait of herself by Trumbull in 1830.
    The portrait of Robert Ball Hughes is still in the Brown family and apparently was not given to the Art Museum of Boston. Eliza stated that she thought it was willed to the Museum (in her will?). It’s a mystery as to how the portrait of herself was sold sometime after her death.
    A previously unknown portrait of Augusta Ball Hughes by Henry Inman (1801-1846) in 1839 has come to my attention while working on this page. The Ball Hugheses were living in New York from 1829 to 1838, at the same time as Inman. Ball Hughes modeled a plaster bust of Inman in January 1837.
    Ball Hughes first major achievement in America was the Statue of Alexander Hamilton. It was the first (life size) marble statue carved in the United States as reported by Eliza and most accounts in books by authorities on sculpture. Eliza quotes an April 20th, 1935 newspaper article in her scrapbook praising her husbands’ achievement after the statue was erected in the Merchant’s Exchange.
    This article is followed by Eliza’s very personal and detailed account of the Great Fire of 1835. Several accounts from the time report that Ball Hughes witnessed the destruction of his “Hamilton” and was devastated. It’s believed that he had been working on it over a period of almost two years (1833-1835). He started working on the project in 1830, about five years before the fire, by carving a model for the approval of the Merchants Exchange Committee.
    Eliza mentions the cost of the Hamilton statue and the Hobart Memorial to demonstrate the value of these works and the importance to the family’s finances. We see her intimately involved in their finances in letters to Col. Trumbull in A Ball Hughes Correspondence and later with the marketing and pricing of Pokerisms.
    According to a letter to Col. Trumbull, Eliza asks for a reference to a tailor for a new coat for her husband to wear to the installation of the statue in the Merchants Exchange:
“May Robert refer to you for his respectability, and ability to pay for a coat? Will you do him the kindness to tell a tailor you believe him able to pay for one, as Hamilton goes into the exchange next Monday and Hughes is really so abominably shabby that he will he ashamed to be seen there--the man does not care about the money. he only wishes a reference, and being anxious that it should be an unexceptionable one t'will be obliging us most truly if you would tell him Hughes has plenty of good orders in his Study--that is all. Should you be so kind his name is Stokes--in Broadway--may I refer him to you.”
    The “very moderate estimate” (according to Eliza) for the Hamilton statue was $5,000 (not including the cost of the 9 ton block of marble from Italy). This sounded like a lot of money to me so I ran the numbers through the Relative Value Calculator on $5,000 in 1834 is equivalent to about $131,000 in 2010 using the CPI. Ball Hughes must have had considerable expenses related to the work, including paying his workers. It’s been reported that he had three marble workers in New York at one time.
    Ball Hughes asked only $2,500 for the Bishop Hobart Memorial. Trinity Church was so pleased with the result that they sent Ball Hughes a check for another $1000.  Eliza said that this was “most gratifying to himself and family.” Note that Eliza uses the word “family,” in addition to Ball Hughes, in regards to the honor and the much-needed money. Note that the monumental marble alto-relief was reportedly finished in 1832, before the Hamilton Statue was completed in late 1834 or early 1835.
    We see another hint of the reason for Ball Hughes financial problems in Eliza’s account of Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman, destined for the Duke of Sussex.  We read “The group was most beautifully finished, but owing to its having occupied so much time, to the neglect of more profitable work.  Owing to money troubles it never cross’d the ocean …”
    It was sold for a sacrificial price to a Mr. Edwards of Boston and later offered back to the Ball Hughes family. The family declined the offer but was grateful for the kindness. The Ball Hugheses were happy that the group was in the Boston. Note that Eliza again uses the word “family,” instead of Ball Hughes, in regard to their financial plight. Art was the focus of their family life but money was needed to survive.
    One report says that the original model was sold to a Mr. Dorr of NY and deposited in the Boston Athenaeum as early as 1835 where it was seen in May 1835. Note that in a newspaper article in 1907, Ball Hughes's eldest daughter, Georgina (1829-1911), stated that she had the group of ‘Capt Toby and the Widow Wadman.’  Her obituary in 1911 states that the group was stored in the annex of the family home, Sunnyside, at them time of her death. The group is reportedly at the Boston Athenaeum today. It’s possible that there was more than one group made.
    Regarding Ball Hughes preoccupation with completing the group of Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman, there is no mention of what the “more profitable work” was. It’s probable that Ball Hughes was receiving only about $20 for each plaster bust during his time in New York. According to Thomas B. Brumbaugh in A Ball Hughes Correspondence, Art Quarterly 21 (Winter 1958), pp. 423-27, the letters reveal "the ridiculously inadequate compensation given him by apathetic "patrons."" (including Trumbull).
    We know from Philipp Fehl, John Trumbull and Robert Ball Hughes’s Restoration of the Statue of Pitt the Elder, The New-York Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 1 (January 1972), pp. 6-25, that Ball Hughes attempted the Restoration of Pitt the Elder in the Summer of 1831 after learning about the destruction of Canova's Statue of George Washington in Raleigh, North Carolina. He used that supposed success in his bid to obtain the contract for the Renovation of Canova's Statue of George Washington for the State of North Carolina.
    A fire on June 21, 1831 destroyed North Carolina’s State House and severely damaged Canova’s Statue of George Washington. On June 27, 1831, Ball Hughes wrote a letter to the Governor’s Private Secretary, Thomas P. Devereux, Esq., offering his services:
“Whatever may be its mutilated state it can be repaired and I shall consider my visit to this country most fortunate should I be the means of preserving to the world the Statue of your Immortal Washington and the work of that great Artist Canova. I have been in this country about two years. My object in visiting it 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. I am employed at this moment on a Colossal Marble Statue of Genl [Lt. Col.] Hamilton ; likewise a Marble Monument life size of the late Bishop Hobart.”
    Hughes travelled to Raleigh in December 1831 at his own expense to examine the remains of the damaged statue. After examining the remains, Hughes wrote in his proposal to Gov. Montford Stokes in December 1831: “My greatest ambition is to be employed to restore the Statue alluded to.” In January 1832, the Legislature approved the expenditure of $5,000 for the restoration of the statue.
    Gov. Stokes advanced Hughes a check for $500 in February 1832 saying: “It will readily occur to you that in order to accommodate you and forward the undertaking, I am departing from the usual custom, by making an advance of money previous to making the contract.” He started the renovation in May 1832 and requested another $500 from the Governor on May 28th. The contract appears to have been signed on May 29th.
    In a letter to Gov. Stokes on June 30, 1832, Hughes wrote: “Castings of the head, limbs, body and fragments have been produced "in a most successful and perfect manner. In consequence of the dreadful cholera having visited this happy country, I am anxious beyond measure that my wife should be here with me. . . . [now] waiting for me in Philadelphia. ... I intend or hope to leave here for that place by the mail of tomorrow." Request for payment of $800.”
    Hughes returned to New York on about July 1, 1832 to move his family, his workmen, and materials to Raleigh within 15 days. According to the contents of a letter from Hughes to Gov. Stokes of North Carolina “Mr. Hughes finding that sickness prevails to an alarming extent in New York, removed his family to New Jersey”. During the next few months he directed that casts of the remains be made by his assistant, Alfred S. Waugh, and shipped to him in New York.
    In a letter to Gov. Stokes on Sept. 17, 1832, Hughes wrote: "You will doubtless attribute my non arrival in your city to the dreadful sickness with which we have been visited. Indeed it is impossible to describe the state of alarm and confusion which it has caused to all classes of society," etc.” This is followed by another letter on Oct. 2, 1832 stating: "The cholera in New York “has put an end to my thinking of returning to Raleigh.”"
    Hughes never returned to Raleigh or completed the renovation and was slandered in the Greensborough Patriot in the Fall of 1832. He was paid a total of $2,800 on the $5,000 contract in 1832. For the next three years, Hughes kept promising to complete the work, but he was busy with the Hobart Memorial and the Hamilton statue. His last attempt to restart the work was in 1837 when he asked for an advance of $500. This failure to complete the contract probably did not help his reputation. There will be more on both of these projects later.
    Ball Hughes’ was struggling financially to support his growing family of four. There was great panic in New York due to the Cholera of 1832. Ball Hughes had to abandon his studio and flee with his family to New Jersey for a few months during the Cholera epidemic in the summer of 1832. One of his marble workmen abandoned him in North Carolina and another died. The family also lived through the financial Panic of 1837. These events no doubt had an effect on Ball Hughes poverty and lack of patronage. None the less, he said it all when he wrote in his proposal to Gov. Stokes in December 1831:
“gain is not my object ; fame is a Sculptor's riches.”
    In the next installment, we will learn about Ball Hugheses move to Philadelphia to compete for the Equestrian Statue of George Washington.
last update 2/18/2012
For noncommercial use, Copyright David E. Brown 2008-2012