Philadelphia: 1838-1842

Welcome to the third 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 had made a model for an Equestrian Statue of George Washington and around 1838, decided to move his family to Philadelphia to compete for the Washington Monument. According to his wife, Eliza, "he most earnestly desired some large work before returning again to England."
Text of handwritten pages 14-15 with original punctuation:

… 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 _ Mr. Hughes’ works had made him known


through the United States, and he was most kindly received in Philadelphia and found plenty of work in the way of Busts and Medallions –  He kept working on these, hoping they would renew their effort of getting up a monument to Genl Washington, and after Mr. Haviland had called, and suggested to him to make an equestrian sketch – he again went to work and made a fine model which they approved, but told the sculptor more important things demanded their immediate attention.  There seem’d so little prospect of his getting any large work that after remaining till 1842 he decided to go to Boston where several orders awaited him... 


    The emphasis of Eliza’s account of their time in Philadelphia was on the model for the Equestrian Statue of George Washington and Ball Hughes’ bid for the Washington Monument. The “they” that Eliza refers to was the Committee for the Equestrian Statue of George Washington. The Committee approved his design in late 1840 but the Panic of 1837 was still having an impact on the economy after a brief rally from 1838 to 1839. The Mr. Haviland that Eliza mentions was probably a Philadelpia banker or businessman on the Committee.
    According to Eliza, the Committee "told the sculptor more important things demanded their immediate attention." That was an understatement. The Second Bank of the United States, located in Philadelphia, failed in February 1841 and funding was lost for the statue. During the 5-year depression that followed the Panic of 1837, 40% of the country's banks failed. Confidence dropped and currency was devalued. Read several accounts of Ball Hughes' model of the Equestrian Statue of George Washington.
    Even with high unemployment, Ball Hughes still had work, though not always steady work. In 1839 he was hired by the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia to modify the Christian Gobrecht design of the Seated Liberty on U.S. coins. Hughes was apparently was paid $75 for his services. Eliza makes no mention of his work for the Mint.
    According to Eliza, by 1842, Ball Hughes had given up hope of completing the Washington Monument and moved his family to Dorchester, MA, near Boston, where several orders awaited him. This was another major change in the direction of Ball Hughes’ life. The family lived the rest of their lives in Dorchester near Boston.
    William Dana Orcutt records in Good Old Dorchester. Cambridge: John Wilson & Son, UP, 1893, p. 386: 
"Success seemed destined to reward Mr. Hughes' exertions; but his aspirations were made futile by the failure of the committee on the Washington statue to carry out their contract.  The disappointment was bitter, and both the artist and his wife felt it keenly.  This ill-fortune in Philadelphia caused them to come to Boston."


    Robert Ball Hughes came to America after he was persuaded by several prominent Americans to execute a monument to George Washington. After arriving in America, the Ball Hugheses spent the winter of 1829 in the home of George Washington’s step-granddaughter, Eliza Parke Custis, who was a preserver of the Washington family heritage.
    After being rebuffed by President Andrew Jackson for the Washington Monument in the Spring of 1829 and carving a bust of Jackson, Ball Hughes went to New York before deciding whether to return to England.
    After 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 never completed the renovation of Canova's statue of Washington for various personal reasons.
Ball Hughes was devastated after his colossal marble Statue of Hamilton was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1835 and now his hope of ever carving a monument to George Washington was lost. Read more about these events in The Early Years: 1804-1829 and New York: 1829-1838.
    In the next installment, we will learn about the Ball Hugheses early years in Boston.
last update 3/2/2012
For noncommercial use, Copyright David E. Brown 2008-2012