Pokerisms: 1849-1868

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

    In the last installment, we learned that the Ball Hugheses were happy in their new home,  Sunnyside, and Ball Hughes gained strength after the difficulties he had with the Bronze Statue of Nathaniel BowditchA large part of the attached barn was turned into a beautiful studio where Ball Hughes could model anything from busts to statues. So many visitors came to see him, that he had to reserve Friday as his reception day.

    Eliza described what I have always thought was the reason Ball Hughes did not receive more commissions: “America was growing her own sculptors.”
Ball Hughes traveled to Philadelphia for his last bid for the Washington Monument. Eliza confirmed what I have thought since Ball Hughes was rebuffed by President Andrew Jackson in 1829, when she stated: “Mr. Hughes was an Englishman - and Americans were to immortalize their great men.

Text of handwritten pages  30-37 with original punctuation:


... Mrs. Hughes says.  One afternoon returning from a walk accompanied by a young friend who was spending a few days with us.  I found on the kitchen table a head of one of the witches in Fuseli’s picture which hung upon the wall burnt into a shingle!  They were making some repairs, and some shingles were laying about.  I took it up examined it was astonished_ and said to my oldest daughter_ Look here what your Father has been doing!  How do you know it is Father_ replied. my daughter.
Because no one else could do it.


They took it up examined it found the poker on the table, and marvel’d how he could have done it.  The little visitor beg’d for it. but was refused, and was told to fetch a nice clean shingle, and when Mr. Hughes return’d ask him to burn one for her_ she did so, and saw him do it. and all were astonished_  This was the Birth of Pokerisms ! ! !  The shingles were saw’d down to the burnt part and Mrs. Hughes put hers in the little dining room where it was seen, and thought very curious the repairs were completed – and nothing more thought of them – but when seen the old witch excited the astonishment of all.

Mr. Hughes was now cutting some beautiful camios [sic], I think for Colnl. Rotch’s family from some medallion he had made at New Bedford shortly after his arrival in Boston. About a year after the burning of this little witch’s head _ some alterations and repairs were to be made in the Orthodox


church. of which Mr. James H Means had been Pastor since the Death of Dr. Codman  The ladies of the congregation of course contemplated making it the occasion for getting up a fair.  Mrs. Hughes, and one of her daughters were members, and Mrs. Hughes’ name was on the committee for work – and visions of faultless pincushions embroider’d all over with beads, many colour’d slippers on very fine canvas  Iron holders too pretty to be handled without gloves!  all these flashed upon her mind, and the impossibility of her giving to them, the time required for their completion!

What was to be done?

Oh the value of common sense on these uncommon occasions!  Mrs. Hughes used to say, it was the most valuable sense she possess’d, and the one she was most constantly called upon to exercise.

The thinking out what follows, was a most lucky thought, or rather I should say. most Providencial.


Mrs. Hughes went straigth [sic] up to the Sculptor explained to him the difficulties of the situation!  He listen’d, smiled, and said “Well, Dear, what are you going to do”?
Myself, nothing!  but ask you to burn a few shingles, for the fair, any one of which will bring more money than I could earn by fancy work in a fortnight.  He now look’d a little serious, and said you surely cannot mean what you say, or want me to do anything so absurd _ She assured him it was not absurd, that she could have sold the witch twenty times_ and that if he would condescend to burn a few shingles they should all be sold before they went into the Hall, finally he was coax’d into giving his consent when told who were the friends who wanted them.

Mrs. Hughes left the room delighted with her success – and at once sought in her portfolio. the following heads – 
a fine likeness of Danl. Webster another 


of Lord Chesterfield, one of Rubens also a splendid likeness of Vandyke and from the illustrated news – that of the old fish woman who walked from Devonshire to London to see the Queen!  When Mr. Hughes came down and saw all these he shook his head and said, I thought you wanted the witches of. Macbeth – oh no replied Mrs. Hughes – he who could do that could do anything!  The following day some clean shingles were placed in the kitchen.  Mr. Hughes looked at them, was amused, and in a few days they were all wonderfully done every likeness perfect!  The family were [sic] delighted.  By this act of kindness _ He had open’d a mine from which he afterwards coined thousands of dollars – for his family “Great Oaks from little acorns grow.”


and now let us for a moment recall the first Daguerrotypes_ shown in America
Then let us go to South’s [Soule’s?] Gallery, let us examine those wonderfully beautiful Photographs, which give us such superb copies of the finest works of art in the world. One gentleman who had seen these burnt shingles- thought if with such materials Mr. Hughes can produce such an effect how much more he could do on fine smooth Bass wood!  And Mr. G. Chickering sent by one of the gentlemen of his establishment Mr. Hassidon some of the beautiful wood used for sounding boards in Piano’s.  This helped Mr. Hughes to produce the fine things he has since done.  Copper tools instead of iron was another improvement suggested by Mrs. Hughes who went to Hooper’s foundry and had them made for him.  Everything that could facilitate his work was done for him!  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 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!

Mr. Hughes continued burning them till 1868...


    In this installment, we learn how The First Pokerism came about, in Eliza’s own words. Mrs. Hughes returned home after a walk with one of her daughters and her friend, to find the head of one of the Witches of Macbeth by Fuseli, burnt into a wood shingle. It was copied from a picture that hung in their home. Note that the Ball Hugheses admired great art and surrounded themselves with it.

    The shingles were being used by workers to repair their house. The young visitor begged for the shingle and Ball Hughes satisfied her request by burning another one in front of her. Eliza called this event The Birth of Pokerisms. We have no idea what happened to the second pokerism after that, but it was probably cherished by the girl. The first shingle was trimmed and displayed in the dining room where it was admired by all who saw it.

    This event occurred in 1849 based on date etched in the back of The First Pokerism. After completing the monumental Statue of Nathaniel Bowditch in 1847, Eliza said that "There had been much to try him Mentally, and Physically!" and "he was weary, and his family entreated him, to give up his studio and city life, and seek at once in the country the quiet, and rest, he so much needed.  A pleasant house should be sought, not far from the city – and there he could model and do what he wanted – and come to the city without fatigue."

    Eliza then mentions that Mr. Hughes was cutting some beautiful cameos of the Rotch family at this time. About a year (or more) after burning The First Pokerism, some alterations and repairs were being made to the “Orthodox church” [Second Church of Dorchester], pastored by Rev. James H. Means after the death of Dr. John Codman in 1847.

    Mrs. Hughes stated that she and one of her daughters were members of the church. The  ladies of the church were planning a fundraising fair, probably to help with the cost of the church remodeling. Mrs. Hughes was on the fair committee for “work.” She describes in detail how she persuaded her husband to burn a few shingles for the fair.

    Mr. Hughes did not believe that she was serious about it at first. Eliza found pictures of Daniel Webster, Lord Chesterfield, one by Rubens, Vandyke, and The Old Fish Woman Who Walked from Devonshire to London to See The Queen to be copied and burnt into wood.. Mr. Hughes was surprised and thought that she wanted more witches of Macbeth.

    The next day, some clean shingles were (conveniently) left in the kitchen where he saw them and was amused. In a few days, he had completed them with perfect likeness. “The family were [sic] delighted."  Eliza stated: “By this act of kindness _ He had open’d a mine from which he afterwards coined thousands of dollars – for his family “Great Oaks from little acorns grow.”” This was an answer to the family’s financial problems in the 1850’s.

    The next earliest pokerism is the Untitled Portrait (1850) that’s still in the Brown family. Note that it’s not as detailed as later pokerisms. This is understandable if Ball Hughes was just starting to perfect his burning technique in 1850. Eliza mentions Daniel Webster and the Witches of Macbeth as some of his first pokerisms.

    The first reported pokerism of Daniel Webster is still in the Brown family and is dated 1853. This date fits in nicely with the church fair and the remodeling of the Second Church of Dorchester in 1854. Of the 4 oldest pokerisms identified to date, 3 are still in the family and the 4th is an unsigned The Witches of Macbeth that’s owned by a person in England. These early pokerisms may have been kept for sentimental reasons. 

    In 1851 the family moved to Sunnyside on School St. in Dorchester. The home had a large barn that was converted to a studio so Ball Hughes could work from home. He did a life size Fisher Boy and marble busts there. Cameos and poker works would have been ideal work for him considering his poor health in the 1850's until his death in 1868.

    Eliza mentions the first Daguerreotype photographs as “superb copies of the finest art in the world.” One man who saw the burnt shingles suggested that Ball Hughes could produce an even better effect with fine smooth Bass wood. A Mr. Hassidon of Mr. Chickering’s piano company delivered some beautiful wood that was used for piano sounding boards. That was used by Mr. Hughes on the pokerisms he did from then on instead of rough shingles.

    Mrs. Hughes suggested copper tools as an improvement over iron pokers and she went to Henry Hooper’s foundry and had them made for him. Eliza stated “Everything that could facilitate his work was done for him!  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!

    Eliza continues: “But the singular fact about these Pokerisms is.  That he got pleased with producing such pictures … 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.”

    Eliza mentions the large Falstaff and his followers (1859), still in the Brown family, and the larger Trumpeter (1864), one of which is also still in the family. Many of the finest pokerisms were owned by B. F. Brown (1828-1908) who married their youngest daughter, Augusta (1832-1914), in 1852.

    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.""

    Eliza records: “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. We know that Eliza was personally involved with the family finances since they arrived in New York from London in 1829.

“Mr. Hughes frequently burnt a picture in one forenoon.  But some were very elaborate and took a couple of days!”

Mr. Hughes continued burning them until his death in 1868.

See the Pokerisms Index for links to images and articles about the poker works mentioned above. See also Pokerisms for pyrography links and articles.

Notes (by journal page number):

P. 30
See The First Pokerism for information about Henry Fuseli, R.A. and his painting, the Witches of Macbeth.

P. 31
Wax cameos of Rotch family members, including William Rotch, Sr., William Rotch, Jr., and Elizabeth (Rotch) Rodman, were probably made about 1845.

P. 32
Rev. John H. Means was pastor of the Second Church of Dorchester from 1848-1878. I found that a clock was added to the church in 1852 and the pews were moved and two doors added (completed?) in 1854. These may have been the alterations and repairs that Eliza mentions. This makes the date of 1849 for The First Pokerism more reasonable than 1840. The 10 year gap between 1840 and the second known pokerism in 1850 did not make sense.

P. 33
Daniel Webster (1782-1852) was a lawyer, orator, Senator from Massachusetts, statesmen, and advocate for American nationalism. Ball Hughes burnt many pokerisms of this popular public figure. Several pokerisms of Webster have been advertised for sale over the last few years.

P. 34
I don’t know of any pokerisms of Lord Chesterfield, Vandyke, or the Old Fish Woman Who Walked from Devonshire to London to See The Queen.

The painting: The Old Fish Woman Who Walked from Devonshire to London to See The Queen is unknown.

From Wikipedia: Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) was a Flemish Baroque painter, and a proponent of an extravagant Baroque style that emphasised movement, colour, and sensuality. He is well-known for his Counter-Reformation altarpieces, portraits, landscapes, and history paintings of mythological and allegorical subjects. Ball Hughes exhibited a "Group of nine Figures, representing the Descent from the Cross, modeled the Size of Life, from the great picture by Rubens" at the Diorama in London's Regent Park in 1828. See The Descent From The Cross by Rubens.

The likeness of Vandyke was probably from the Illustrated London NewsFrom Wikipedia: Sir Anthony van Dyck was a Flemish Baroque artist who became the leading court painter in England. He is most famous for his portraits of Charles I of England and his family and court, painted with a relaxed elegance that was to be the dominant influence on English portrait-painting for the next 150 years. He also painted biblical and mythological subjects, displayed outstanding facility as a draftsman, and was an important innovator in watercolour and etching.

From The whereabouts of several of the pyrographic works cited by Edward Daland Lovejoy in his article linked above were not specifically identified by him but only said to be in private collections: Besides additional portraits of Daniel Webster, he noted Choosing the Wedding Gown, Old Woman who walked 100 Miles to a Fair, and General Fremont.

See A Ball Hughes Correspondence for more information about Ball Hughes poverty and Eliza’s involvement in the family’s finances.

P. 35
The Ball Hugheses appear to have been fascinated by Daquerreotypes. Wax Portraits, that Ball Hughes was known for,  gradually went out of vogue following the invention of the Daguerreotype photography process in France in 1839. 

Mr. Hassidon was apparently an employee of George H. Chickering who was one of Jonas Chickering's (1798-1853) three sons. From Wikipedia: Chickering and Sons was an American piano manufacturer located in Boston, Massachusetts, known for producing award-winning instruments of superb quality and design. 

Bass wood (Basswood)  From Wikipedia: Tilia is a genus of about 30 species of trees native throughout most of the temperate Northern Hemisphere. They are generally called lime in Britain and linden or basswood in North America.

Basswood is a soft wood and popular for wood carving and musical instruments and is still used today for pyrography. See Carvers' Companion for more information on wood carving and pyrography.

Copper tools would not oxidize as much as iron and last longer. Electric woodburning tools today are similar to soldering irons and use copper tips or plated copper tips.

Henry N. Hooper 
(1799-1865) was the Boston copper dealer and bell founder. Henry N. Hooper & Co. of Boston cast the Bronze bust of Dr. Bowditch (ca. 1844) and was hired by Ball Hughes to cast the monumental Bronze Statue of Nathaniel Bowditch in 1847.

It’s amazing to me that Eliza initiated this improvement in tools and facilitated its implementation.

P. 36

Rubens in His Study

P. 37
Choosing the Wedding Dress from the painting by Frederick Goodall, R.A. (1822-1904) or from Choosing the Wedding Gown by William Mulready, R.A. (1786-1863), from Chapter 1 of Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield. Eliza mentioned Goodall but only Mulready's painting by the same name has been found.

In the Next Installment we will learn about the Ball Hughes' summer in North Conway, New Hampshire in the 1860's and his rustic studio behind the Willey House.

last update 3/9/2012
For noncommercial use, Copyright David E. Brown 2008-2012