The Early Years: 1804-1829

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

Text of handwritten pages 1-6 with original punctuation:

Robert Ball Hughes the Sculptor, was an Englishman: born1 at 59 Long Acre London in 1804.  He was the 2nd son of John Hallett Hughes. a Carriage Builder.  This excellent man being hom [?] refined, and artistic his tastes were, decided that when he had got through School Life . he would place him with some man of Talent. and finishing that he had copied in Bas-relief a picture representing the wisdom of Solomon2.  He placed him at once with the then celebrated Sculptor – Edward Hodges Bailey5. (who had been a pupil of  Flaxman’s.)  In Mr. Bailey’s Studio4 he remain’d Seven years.  Modelling from the Antique and from life6.  And we find him successfully competing for all the prizes awarded by the Royal Academy8.

first – The Large Silver Medal for the best copy in Bas-relief of the Apollo Belvidere [sic].
secondly, from the Society of Arts and Sciences the large Silver Medal for a copy of the Barbarini Fawn [sic].
thirdly, The Large Silver Medal for the best original model from life9.
4thly. The Large
Gold Medal8 for an


original model of Pandora brought by Mercury to Epimetius [sic] – and two [?] other prizes of books.  The lectures of Opie, and those of Fuseli’. All obtained before he was of Legal age. The Duke of Sussex11 was President of the Society of Arts and Sciences – and felt great interest in the young Sculptor – And it was through his influence that Mr. Hughes had the honor of making a bust of his brother George the 4th12 and also of another brother the Duke of Cambridge13.

    In 1828 Mr. Hughes made a beautiful Group of Shepherd boy dog and Lamb14.  This was exhibited at the Royal Academy. and came to America in  1829 and was purchased by Mr. Charles Wilkes28 of New York.  Then President of the
N Y. Bank.  But I must go back a couple of years, and state_ That in 1827. Mr. Hughes was making a professional visit at the Earl of Leicester’s15 – he was modelling a Bust of his son, and


while there was introduced to some American gentlemen , among whom were Mr. Richard Oliver17 of Baltimore Mr. Charles Carroll18 Captn McTavish19 and Genl Devereux20.  These men were much pleased with the young Sculptor, and urged him to come to America assuring him that they would use all their influence, to get him an order to execute a monument to Genl Washington16.  Mr. Hughes was young and ambitious _  His enthusiasm was aroused, and another letter from Genl Devereux received after his return home . made him begin to think favorably of what they had said _ and notwithstanding great opposition from his own family . and that of the lady21 to whom he was engaged they were coax’d over to give their consent – and shortly after his marriage22 to Miss Wright – the daughter of David Wright of Oxford St. London they started November 12th 1828 for New York in the ship Robert Edwards23 , one of the regular line of Packets, and after severe storms landed in New York


on the 19th of January 1829 . and having staid a few days to rest, hurried on to Baltimore where Mr. Hughes expected to meet Genl Devereux  _ and then proceed to Washington.

In Baltimore Mrs. Eliza Park [sic] Custis24 called on us with General Devereux – and most kindly invited us to be her guests for the winter.  The offer was made in such a Motherly way, that it was most welcome in a new country, and Genl Devereux urged our acceptance and a delightful visit we had Mrs. Custis was a most refined lady living at Georgetown within a short distance of Sir Charles Vaughan25 our British minister to whom Mr. Hughes had a letter from the Duke of Sussex.  We were most kindly received by him, and often invited to dine with in [?] a quiet way when only his secretary and wife Mr. and Mrs. Charles Bankhead26 and Mr. and Mrs. Gore Busley27 [?] were there _  At Mrs. Custis’s house we


met the elite of all nations, and had a charming season, whose Spring and month of March was to witness the Inauguration of Gen Jackson29 as President of the United States.

Soon after this event Mr. Hughes called at the White House30 and was introduced to the President by one of the English secretaries – he had been told that Mr. Hughes had arrived but a short time ago, and that his object in coming was to obtain the order to execute the Washington Monument.  The general smiled, and said “You had better have brought a plough Mr. Hughes, if you know how to use one, you are fifty years too soon for the monument!31 .  There was more truth than poetry in what he had said, and Mr. Hughes calmed down a little.  However the Genl consented to sit for his Bust and appointed


the time for the first sitting.

Sir Charles Vaughan25, and Chief Justice Marshall and others. order’d busts, and Mr. Hughes began them at once . deciding to remain in Washington till they were completed . about the middle of June.  Mr. Hughes decided that he would return to New York, and then make up his mind about returning to England. 


    Here we see the reason Robert Ball Hughes came to America and why he almost returned to England a few months later. He was persuaded by several prominent Americans who he met at Holkham to execute a monument to George Washington. This chance meeting changed the course of Ball Hughes' life.

    After arriving in America (on Ball Hughes 25th birthday!), 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 and carving a bust of Jackson, Ball Hughes went to New York before deciding whether to return to England.

    Luckily for America, and the Brown family, this was not the end of the story as we will see in future installments of the Sketch of the Life of Robert Ball Hughes.

    In the next installment we will learn about the Ball Hugheses life in New York.



1)    Robert Balls Hughes (1804-1868) was born in 1804 in London, the son of carriage maker, John Hallett Hughes (1773-1824/27) and Amelia Susannah (Rogers) Hughes, a cooper.

2)    Robert Balls Hughes experimented with wax portraits as a boy, when only 14 he made a bas-relief copy of a picture representing the wisdom of Solomon out of wax candle-ends which was afterward cast in silver.

3)    Robert Balls Hughes entered the Royal Academy in London on 3 Sep 1818 at age 14.

4)    Robert Balls Hughes apprenticed with the famous sculptor, Edward Hodges Baily (1788-1867) for 7 years starting in about 1818.

5)    Baily was the principle modeler for Rundell and Bridge, the Royal goldsmiths according to Royal Goldsmiths: The Art of Rundell & Bridge 1797-1893 by Christopher Hartop, Cambridge: John Adamson Publishing Consultants, 2005.

6)    John Neal recalled: “When I first knew him [Ball Hughes], 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 Bridge, the great London goldsmiths.” From Hughes the Sculptor by John Neal (1793-1876) from American Phrenological Journal Vol. 49.--No. 8, New York: March 1869, p. 98. See the Biography page for the complete article by Neal and Group of Shepard Boy and Dog.

7)    Robert Ball Hughes, like fellow Englishman John Flaxman, RA (1755-1826) before him, was a neo-classical sculptor.

8)    Robert Ball Hughes exhibited at the Royal Academy in London between 1822 and 1828 and won two silver medals and one gold medal (in 1823) from the RA and a silver medal from the Society of Arts and Sciences (in 1820).

9)    The silver medal was awarded by the Royal Academy on Friday Dec 10th, 1819 for the best Model from the Antique. The lectures of Royal Academicians Barry, Opie, and Fuseli’ were bound lectures originally given at the Royal Academy and awarded to medal winners. 

10)    Robert Ball Hughes exhibited a portrait bust of his father at the Royal Academy in 1822.

11)    The Duke of Sussex was elected president of the Society of Arts in 1816 and held that post for the rest of his life. Robert Ball Hughes won a silver medal from the Society of Arts and Sciences for a copy of the Barbarini Faun in 1820. Robert Ball Hughes exhibited busts of H.R.H. the Duke of Sussex (sixth son of George III) and the Duke of Wellington at the Royal Academy in 1826. The Duke of Sussex gave Robert Ball Hughes a silver snuff box.

12)    George IV was the brother of the Duke of Sussex and the Duke of Cambridge.

13)    Duke of Cambridge was the seventh son of George III and the brother of the Duke of Sussex and George IV.

14)    The Group of Shepard Boy and Dog, location unknown.

15)    Robert Ball Hughes had a professional residence at the mansion of Thomas William Coke (1754-1842), (before he became the 1st Earl of Leicester) at Holkham Estate. Read more on the Biography page.

16)    According to a biographical sketch, published in 1843 and recorded in Good Old Dorchester by William Dana Orcutt. Cambridge: John Wilson & Son, UP, 1893, pp. 379-389: “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.” Robert Ball Hughes obituary in The Art-Journal, Volume 7, London: Virtue & Co., 1868, p. 128-129: also records "He soon had many commissions, and while he was busy with them he became acquainted with certain Americans, who induced him to emigrate to New York."

17)    Richard Oliver of Baltimore, was presumably a businessman. A wealthy Maryland farmer, Andrew Oliver, was a mutual friend of Gen. Devereux and Thomas Coke.

18)    Charles Carroll, presumably Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737-1832), a wealthy Maryland planter and an early advocate of independence from Great Britain. He served as a delegate to the Continental Congress and later as United States Senator for Maryland. He was the only Catholic and the longest-lived (and last surviving) signatory of the Declaration of Independence, dying at the age of 95. According to Famous American Belles of the Nineteenth Century by Virginia Tatnall Peacock, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1901, pp. 60-61: Charles Carroll was reputed to be the wealthiest man in America and sought out by the most distinguished men women at home and abroad. 

19)    Capt. McTavish, no first name, probably the Scot-Canadian, John Lovat MacTavish (1787-1852/66?), British diplomat who was Consul to Baltimore from about 1836 to 1852 who married Charles Carroll’s favorite granddaughter, Emily Caton (1793-1867) in 1815 or 1816, the youngest of the four Caton sisters. John was a Canadian fur trader and heir to Montreal’s North West Company. Eliza may have been wrong in referring to him as Captain. Emily Caton McTavish visited Holkham with her sisters a few years before Ball Hughes visit. For more information about Emily Caton McTavish and the Carroll family see the wonderful new book: Sisters of Fortune: America's Caton Sisters at Home and Abroad by Jehanne Wake, New York: Touchstone, 2010.
20)    All four of these men that visited Holkham were associated with Baltimore or the American Revolution. Gen. (J.?) Devereux, first name not used when referred to in references from the period. Charles Carroll and Gen. Devereux were together at the 4th of July parade and celebration in Baltimore on July 4, 1828 where Carroll laid the first stone to mark the formal commencement of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Devereux was referred to as a Revolutionary soldier in the account in the Niles’ Weekly Register, July 12, 1828, Vol. 34 Baltimore: Niles, 1828, pp. 316-319. According to Jehanne Wake in Sisters of Fortune: America's Caton Sisters at Home and Abroad by Jehanne Wake, New York: Touchstone, 2010, p. 114, Americans travelled to Holkham to give homage to Thomas Coke, "regarding him as the keeper of the flame of American independence." What a very personal and historic visit to Holkham this must have been!

21)    When Eliza speaks of "the lady" to whom Robert Ball Hughes was engaged to, she was speaking of herself. 

22)    Robert Ball Hughes married Mary Eliza Wright on Nov. 2, 1828 in Marylebone, in the County of Middlesex, near London (now in the City of Westminster, a borough of Greater London).

23)    The Ball Hughes left London on Nov. 12, 1828 on the packet ship Robert Edwards and arrived in New York on January 19, 1829 (on Ball Hughes 25th birthday!) after a stormy, 10-week voyage from England.

24)    Mrs. Eliza Parke Custis Law (1776-1831) was a granddaughter of Martha Dandridge Washington and the step-granddaughter of George Washington (1732-1799). She was a social leader of the District of Columbia and a preserver of the Washington family heritage.
25)    Sir Charles Vaughan was a British diplomat to the United States

26)    Mrs. Charles Bankhead, was the wife of the British Secretary of Legation.

27)    Mrs. Gore Busley, spelling may be incorrect.

28)    Charles Wilkes (1764-1832) was the President of the Bank of New York and on the Committee for the statue of Alexander Hamilton.

29)    Robert Ball Hughes and his wife, Eliza, witnessed the Inauguration of Andrew Jackson as the 7th President of the United States on March 4, 1829.

30)    Robert Ball Hughes called on President Jackson at the White House after the inauguration and soon after carved a bust of Jackson. The current location of the bust is unknown.

31)    Jackson’s statement “… you are fifty years too soon for the monument!” must have been widely reported in newspapers at the time since the same quote appeared in The Bicknells and the Family Re-Union at Weymouth, Massachusetts September 22, 1880, Boston: New England Publishing Co., 1880, p 85. “When Ball Hughes, the sculptor, came to this country, Andrew Jackson told him that he came fifty years too soon.” The United States was only about 50 years old when Jackson said that.

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last update 3/28/2013

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