Home‎ > ‎Pokerisms‎ > ‎

The First Pokerism

One of the Witches of Macbeth
by R. Ball Hughes, 1840/49 [?]
Also available on Flickr

    After viewing some of the poker works of Ball Hughes on the Antique Hall of The E-Museum of Pyrographic Art , I believed that he may have done them for amusement.   His later works had great detail and sold for hundreds of dollars in the 1850's and 60's.  After reading the letter below from Mrs. E. Ball Hughes in 1880, I believe I have discovered BH's first poker work.  It hung in my parents house for 50 years!

    My Mother, Mrs. Robert Brown, related how her Mother-in-law, Mary E. Brown, told her that BH picked up a wooden shingle and took a hot poker out of the fire to etch the picture of one of the Witches of Macbeth.  It appears to be a shingle about 3-7/8" by 5-3/4" and about 3/16" thick.

    Compare this with a known Ball Hughes poker work, The Witches of Macbeth from the famous oil painting The Three Witches by Fuseli (1741-1825).  (Note that Henry Fuseli was a RA Professor of Painting at the time Ball Hughes attended)  The next earliest known work was burnt in 1850.  This poker work is much smaller than any other known work by Ball Hughes.  They are typically around 10" x 12" with some up to 20-27" wide.


Rear View


Rear View
"Bromfield Hall"


Rear View
"1840/49 [?]"


Rear View, paper label:
One of the "Witches of Macbeth"
by R. Ball Hughes. RA. [sic] 1840 [sic]
Bromfield Hall. Bromfield St. Boston


    The provenance of this small portrait is directly through the Brown family, who is related to Ball Hughes through marriage: Augusta Ball Hughes, the daughter of Ball Hughes and his wife Mary Eliza Wright, married Benjamin Franklin Brown of Boston.  From Mr. & Mrs. B. F. Brown it probably transferred to their son Frederick W. Brown, then to his son Henry (Harry) A. Brown and his wife, Mary E. Brown, and lastly to Robert Brown, father of David E. Brown.  It's fitting that the family saved this first poker work of Ball Hughes for all these years.

    The following letter from Mrs. Ball Hughes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Archives and recorded in American Sculpture – A Catologue of the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Albert TenEyck Gardner, Metropolitan Museum of Art:1965, p. 7.  I accidentally found this thin book at the University of Buffalo's Lockwood Library between two other books that I was looking for.

"The undated letter was probably written to E. D. Adams about 1880."

"Dear Sir:

In reply to your letter just received. I do not think that any artist ever attempted burning on wood (except one talented boy who is now in Europe studying – his name was Fosdyke). The whole thing was done as a joke by my husband who going into the kitchen and finding a clean clapboard which someone had brought in; Took it up and having put the poker in the fire till it was red hot, burnt the head of one of Fuseli’s Witches and then left it on the parlor table – it created quite a sensation,…

And he has burnt from Landseer, Gilbert, Goodall and these pokerisms have fetch’d at auction as high as $400 and I heard of one going to be sold for 500 dollars….

I have the original or first one he burnt and two other small pictures – but they do not compare with those in which he did wonders! Mr. Hughes profession was that of a sculpture and these are merely pastime amusements….

I have loved to talk of him hence all this detail, and I wish you to remember him as a sculptor of great talent indeed a man of genius – which show’d itself in whatever he touch’d.

I remain, Dear Sir, yours Respectfully

E. Ball Hughes"
    In her words, exactly what I thought, the "pokerisms" were an amusement. Note the first one was made from a clapboard (or shingle) and was small, like the one of the same subject that I rediscovered in my own family’s home.
    Kathleen Menendez of the E-Museum of Pyrographic Art points out the significance of this letter: "the letter that led to the commission for the first professional poker-work by Ball Hughes' successor J. William Fosdick--the poker-work that launched his career in 1884."  The letter was written by Ball Hughes' widow, Eliza, in reply to financier E. D. Adams inquiry for the name of an artist to burn a Renaissance frieze for the dining room in his house on Madison Ave. in New York City.  The letter must have been written shortly before Fosdick returned from France for this commission by E. D. Adams in the Summer of 1884.  See Antique Hall of the E-Museum of Pyrographic Art Salon of J. William Fosdick 1884 Panel of Cherubs.
    J. William Fosdick (1858-1937) also relates about a meeting with Mrs. Ball Hughes after the artists death (1868) where she describes this same account of Ball Hughes first poker sketch in his 1891 article Burnt Wood in Decoration from The Art Interchange, December 1891, pp. 190-191, available at the Antique Art Hall of the E-Museum of Pyrographic Art Salon of J. William Fosdick and his 1891 article.
    Note that he relates the same version of Ball Hughes in his kitchen burning the shingle with the image of ONE of the Fuselli's Witches.  Fosdick said that Mrs. Hughes showed him Ball Hughes first poker sketch during his visit to the Ball Hughes house in Dorchester, probably in the late 1870's or early 1880's.

    Fosdicks father bought him two of Ball Hughes poker sketches when he was a school boy.  He proceeded to try to copy it and became more proficient.  His works were put in art stores and sold for pocket money.  Mrs. Ball Hughes invited the young Fosdick to visit her at her house after seeing one of his poker sketches.
    Read another account of the First Pokerism as recalled by J. William Fosdick in the article “Fire Etchings” by Gustav Kobbe in Truth Magazine, November 1899, Vol. XVIII, No. 11, pp. 298-299, available at the Antique Art Hall of the E-Museum of Pyrographic Art.

    See also Etching With Fire on this site for a complete article with illustrations about Ball Hughes experience watching the mountebank at the country fair in England, his first poker work, and Fosdick's first commission, all in one article!

    There we have four sources of the account, a verbal account handed down through the family for over a hundred years, Mrs. Ball Hughes own words in her letter, Fosdicks account of his meeting with Mrs. Ball Hughes, Franklin Smith's article, and we have the object in question that matches the description!

    The "Bromfield Hall" that is etched into the back of the poker work shown above refers to Ball Hughes's first studio in Boston. Please Help if you have any information about Bromfield Hall.

Eliza's account of The Birth of Pokerisms

    See the fifth installment of the Sketch of the Life of Robert Ball Hughes by Mrs. E. Ball Hughes at Pokerisms: 1849-1868 for the complete text of Eliza's account.

Date of The First Pokerism

    While working on the installments of the Sketch of the Life of Robert Ball Hughes by Mrs. E. Ball Hughes, I have come to the conclusion that I reported the wrong date for The First Pokerism. The paper label on the back of the frame shows “1840” but the date burnt into the back of the shingle looks like it could be “1849” instead of 1840.

    I've been basing many of the events on the website to the 1840 date on the paper label. It may have been added by someone in the family at a later date. They might have misread the date burnt into the wood. Based on the 1840 date, I was putting Ball Hughes in Boston and in his Bromfield Hall studio in 1840. The more research I did, the more confusing that date was. 

    Ball Hughes moved from New York to Philadelphia around 1838 to compete for the Washington Monument. He won the competition for the statue in late 1840 but the Committee for the Equestrian Statue of George Washington told Ball Hughes on p. 15, that “more important things demanded their immediate attention.” The Second Bank of the United States, located in Philadelphia, failed a few months later, in February1841, and funding was lost for the statue.

    Eliza continued on p. 15: “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...” I thought that she must have been mistaken about the year.

    Eliza stated on p. 16, that: “Mr. Hughes found plenty to do . in Boston . he made some fine Medallions for the Rodman and Rotch families, and amused himself making a statue of Oliver Twist.” This statue is dated 1842 by all sources and places Ball Hughes in Boston in 1842.

     Ball Hughes completed the Bronze Statue of Nathaniel Bowditch in 1847. On p. 22, Eliza spoke of the toll that the monumental statue took on her husband, mentally and physically. His family and friends persuaded him to give up city life and move to a quiet home in the country for rest where he could model and still visit the city. Pokerisms would be an ideal medium for Ball Hughes to do from home, considering his health.

   The next known pokerism is dated 1850. The 10-year gap between the first pokerism and the next one in 1850 did not make sense, especially since Ball Hughes was still doing life-size sculpture in the 1840’s. 

    Upon closer examination of the date on the back of The First Pokerism, I believe that it could be “1849.” The circle that looks like a "0" is smaller than the other digits. A downward stroke to the right of the circle that gets thicker at the bottom, just like the "1" digit does. That could make the digit a "9."

    All of these facts make it reasonable that the Ball Hugheses moved to Boston in 1842 and The First Pokerism was produced in 1849. Ball Hughes ramped up his production of pokersims after 1850 and continued producing them up until his death in 1868. Of the four oldest pokerisms identified so far, three of them are still in the family.

Pyrography & Ball Hughes

    We now know from the research of Susan Millis and Kathleen Menendez, that pyrography has been practiced around the world for centuries but Ball Hughes popularized it in the United States. 

    An article in the New York Times, February 14,1892, entitled The Fire Etcher's Work on this site records an account of Ball Hughes viewing poker art in England as a young man in 1822.  J. William Fosdick also relates this same experience from a meeting with Mrs. Ball Hughes after the artists death in his 1891 article Burnt Wood in Decoration from The Art Interchange, December 1891, pp. 190-191, available at the Antique Hall of the E-Museum of Pyrographic Art Salon of J. William Fosdick.

    American artist, J. William Fosdick (1858-1937), writes of Ball Hughes in The Fire Etcher and His Art in "The Ladies Home Journal" Sept. 1896, available at the Antique Hall of E-Museum of Pyrographic Art.  "Ball Hughes, a talented English sculptor residing in Boston some forty years ago, produced many sketches executed with a deftness that is not often found in such works, and the writer was prompted to take up wood burning when a lad by seeing some of Hughes' "poker work.""  Fosdick advanced the art by using the newly invented thermo-cautery surgical instrument to burn designs in wood.

    Fosdick also writes on p. 499 of the article Burnt Wood in Decoration: With Modern and Ancient Examples from Century Magazine Vol 52, Issue 4, Aug 1896: "The art first made its appearance in this country nearly fifty years ago, when Ball Hughes, the English sculptor, residing in Dorchester, Massachusetts, became well known as a burner of "poker pictures." As copies of old English and Italian masters, they possessed merit, being executed with marvelous deftness."  Page 499 has a sketch of The Witches of Macbeth, 1862.  The article is also available on Google Books.

    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.""
    Kate Gannet Wells wrote in In and About Old Bumstead Place p. 653, available through Cornell University Making of America that Ball Hughes "poker drawings, the amusement of his idle hours, were sought by all who knew him."
    From the E-Museum of Art Antique Art Hall Ball Hughes Salon No. 5: "The following is from a 1976 letter written by Mrs. Margaret Brown [I believe this should be Marjorie Brown, wife of Rudolph Henry Brown, my uncle] from her own research on the famous Brown ancestor:" 
"Part of an obituary write-up at the time of Ball Hughes’ death reads: 'Within a few years of his death, he amused himself by burning most wonderful pictures on wood, and such was the demand for them that the work of a few hours was willingly paid for by sums of $100. And $200. Many sought for them but could not obtain them and after Mr. Hughes’ death, fabulous sums were offered for them. Henshaw D. Ward Esq. [could it have been instead D. Henshaw Ward?] and the artist’s son-in-law, B. F. Brown have the best specimens of this unique art. His remains are in Cedar Grove Cemetery [see Mount Auburn Cemetery, Dorchester, Mass.]"
Please Help I would appreciate a copy of any obituaries that are available.

More Info:

For information on a later similar work The Witches of Macbeth in the Antique Hall of The E-Museum of Pyrographic Art Ball Hughes Salon No. 3

and also:

Pyrografitti by Kathleen Menendez in WWWoodcarver Online Magazine Volume 6, Issue 4, July/Aug 2002 (with discovery of "The Witches of Macbeth" by Ball Hughes)

See original The Three Witches oil painting by Fuseli.

last update 3/9/2012

For noncommercial use, Copyright David E. Brown 2008-2012

visitors on myspace