Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Biography of Robert Ball Hughes Rediscovered

Early this year, Fred Brown was cleaning his basement and came across a metal box that was given to him by his father. The box contained documents, newspaper clippings, and photographs that were passed down through his family, descendents of Robert Ball Hughes. Fred was planning on going through the documents and having them professionally archived after he retired.

Among the items in the box was a journal of hand-written pages bound with a string. It's entitled Sketch of the Life of Robert Ball Hughes 1804-1868. Inside the cover is a typewritten label that says "Mrs. E. Ball Hughes." There are 49 pages, apparently written by Robert Ball Hughes wife, Eliza Ball Hughes. She wrote at times in the "third person" but it's clear that she was speaking of herself.

The biography starts with Robert's birth in London in 1804, the son of a carriage builder, and traces his life as an artist from a child to his death in Eliza's arms. The information confirms much of what is already known and fills in the gaps with new and previously unknown information. The reason for Ball Hughes coming to America in 1829, his meeting with President Andrew Jackson, and why he almost returned to England are revealed for the first time. His major works: the marble statue of Hamilton (and its' destruction), the Monument to Bishop Hobart, the model for the equestrian statue of Washington, the bronze statue of Bowditch, and the statue of Oliver Twist are covered in detail.

Seven pages are devoted to Ball Hughes "Pokerisms", as Mrs. Hughes called them, and include another account of The First Poker Work. Ball Hughes' failing health is confirmed for the first time and why the family moved to Sunnyside in Dorchester. The rustic studio behind the Willey House in North Conway, NH and Ball Hughes love of the mountains and nature are covered. Descriptions of his New York studio and Bromfield St. studio in Boston are also included.

Most moving is Eliza's tribute to her husband's personality and artistic ability throughout the biography. Ball Hughes tasted success and failure throughout his life. The family struggled financially and Ball Hughes probably never owned a home but he was rich with friends. Eliza describes the engraving on the Gold Medal that Robert won from the Royal Academy in 1823: "There is a figure of Britannia with a youth beside her: and on a rocky rugged hill stands the Temple of Fame to which she is pointing up and explaining the difficulties of reaching it. Mr. Hughes had scaled them all."

In the coming months, I'll be correcting and adding factual information on RobertBallHughes.com. New information from the biography will include the Sketch of the Life of Robert Ball Hughes as the reference. The research is going slowly because the handwriting is difficult to read. See Sketch of the Life of Robert Ball Hughes for updates on the progress. (A sample page of the manuscript has been added on 3/11/2009.)

I'm looking for help in transcribing the handwritten pages. If you would like to be a part of this effort, I'll make the document accessible for you to download. You can transcribe as many pages as you like and email them to me to assemble into a complete text. I'll need to know which page numbers you are going to transcribe so we don't duplicate your efforts. The result will be added to the website on its' own page for public view. I'd especially like to hear from Friends of Robert Ball Hughes in England. Thank you.

4/15/2009 Update:

Thanks to Kathleen Menendez, Curator, E-Museum of Pyrographic Art, for transcribing the entire hand-written journal in less than 5 days, typing to resemble as closely as possible Eliza's style and punctuation. I plan on adding the material to RobertBallHughes.com in installments starting with "The Birth of Pokerisms" before I post the entire text. Watch for updates in the coming weeks.

David Brown