Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Panic of 1837

Cartoon showing the problems of a tradesman during the Panic of 1837
Library of Congress LC-USZC4-3240

You can't study the life of Robert Ball Hughes (1804-1868) and his family without studying the times in which they lived. Robert and his wife, Eliza (Wright) came to New York from London, England in early 1829. Many of his early customers for portrait busts were merchants and bankers who were becoming very rich as commerce in the young republic grew rapidly. In 1835, Ball Hughes completed the marble statue of Alexander Hamilton for the NY Merchants Exchange. It was the first life-size statue carved in marble in America. Ball Hughes became an artist of celebrity before the statue was sadly destroyed in the Great Fire of 1835.

In 1837 or 1838(?), Ball Hughes moved to Philadelphia to compete for an equestrian statue of George Washington. He was kindly received in Philadelphia and found plenty of work in the way of busts and medallions while waiting for an opportunity to make the Washington Monument, as it was to be called. Finally he was called upon to make a sketch and a model of the proposed statue. The committee for the equestrian statue approved his design in 1840(?) but the panic of 1837 was still having an impact on the economy after a brief rally from 1838 to 1839.

According to Eliza Ball Hughes, 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 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.

Businesses went bankrupt and many people lost their entire life savings. Unemployment at the time has been estimated to be about 30%. Mobs in New York raided warehouses for food and soup kitchens and bread lines sprouted up. This was Americas first major depression, second only to the Great Depression of the 1930's. Economists still argue about the cause: land speculation, easy credit, Specie Circular, government intervention, government inaction, etc.

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. He apparently was paid $75 for his services. By 1842 (or 1840), 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. He was most kindly received in Boston and made it his final home.

By about 1843 the depression was over and the economy improved again. Ball Hughes continued to do colossal sculpture, including the Nathaniel Bowditch Monument in 1847. It was the first life-size statue cast in bronze in America. He also continued to work in clay, plaster, and marble, engrave medallions, and carve cameos.

In the 1850's Ball Hughes reinvented himself by creating "poker pictures" burnt in wood with a hot poker. He is credited with being the first person to popularize pyrography in America. He also supplemented his income in his later years by lecturing on art. Eliza taught art students to help support the family and their oldest daughter, Georgina, also an accomplished artist, taught drawing in the public school.

Note that reported dates are sometimes difficult to verify, even some of those recorded by Eliza Ball Hughes have been shown to be wrong. We can use historical events like the Great Fire of 1835 and the Panic of 1837 to place Ball Hughes at certain locations at the time. The year 1840, etched on the back of the First Poker Work, places Ball Hughes in Boston with his studio in Bromfield Hall. Eliza records that they moved to Boston in 1842. I'm leaning towards 1840. He was in Philadelphia in 1839 when he worked for the U.S. Mint. I estimate that funding was lost for the Washington Monument between 1839 and 1840 and not after the Second Bank of the United States failed in 1841.

Rev 5/1/2009

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

More Silhouettes of the Ball Hughes Family

I purchased the book, Auguste Edouart's Silhouettes of Eminent Americans, 1839-1844 by Andrew Oliver (1977) for $12 through Amazon.com. I was looking for images of silhouettes of the Ball Hughes family.

According to the Appendix, Edouart cut four silhouettes of the Ball Hughes family in Boston on Nov. 2, 1842, including the two that I knew about and have on my Silhouettes webpage on RobertBallHughes.com. They are recorded as "Hughes, Ball, sculptor from London, doing a bust of Edouart" and "Hughes, Mrs. Ball." The book by Oliver is apparently an edited version of the 1926 book by Emily Jackson by the same name.

According to the Appendix to the book, Edouart also did a silhouette of Ball Hughes daughter Augusta and one of daughter Georgina at the same time as the ones above. Unfortunately, none of the four Ball Hughes family silhouettes appear in Oliver's book. I'd like to know if they are in Jackson's 1926 book or if anyone has images that they can share with me.

Once again my research answers one question and creates another. I learned from the book that the silhouettes were done in 1842 in Boston and this is very helpful. I also learned that there are two more silhouettes that I didn't know about and don't have images of (yet).

Friday, April 3, 2009

Silhouettes of the Ball Hughes Family

Since I started using a web tracker, I've noticed that many visitors to RobertBallHughes.com are looking for silhouettes. In fact, more visitors to the site are interested in the silhouettes by Auguste Edouart than in Ball Hughes. I average about three visitors a day to the Silhouettes webpage from all over the world.

I'm glad that so many visitors are finding the page and hope that it's of interest to them. Visitors appear to be searching for "silhouettes" with a search engine or for images of silhouettes and are linking to the Silhouettes webpage from the image results.

The web tracker shows me what search terms and search engine the visitor used or what webpage they came from. If you search for "silhouettes" and "Edouart," the Silhouettes webpage on RobertBallHughes.com or the images of the silhouettes of the Ball Hughes family show up among the top results.

I'd love to hear from visitors about what they think of the Silhouettes webpage and if they found what they were searching for. Drop me an e-mail or add a comment below this post. I'm also looking for references to the Silhouettes of the Ball Hughes Family or books that have copies of these images or others of the Ball Hughes family.

Enjoy the site!