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Little Nell

Little Nell, by Robert Ball Hughes, ca. 1851. Paster, 125.3 x 60.2 x 97.8 cm.

Robert Ball Hughes. London 1806-1868 Dorchester, Massachusetts. Little Nell, c. 1851.Plaster, 49 5/16 x 23 11/16 x 38 ½  in (125.3 x 60.2 x 97.8 cm). Exchange, 1855.

Robert Ball Hughes began his artistic training with the British sculptor Edward Hodges Bailey, with whom he is said to have apprenticed for seven years; he then studied at the School of the Royal Academy of Arts where he won a number of student awards for his copies of antique sculpture.[1] He debuted his own work at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibitions with a bust of his father in 1822, but the titles of works he showed there over the next several years—The Judgment of Solomon, said to have been made of wax, and Pandora Brought be Mercury to Epimetheus—suggest a desire to tell complicated stories through sculpture, an interest he would have all his life.[2]

Hughes appears to have had some success in his native land, but he probably felt that his chances would be better in the United States, where, as a sculptor, he would have less competition. He immigrated to this country in 1829 and settled in New York where he soon became friends with John Trumbull, the influential history and portrait painter. In 1833, Hughes began showing works at the American Academy of the Fine Arts, of which Trumbull was president, and Trumbull almost certainly had a role in getting the younger man the commission for a statue of De Witt Clinton for Clinton Hall in New York.[3] This led to other commissions, the most important of which was for a life-size figure of Alexander Hamilton for the Merchants’ Exchange building in New York in 1835. It was one of the most coveted and publicized sculptural commissions of the day; but sadly, Hughes’s Hamilton was destroyed by fire only eight months after it was installed.[4] However, by that time, Hughes had attained enough success that at least one New York periodical was prompted to proclaim him, with some hyperbole, “the first sculptor in America.”[5]

Apparently, Hughes lived briefly in Philadelphia in 1840, probably drawn there by the possibility of a commission from the city for an equestrian figure of George Washington, but by the next year he had moved to Boston.[6] His work was already known in that city: he had executed a bust of Thomas H. Perkins (Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, Massachusetts) by 1832, when it was included in the Athenæum’s annual exhibition. In fact, beginning in the 1830s, the Athenæum became something of a repository for Hughes’s works. Some of these sculptures were placed with the institution on extended loans, while others, including two of the sculptor’s most important works, became part of the Athenæum’s permanent collection.

The first work by Hughes to make a home, albeit temporary, at the Athenaeum was the original plaster model for the sculptor’s Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman. The sculpture, depicting a scene from Laurence Sterne’s popular novel Tristram Shandy, was lent to the Athenæum on a long-term basis by its owner, a Mr. Dorr of New York, in 1835 and remained in the Library until 1860.[7] It was followed by the permanent acquisition of Hughes’s busts of Washington Irving and Edward Livingston, which were purchased as a pair by the Athenæum for thirty-five dollars in 1836.[8] They were included in the institution’s first sculpture exhibition three years later and a number of subsequent annuals. In 1841, the Library bought the plaster model for the equestrian statue of Washington with which Hughes had entered—and won—the Philadelphia competition mentioned above. Unfortunately, that commission was never fulfilled and Hughes evidently gave or sold the cast to Isaac P. Davis who then sold it to the Athenæum.[9] The following year (1842) Hughes’s statue of Oliver Twist, which had been among those works by Hughes included in the Athenæum’s first sculpture exhibition in 1839, was placed on deposit with the Library as collateral for a loan made in an unusual arrangement with its owner, Edward Brinley. The sculpture remained on view at the Athenaeum until Brinley reclaimed it in 1848.[10]

Several years later, one of Hughes’s most important works entered the Athenæum’s collection: the original plaster model for the sculptor’s historic life-size figure of the navigator, astronomer, and mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch. The monument was commissioned by Mount Auburn Cemetery, cast in bronze, and unveiled in Cambridge in 1847.[11] Given Bowditch’s fame and the importance of the sculpture to the cultural history of greater Boston, it was appropriate that this impressive work should come to the Athenæum. After being included in the Athenæum’s annual of 1851, it was deposited with the Library by its owner, William Thaddeus Harris.[12]

Hughes’s Little Nell was the third major literary work by Hughes to come to the Athenaeum. Illustrating a scene from Charles Dickens’s novel The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841), it was one of Hughes’s most popular conceptions. It precisely captures a scene from Chapter 53 of the novel when the novel’s heroine, Nell Trent, visits an old church in search of solitude and contemplation. “The child sat down in this old, silent place,” Dickens famously wrote,

among the stark figures on the tombs—they made it more quiet there, than elsewhere, to her fancy—and gazing round with a feeling of awe, tempered with a calm delight, felt that now she was happy, and at rest. She took a Bible from the shelf, and read; then, laying it down thought of the summer days and the bright spring-time that would come—of the rays of sun that would fall in aslant upon the sleeping forms—of the leaves that would flutter at the window, and play in glistening shadows on the pavement—of the songs of birds, and growth of buds and blossoms out of doors—of the sweet air, that would steal in and gently wave the tattered banners overhead. What if the spot awakened thoughts of death! Die who would, it would still remain the same; these sights and sounds would still go on as happily as ever. It would be no pain to sleep amidst them.[13]

Hughes’s Little Nell was first shown at the Athenæum in 1852, probably lent by the artist himself, and it continued to be included in the institution’s annual exhibitions through 1867.[14] It received much mention in the press and was even reproduced as a full-page crystalotype photograph by the Boston photographers Whipple and Black in the Photographic and Fine Arts Journal in 1854.[15]By that time, it was considered part of the Athenæum’s collection where, with its literary affiliations, it found an obviously appropriate home.


David B. Dearinger

in, Cushing and Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 281-284. Photograph by Jerry Thompson © The Boston Athenæum.

[1]“R. Ball Hughes,” Art Journal (London) 7 (July 1, 1868): 128-129.
[2]Algernon Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts (8 vols.; London: Henry Greaves and Co., Ltd., and George Bell and Sons, 1906), 4: 187. Hughes’s bust of his father was given to the Boston Athenæum by George E. Brown in 1920.
[3]For Hughes’s relationship with Trumbull, see Philipp Fehl, “John Trumbull and Robert Ball Hughes’s Restoration of the Statue of Pitt the Elder,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly 56 (January 1972): 7-28.
[4]“The Marble Statue of Alexander Hamilton Erected and Destroyed in 1835,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly 4 (July 1920): 76-78; George S. Chamberlain, “The Ball Hughes State of Alexander Hamilton,” Antiques Journal 12 (March 1957): 16-17. A small plaster model of Ball’s Hamiltonis in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York; his relief of Hobart remains in Trinity Church.
[5]“Sculpture—My Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman—Ball Hughes. Academy of the Fine Arts,” American Monthly Magazine 3 (May 1834): 212.
[6]The catalogue of the Athenæum’s 1841 annual exhibition gives his address as Pearl Street, Boston; but in about 1851 he and his family moved to nearby Dorchester.
[7]Swan, 152. All of Hughes’s literary works were well received by the press. For example, see “Editor’s Table,” Knickerbocker 3 (1834): 398-399, and “Miscellaneous Notes,” American Monthly Magazine 3 (1834): 212-214; and “Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman,” New York Mirror 13 (April 4, 1836): 319.
[8]Swan, 147.
[9]Georgia S. Chamberlain, “Shorter Notes: The Portrait Busts of Robert Ball Hughes,” Art Quarterly 20 (winter 1957): 385. Hughes bought his model of Washingtonback from the Athenæum in 1858 for $100. In 1924, the sculptor’s descendants gave it to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (“Notes and Gleanings,” Old-Time New England 15 [July, 1924]: 47.)
[10]BA Trustees Records, August 8, 1842, and December 14, 1848. The present location of Hughes’s Oliver Twist is unknown. A version of the work, probably Brinley’s, was sent from Boston to the great Crystal Palace exposition in London in 1851 where it was “highly eulogized by the English press.” It was then purchased by the Duke of Devonshire (Gleason’s Pictorial * [December 6, 1851]: 367).
[11]Hughes’s Bowditch is believed to have been the first major bronze sculpture to be cast in this country.
[12]Harris (1826-1854), who was a Harvard-trained lawyer and historian, had acquired the plaster Bowditch from the same Edward Brinley who deposited Hughes’s Oliver Twist with the Athenæum and for a similar reason: as payment of a debt (Swan, 148-150).
[13]Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop (repr. 1841 ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 399-401. In the illustration of this scene that was published in 1841 and again in the Oxford Press edition cited here, Nell is shown in a position very similar to the one in which Hughes placed her: seated on a chair which is raised on a fallen tombstone, holding the bible and gazing of in a thoughtful manner.
[14]Perkins and Gavin, 83. The sculpture is listed in the exhibition’s catalogue with no owner identified, usually a sign that the work had been submitted by the artist.
[15]See “Personal and Art Intelligence,” Photographic and Fine Arts Journal 7 (May 1854): 160. Despite this level of exposure, no replicas, in plaster or marble, are known to have been made of the sculpture. Perhaps it was too baroque in its style, too melancholy in its mood, or simply to large to be easily accommodated into the typical domestic interior of the period.