Lot 4 in our next silver sale is an exceptional pair of Regency silver wine decanter stands by Philip Rundell. In their own right, they are objects of great beauty and craftsmanship, decorated with hand-chased cherubs and panthers, but in addition to this, they also tell a story, because they were once the property of one of the Regency period’s most extraordinary characters, Edward Hughes Ball Hughes – yes, that really was his name.
Ball Hughes was a dandy, a socialite, a gambler, and ultimately a fool, who inherited a fortune but died virtually penniless. Although not born poor – he was educated at Eton and Cambridge, on turning 21 in 1819; he inherited the vast fortune of his grandmother’s second husband, Admiral Edward Hughes who had accumulated considerable wealth during long service as Commander of the East Indies Station.
In retirement, the Admiral mostly spent his painstakingly accumulated money on unostentatious charity, but on coming of age, the young Edward set about transforming himself into the epitome of an English dandy by spending his inheritance as fast and as frivolously as he could. Sociable, affable and rather handsome, Hughes, dressed to the nines, would roll up to balls and galas in a custom made chocolate-coloured coach pulled by matching horses, invariably with a beautiful young woman on each arm.
Undoubtedly popular, he was affectionately nicknamed ‘The Golden Ball’ by his peers. Sadly however, he was also an inveterate gambler and it was to be his undoing. Many preyed on his seemingly obliviousness to the value of money and his love of gambling to fleece the young fop at every opportunity. He was known to be willing to bet huge sums on the toss of a coin and could lose the equivalent of millions in a single night.
In 1823 Hughes became infatuated with a 16 year old Spanish dancer called Maria Mercandotti. He whisked her away from the stage and married her, leading the author William Harrison Ainsworth to quip: “The damsel is gone, and no wonder at all, that bred to the dance, she has gone to the Ball.”
Less than a year after marrying Mercandotti, Hughes purchased a 3,233 acre property, the Oatlands Estate from the Duke of York for the exorbitant sum of £145,000 (about £17,500,000 today).
A year after this purchase, the Golden Ball ran out of gold and the property once again went up for sale. At the same time, Hughes fled the country in the wake of the revelation that he’d inadvertently gambled away nearly his entire fortune.
Evading his creditors by moving to France, Ball Hughes fortunately left control of his affairs in the more capable hands of his solicitors, who successfully managed the Oatlands Estate in his absence. Nevertheless, Ball Hughes’ debts were such that, despite the estate now being profitable, they were forced to divide it up and sell it off piece by piece to hold his creditors at bay.
He never returned to England. His young wife left in 1839 and he went on to have five children with two other women. His solicitors begged him to live within his means and although he didn’t exactly live in penury, it was in greatly reduced circumstances when you consider that in 1819 he had inherited two London houses, estates in Essex and the equivalent of about £70 million. The 'Golden Ball' died in France in 1863.
These wonderful decanter stands are hallmarked London 1819 & 1820 and bear Ball Hughes’ then recently granted coat of arms. Upon his inheritance and ‘anxious to testify his gratitude and affection for the memory of Sir Edward Hughes’ he took the surname and Arms of Hughes in addition to his own. Were these beautiful decanter stands some of the first things he purchased on becoming so wealthy? It would seem so by the dates. In his handsome prime, Ball Hughes entertained lavishly and we can just picture these fabulous pieces gracing the table of this extraordinary 19th century socialite celebrity.
The entire auction of 450 lots can be viewed at our Lanner saleroom on
Friday 28th April, 9am to 5pm.
Tuesday 2nd, Wednesday 3rd May, 9am to 5pm.
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