Friday, May 01, 2009

Ghosts of Newport Past - Some Very Old Stones

In the course of my wanderings yesterday I stopped by the Coddington family plot on Farewell St. This small family cemetery is in really bad shape; many of the obviously early stones are no longer readable, and in many cases the carved surface of the slate has split off. But there are some very old stones that are still readable here, and are fine examples of the work being done in Newport before John Stevens opened his shop on Thames St. in 1705. (Click on the photos to see the full-size version.)

The Joseph Martin stone (1704) is a classic example of early American stonecarving. Note that the design and lettering is cut very shallow; it's almost scratched on the slate. What especially caught my eye about this is the heart-shape of the skull in the winged skull design at the top. Compared to other stones, even many carved earlier than this, this is very primitive carving, if you can even call something like this "carving." For me, that's the charm of this stone; it's an authentic American "primitive."

The William Coddington stone (1678). The heart border on this is most likely borrowed from the work of the Boston stonecarvers, but this isn't the work of one of them. Again, note how the stone has no real "carving" on it; the heart border and the lettering are, like that on the Martin stone, more scratched on the stone than carved on it. Still, that heart has a lot of appeal!

Now this is the work of a Boston carver. This is the Peter Easton stone (1690), and on doing some comparisons, I'm pretty sure this was carved by Joseph Lamson. There are quite a few Lamson stones in Newport; I can think of three in the Clifton Burying Ground, and another four or five in the Common Burying Ground. Before the arrival of John Stevens, people of means sent to Boston for a gravestone for their loved ones; people of less means had to make do with whoever they could get, hence those barely scratched designs of the other stones. The Coggeshall carver (no examples here) was the most prolific of that school.

This last stone is probably one of the earliest John Stevens stones in Newport. The Edward Thurston stone (1706) shows all the characteristics of Stevens' early work, which was much like the work of his local predecessors - primitive designs and draftsmanship barely scratched on the surface of the slate. Stevens' work continued in this vein until the arrival of an unknown carver - referred to in the literature as the "Boston carver" - whose work was much more sculptural and who apparently took John Stevens into apprenticeship. After 1715 Stevens' work becomes much more professional.

And there you have it, some very early and very interesting gravestones as part of Newport's historical and artistic legacy.

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. very interesting, Roy. Where is gravestone carving documented? You really knew a lot of history about these!

  2. Chris, there are two "bibles" of gravestone carving and carvers for this area. For Newport specifically it's Mallet & Chisel: Gravestone Carvers of Newport, Rhode Island, In the 18th Century by Vincent F. Luti. And for colonial New England the chief source is Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and its Symbols, 1650-1815. These two books are indispensable if you're at all interested in old colonial-era New England graveyards. It's a fascinating field.

  3. Those are very interesting!

    I was at a couple of cemetaries lately ...wish I'd known more about the carving and so on ... they are very interesting places

  4. ...very nice stones. I always love your graveyard posts because I love reading the stones and finding the history in old graveyards. cool.

  5. I really appreciate the old gravestones. They are works of art. Nowadays most of us think of ways not to be buried, taking up space, etc. But there is something very ethereal about the beautiful old grave yards that are maintained.

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