Saturday, March 27, 2010

Ghosts of Newport Past - Common Burying Ground Odds and Ends

Two weeks ago I went wandering through the Common Burying Ground looking for stones that looked to be out of the John Stevens Shop "norm". I found some good ones, and a John Bull stone I'd been looking for. Today I went back on the same mission and found two more "odd stones out", and identified a new carver to boot. So here's what I found. [Note: Click on the pictures to see an enlarged version.]

This is the stone for Col. John Topham, who died in 1793. I have no idea who carved this stone. It's awfully primitive for something carved that late, almost going back to the Coggeshall Carver and the early work of the first John Stevens with the scratched-on design and lettering rather than full carving. What caught my attention with this stone was the anthropomorphous sun peering over the horizon like an 18th Century Kilroy. I did an extensive search on the Internet and looking through both Luti's Mallet & Chisel and Graven Images, but I can't find a carver who was doing this work. There's another stone with that same design on the tympanum, and that might help when I get around to looking at the records to find out who was paid to carve the stone.

Christopher and Elizabeth Almy had a tough time losing children at an early age. Young Christopher here to the right died at 6 months in 1725. The unnamed son (below left) died in 1722 after 6 hours! And William (below right) died in his 10th month in 1724. It was a tough life back then!

The two stones below were carved by John Stevens I, but this stone to the right was the one that first caught my attention, with all that scrambled-egg vegetation on the tympanum. Vincent Luti identifies the carver as the BOBSS carver (Big O, Bulb Skull, Square Skull), who he's pretty sure was John Stevens' second son Phillip.

The two stones below are each interesting in their own right. On the left is the Hannah Fitzhugh stone carved by John Stevens II. Note the hourglass in the tympanum and the Grecian columns on the borders; while that hourglass is, if not common, at least not rare, those columns are definitely a unique stylistic touch. John Bull would get into that kind of innovation in another 50 years, but in 1722 that was a new thing. (About carving the date as 1721/2 - in those days it was still a dilemma as to whether the new year started on January 1 or March 21, so deaths and births registered in January, February, and March were given both the old year and the new year.)

Speaking of John Bull, the James Lyon (1775) stone below right is one of his, and is one of my favorites of Bull's work. I like the clean layout of this, especially those circled lilies on the finials with just a carved line for the borders. The man most definitely had an artistic eye!

As I mentioned above, I identified a new carver. This would be Henry Emmes of Boston, who came down to Newport and worked with John Stevens II in the early 1760s; in fact he died here in 1767 and is buried somewhere in the Common Burying Ground (I haven't found his stone yet). Like the Stevens family, Henry Emmes also came from a dynasty of carvers. His father Nathaniel ran his shop in Boston and trained and employed both Henry and his other son Josua, as well as apprentice William Codner, who went on to establish his own shop. It was Henry who introduced the Stevens family to portrait carving, an Emmes shop trademark, and was a major influence on John Stevens III's style.

Below are two stones by Henry Emmes. Below left is the Catherine Langley stone (1765), with one of Henry's best-known motifs - the skull and crossbones on the tympanum. This is also found on the Thomas Sturgis stone on Cape Cod. The minimal finials and borders is another Emmes hallmark. The Hannah Stearns stone (1761) is another fine example of Henry Emmes' work - the 3-dimensional head with lifelike hair and the sinuous wings on the tympanum and the crossed bones at the bottom of the inscription. On both stones you can see the inscription is carved on a flat surface separated from the rest of the stone like a plaque, another Emmes shop hallmark. It's great to see these works by outside carvers; the Stevens style can get a tad overwhelming after a while!

I hope you've enjoyed this little tramp through the Common Burying Ground.

© 2010 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. Excellent photos and fascinating information!

  2. That "anthropomorphous sun peering over the horizon like an 18th Century Kilroy", is my favorite! Beautiful stones.

  3. ...loved this post. After you identify all the carvers it would make a great book!! All the history and art is so interesting.

  4. Love the stone photos... and your notes on same.

    I've begun to think of you each time I pass a "good" cemetery. Yesterday I needed to pull off the highway for a moment, and a nearly church beckoned. I couldn't resist peering at several of the older stones - and wondering: "Would Roy find these photogenic?"

  5. Looking at carvings like this, one is reminded of just how much skill it took to do it, wot? No matter the era...

    And gotta love the Kilroy reference :)

  6. great post - I like wandering around graveyards, wondering about the stories of the lives of the people - but haven't ever given much thought to the carvers.

    i love that top one.

  7. Port Gamble, WA, founded by two Maine men and designed to resemble a Maine seacoast village, has a lovely graveyard overlooking a inlet of the Puget Sound. You can tell from the markers that an epidemic of some sort swept through at one time because of the sad number of children's graves from about the same time period.

    Sometimes it's easy to discern local attitudes from a marker. There's one in Burrishoole Abbey in Ireland for a priest hung by the Brits in 1798. Something like 150+ years later, the locals restored the grave and added a new marker extolling the padre's patriotism.

  8. Surprisingly clean lines, after all this time!