Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Ghosts of Newport Past - John Bull

The primary gravestone carver in Newport in colonial times was John Stevens, who moved down here from Boston and set up shop in 1705. Two of his sons, John II and William, carried on the carving tradition; William split off and founded his own business in a shop on Long Wharf while John II inherited his father's shop on Thames St. and eventually passed it on to his son John III. In the meantime, William had an apprentice named John Bull who eventually left to go it on his own (and supposedly broke his indenture and was brought to court by William for recompense). It's Bull's carvings I want to look at today.

A wander through the Common Burying Ground shows that John Stevens III and John Bull were the chief rival artists in the 1770s and '80s. Styles had changed radically since John I's winged skulls, and now gravestones were sporting carved portraits of the deceased and much more developed ornamentation, as well as more classical lettering styles. To start this off, let's look at two of John III's stones.

John III's carving style is fairly straightforward, sort of a variation on traditional themes; while his carving is much deeper into the stone than earlier styles, his floral ornaments are still very two-dimensional, imitating the floral ornamentation in books like the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. However, the stone on the left, for Capt. William Burke, is much more stylized; his floral ornamentation at the heads of the finials is almost abstract compared to the florals on the Wyatt stone to the right, especially having it trail down to a simple straight line rather than carry the floral theme all the way down the sides, and his curly-headed angel and its framing on the tympanum is highly individual, almost modern. Click on the photos to get the full-sized version to see the full details of these carvings.

Now look at some of John Bull's work from the same period:

This is an amazing stone. In fact, John Bull's Charles Bardin stone is famous in the world of students and admirers of stonecarving. The stone was also controversial in its day; the depiction of God looking down from the clouds was considered blasphemous by some. The carving of portraits on stones was looked at as pushing the limits of the allowable by the more conservative in Newport, so this depiction of the Deity in the manner of Michaelangelo's Creator on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was considered horribly Papist by the staunchly radical Protestants of 18th Century Newport.

But look at the carving; it's far more sculptural that John III's, and far more detailed. Rather than use floral ornamentation on the borders he uses a plain linear, almost Celtic intertwining lines design, and his angels on the finials are highly unusual, almost abstract. The lettering is also different; rather than the usual classical Roman-style lettering Bull uses a style more reminiscent of the Trajan column lettering, with its less defined serifs and almost rounded lines which Eric Gill in England was to develop 150 years later at the peak of the Arts & Crafts movement. In many ways John Bull was way ahead of his time.

Now look at this stone for Elizabeth Sisson. At first glance it looks very traditional, but compare it to the two John III stones above. The winged angel is far more sculptural than Stevens', far more detailed, and much more individually stylized than Stevens' very stylized head. And notice the the very thin, closely-spaced hatching lines around the borders and finials and in the hair of the angel. There's such a wealth of detail on this stone, far more detail than on the other stones by his contemporaries; you can tell that this stone too a long time to carve!

Finally, there's this stone for the six children of William and Sarah Langley. This is another stone far ahead of it's time. The stylistic treatment of the angels almost looks like the illustrations from a 20th Century children's book, and the treatment of the borders and the arched columns is enticingly Mediterranean, that Greco-Roman-Arabian-North African style developed in Spain when it was still Al Andalus under the rule of the Muslim Moors. This is a fascinating stone indeed!

This is just a small sampling of John Bull's work; a wander through the Common Burying Ground alone will reveal much more. He was a fascinating - and controversial - man, so much so that he has a whole chapter to himself in Vincent Luti's Mallet & Chisel: Gravestone Carvers of Newport, Rhode Island, in the Eighteenth Century, the bible of research for Newport stonecarvers. I hope you've enjoyed this brief look.

© 2010 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. wow - what a collection and assortment of markers. those for william and sarah's children particularly blow me away!

    next visit east gotta get to one of these OLD graveyards!

  2. wonderful art.....I wish my gravestone could look like that. I fear they do not make 'em like that anymore.

  3. I wish I had a bigger monitor screen with which to view these. Very cool and I like the way you put this post together!

  4. What a career!

    These are in remarkable condition. Irish stones I've seen from the same era are usually much more faded, although come to think of it they're also usually flat on the ground and easy to walk on.

    I would think that the constant sea breeze would be pretty rough on grave markers, but possibly the salt in the air functions as a preservative? What do you think?

  5. Wow you've really researched your subject! Slightly morbid but interesting enough. They are in remarkable condition given their age. I find angels a bit spooky actually.

  6. Outstanding work and researching in this, Roy! And agreeing with K. about the weathering. These have held up remarkably well :)

  7. Outstanding art and you did a wonderful post, Roy!

    Happy Thursday!





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