A brief stop in King Park this afternoon resulted in the following shots of a bustling inner harbor.
© 2010 by A. Roy Hilbinger
The Boast of Heraldry, the Pomp of Pow'r,I wonder if Christopher Ellery or his heirs had read that?
And all that Beauty, all that Wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable Hour.
The Paths of Glory lead but to the Grave.
The first problem — the conflation of Pompe Stevens with Zingo Stevens — may have begun as a simple misunderstanding. In her 1927 book, Gravestones of Early New England and the Men who Made Them, 1653-1800, Harriette Merrifield Forbes tentatively hypothesized that Zingo was owned by famed stonecarver John Stevens III and “perhaps . . . helped him in his work.” Though this speculation was both limited and reasonable, subsequent attributions have been less restrained.It seems that from that one fairly vague and tentative statement things gained momentum and speculation was added to speculation until it became the current legend.
Finally, from Zingo's will of 1809 (recorded on 5 May 1817) we learn that he was a bricklayer. He left no tools in his estate inventory that suggest stone carving. Nothing whatsoever, then, even suggests that Zingo Stevens ever carved stones anymore than any other helper (there were many in Stevens's shop).So much for Zingo Stevens as stone carver.
We know much less about Pompe Stevens, but what is known does not fit Zingo’s life story. The first time Pompe’s name appears is on the gravestone of a one-year-old boy named Princ[e], the “Son of / Pompe Stevens / & Silva Gould,” who died on July 4, 1759. Six years later, a carver identifying himself as “P.S.” executed a gravestone for two-year-old Pompey Lyndon, and in 1768, he emblazoned his name on Cuffe Gibbs’ epitaph. (Note: The only other known Newport carver with the initials "P.S." was Phillip Stevens, who was murdered in 1736.) Though there is no record of Pompe Stevens after 1768, and he was probably dead or absent by 1783, the year in which Silva Gould married Cudjo Vernon.If you compare the above dates with the dates given for the various events in Zingo Stevens's life on p. 299 of Vincent Luti's book, and especially when you consider that Pompey seems to have died somewhere between 1768 and 1783 while Zingo Stevens died in the first decade of the following century, there's quite a generational gap evident.
Other gravestone carvers signed their work, but Pompe Stevens’ integration of his own authorial statement into the text of the epitaph, rather than relegating it to an inconspicuous corner, is practically unheard of in the New England stonecarving tradition. By emblazoning his own name across an enduring, public memorial, Pompe Stevens created a monument to his own life, as well as to his brother’s.The last task in this post (yes, I'm almost done; you can return to your regularly scheduled program in just a bit) is to address the artistic ownership of the stones most often pointed to in the Zingo/Pompey mythos as carved by him. What emerges from a study of this is that the stones attributed to Zingo Stevens were actually carved by John Stevens III, the son of Zingo's former master. John III's work is unique and exquisitely beautiful. Both he and contemporary Newport carver John Bull were, in my own not-so-humble opinion, the most artistic carvers in America at the time. They didn't just carve gravestones, they created art.
What, then, of the gravestones from the 1770s and 1780s that do seem to exhibit African survivals? All can be positively or stylistically attributed to John Stevens III, a talented young carver whose flair for portraiture is evident in the stones he carved for both white and black Newporters. Every detail of the stones dedicated to Pompey Brenton, Dinah Wigneron, Violet Hammond, and others with purported African cultural elements conforms to the style of stones signed by John Stevens III (figures 11-13). Unlike Pompe Stevens’ signed work, which boasts deep, plastic carving and haphazard word spacing, John Stevens III embraced an airy aesthetic with meticulously spaced lettering and neo-classical aspirations. His use of fine-grained blue slate, his light incisions, and his fondness for the three-quarter profile are all features of the supposedly African-influenced stones (figure 14). As of this writing, no scholar has attempted an investigation of John Stevens III’s relationship with his African-American clients, but the extraordinary objects he produced suggest a level of intimacy and collaboration not evident in the older slaveowner-commissioned gravestones.There's no question that John III carved these stones; the question is where he got his inspiration.