Identifying Gravestone Carvers in the NYC Area
Before gravestones became
sand-blasted, machine produced, cookie-cutter memorials that pretty much look the same from one to another, gravestone carving was a fine, skilled art.
Gravestones are not only Americas earliest sculpture, ranking with painting and the crafting of silver, furniture, glass, pottery, quilts, etc. as subjects of study, they are also important records for study in sociology, history, religion, archaeology, and art history. They are, in fact the only artifacts which are all dated and survive for the most part in their original locations. No other body of art offers a primary information source of this kind.
Most gravestone carvers were tradesmen for whom stone cutting was a secondary occupation. In the early days there was simply not enough business to support a carver full-time, but as the population grew, work became more steady and workshops specializing in gravestone carving developed. Occasionally these artisans became itinerant carvers who travelled to provide stones for several different communities. In this way, styles were spread and modified to accommodate local taste and preferences.
THE STEVENS FAMILY. For over three generations, a highly gifted Newport, Rhode Island family became so successful that the members did spend full time on cutting gravestones. John Stevens, Sr. came to America in his fifties. He was a stone mason by trade; a builder of chimneys, cellars, and foundations. It was after he moved to Newport in 1706, that he began to cut gravestones as well. His work, his son and grandsons, gained such a reputation that their works were even shipped across the Connecticut Bay. As a result, they can be found all over Long Island. The John Stevens Shop stands today as the oldest carving business in America.
JOHN ZURICHER. One of the first identified New York cutters of New York City was Zuricher, known to have been active from 1749 to 1778. His soul effigies, or symbolic representations of the deceaseds souls, have thick eyebrows, dipping chins and humorous, rounded pudgy cheeks. His wings tend to arch very high and the feathers are separated by half-moon cuts. His soul effigies are usually crowned but in this one element, he uses a great deal of variation.
EBENEZER PRICE. He was one of the most successful of the second-half of the 18th century. Ebenezer Price was born in 1728 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He employed many apprentices who imitated his style very carefully and the results can be found all over the New Jersey/New York area. He tended to favor floral decorations and shells in addition to the much desired soul effigy. On simple stones for Ryers family members found in Moravian Cemetary, Staten Island, New York with pride.
HENRY OSBOURNE. Osbourne was also local to the New Jersey/New York area and favored stylized floral decorations, liking tulips most of all perhaps in honor of the Dutch national flower.
THOMAS BROWN. The most unusual stylist to be seen in the greater New York area is Brown, who produced very sophisticated, Renaissance sculptures of delicately etched cherubs with closed eyes, pursed lips, and soft, baby-fine locks. His mastery of technique meant that he was well trained in this extremely fine chiseling. Not much is known about him, but once you see his work, it will be impossible to miss when spotted elsewhere.
How did the colonial cutters develop their beautiful lettering styles? There were few buildings with masonry decoration to follow in the colonies, and these folks lived too far away to be inspired by the majestic models of Europe. It seems the stone cutters picked up the foundation of their lettering styles from their school books, imported from England. Literary was regarded as a high priority in the colonies, and every town with at least one hundred families was required by law to provide at least some of the three rs for its children.
According to type historian, Frederic W. Goudy, the type design for all the Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish) was developed out of the capform the Roman monuments. These anicent arches and commemorative sculptures lay all around the Italian type founders to use as their models. And these models were created by skilled craftsman who shaped their letters with varying widths, to most beautifully exemplify the written legend. Thus an ancient and respected form of sculpture had its influence seventeen centuries later on followers of its own trade.
The symbols of the earlier gravestones serve many purposes. Graveyards were often within the churchyard, since it was believed that the closer you were buried to the church, the better your chances of getting into heaven. The symbolism served as a constant reminder of what woudl happen to souls which did not live in Christian righteousness. The population was not very literate and the symbols served as a shorthand that everyone could read and understand the message of the stone cutter. One of the most common symbols was the angel.
Angels originated from ancient Mestopotamia. They believed a divine power beyond humankind communicated to them through spiritual messengers. Since then, every culture has had their version. The Buddhists, Persians, and Old Testament Hebrews all gave an independent life to winged spirits embodying our species highest aspirations for itself.
It was therefore a natural step for American Puritans, who had a firm conviction in the afterlife, to insist that those who died be undergoing a heavenly conversion into the pure flying spirit. So we find angels, in one form or another, on most of the New England gravestones.
The Puritans were believers of those who you love, you chasten. These were people lived difficult lives in the New World, and pangs of death commonly struck them. The same grim quality appears on their gravestones as it did in their lives. The Puritans angels often included skulls or were winged grim reapers. Over time, people created their own interpretations, and more pleasant images were seen on grave stones.
By the Victorian era, sophisticated urbanites had lost their taste for a heaven cluttered with airborne inhabitants. The small soul effigies were replaced by images of classical urns and broken willow trees. Rich families had monumental copies of Greek sculptures made, looking very much like wilted Victories of Samathrace. This type of sculpture can be seen all around Greenwood Cemetary, established in 1838 in Brooklyn.
One image of human dimension remained. One is moved constantly in Victorian cemetaries by the figures of tiny lambs, sculptured in the rounds, which most often mark the grave of young children. In Christianity, the childs soul is perceived as pure of sin and thus a lamb of God.
Richard Welch suggests that religious piety was never strong in New York, a city which was always more noted for the materialism of its society. The Puritan symbols were followed only with some residual feelings of resurrection. When attitudes towards death began to take on a more romantic view, gravestone symbols stressing retribution disappeared. Somewhere between 1795 and 1805, an abrupt change in the shape took place. The triple curved tympanums gave way to the squared-off rectangle Victorians preferred.
Within a short time, the garden cemetary movement based on concepts expressed by English poets, replaced the churchyards. Greenwood Cemetary, in the nineteenth century, was a place where families could visit their beloved and picnic, while children played. (The designer of Greenwood Cemetary later designed Central Park.)
Sadly, with the abandonment of the lively belief in resurrection, also disappeared the distinctive American folk carvers.
Many thanks to the Center of Thanatology Research, from which this information was obtained. To obtain free pamphlets of their collection and additional information, drop them a line at: The Center, 391 Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y. 11217
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