Anatomy of a Gravestone: Identifying Stone Carvers

At first glance, the gravestones of Redolphus Malbone (1767 LEFT) and Isaac Lopez (1762 RIGHT) look remarkably similar: their graves are marked by small upright markers with cherubs at the tops and vegetation images along the sides. While many children’s graves were marked either only by a plain marker or not at all, the parents of Redolphus and Isaac chose to mark these graves with well-carved stones made by the two of the most important carvers in Newport: William Stevens and John Stevens II (1702-1778), sons of the illustrious carver John Stevens I.

In addition being a physical reminder of the children, the stones present a important message about the parents’ hopes about the children's ability to live on after death. The stones vertical are carved in a shape associated with a curved doorway into the world to come. The side pillars (“borders”) were seen as analogous to the pillars in the third temple that harkened of the messianic era. The topmost portion of each stone (the lunette), bears an optimistic message of redemption conveyed by the simple straight-faced cherub: while the death’s heads common throughout other parts of New England reminded the living of the conflict between the mortal and immortal portions of the deceased, “cherub stones tend to stress resurrection and later heavenly reward” (Deetz and Dethlefsen 31).The cherub was a metaphor for the soul of the deceased: it was poised in flight between this world and the next (Tashjian and Tashjian 1992: 1974: 83). The stones’ borders reinforce this message of rejuvenation: the Malbone stone contains the fig border commonly used by William Stevens in the 1740s-1770s (Luti 134), while the Lopez stone contains a variant on the fig-lily pod theme used by John Stevens II. Figs were “believed to ward off the evil eye and offer general protection against hostile beings and powers” (Biedermann 129), and fruit and flowers are generally associated with fecundity and fertility. In an uncertain world, the stones were largely optimistic.

Vincent Luti argues that five areas are essential for identifying individual carvers for stones made in Newport: (1) Lettering, (2) Wings, (3) Mouths, (4) Eyes, and (5) Borders (Luti 26-27). Identifying characteristics of William Stevens during this era include (1) An off-center “e” in the “ye” and “full-bellied 5, with a flat-capped serif,” (2) scoop wings and pedestal bibs, (3) bow-mouths, (4) eyelids with lashes and an owlish and bulging eye and (5) fig or lily pod borders. Cherubs were bald or wigged. William Stevens stones from the 1760s-1770s that were wigged tend to have plain wigs, raked wigs, or scroll coil wigs (Luti 103-105, 134). William Stevens stones are easily confused stylistically with the early work of his brother-in-law and one-time apprentice John Bull who early on in his career imitated William Stevens’ style. Distinctive elements of John Bull’s stones that don’t appear on Stevens’ stones include (1) an onion fleur-de-lis, (2) a circular line undercutting the feather spray or “bib” under the cherub’s chin, and (3) the tail of the “g” is tucked into the loop (Luti 231, 244). The stone of Redolphus Malbone contains no John Bull markers, but does contain the following elements characteristic of William Stevens: (1) An off-center “e” in the “ye” (2) bow-mouths, (3) an owlish and bulging eye, and (4) fig or lily pod borders. Luti has attributed Isaac Lopez’s stone to John Stevens II (Gradwohl 39-40). Although it is very similar to William Steven’s stones, it bears several strong distinguishing features: a distinctive border and pupils that “look heavenward.” From 1745-1778 John also took up his brother’s previously distinctive of-center ye lettering (Luti 80).

During the 1770s, William Stevens shop and home was located on Long Wharf while John Stevens II’s home and shop were located at 29 and 30 Thames respectively (Luti 32, 99). Their father John Stevens (1646-1736) began the Stevens carving dynasty that continues until this day.

Image credits:
1. Gravestone of Redolphus Malbone (1767, Trinity Cemetery) Photograph by Eric Leibman, 2007.
2. Gravestone of Isaac Lopez (1762, Touro Cemetery) Photograph by Laura Leibman, 2007.
3. Gravestone Anatomy from Dean Eastman's "Tiptoeing Through the Tombstones" Common-Place. 2(2) January 2002.
4. Map of Newport by Laura Leibman based on A Plan of the Town of Newport in Rhode Island Surveyed by Charles Blaskowitz, engraved and publish'd by Willm. Faden Map. London: 1777. Map Collections 1500-2004. American Memory. Lib. of Congress 14 Aug. 2007

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