Backrounds of the Gravestone Carvers
Wardwell C. Leonard of Ledyard, CT, a direct descendant of the carver Barney Leonard, Bob Bates and Vince Luti 10/2011
By Vincent F. Luti
The Walker-Blake Graveyard is an important colonial New England cemetery. It is a crossroads cemetery containing the work of ten or more folk carvers of southern New England and Rhode Island. Gravestone folk art is fast becoming recognized for its material cultural importance and a rich heritage of studying 18th century culture through many disciplines. Within the wide ranging representation of folk art styles, the cemetery contains the largest collection of the unique apprentice work of John Bull of Newport, a teenager apprentice at the time whose mature work is widely recognized for its beauty.
The 18th century gravestone carvers represented in Walker-Blake Graveyard.
David Linkon was born in 1727, died in 1822 and lived and worked in Norton, Massachusetts. He can be considered the first Taunton River Basin carver and can be said to have founded and influenced a unique school of carvers who came after him in this region of south central Massachusetts centered in towns within the drainage basin of the Taunton River. He developed a basic frond module which he interpreted in varying , elegant and imaginative ways. The configurations almost always contain stippled areas and, often, heart-like elements. His carving relief was extremely shallow but has held up well. His working period was from the 1740s into the nineteenth century. He thus created a school of carving design which gave preference to frond imagery almost exclusively. Why and why winged facial effigies were mostly avoided in the school he created remains an intriguing mystery of socio-economic, religious dimensions, probably. There was no other region of colonial America to compare with it.
Born in 1757, died in 1821, Barney Leonard became an orphan and at age seventeen he was put in the custody of the Taunton merchant Jonathan Carver (father of another gravestone carver). It is not known with whom he apprenticed but his works first appear in the 1770s and continues into the nineteenth century. Leonard had considerable talent, drawing mainly on the frond design created by David Linkon. Leonard created masterful, precise, swirls of truly elegant frond structures and later added a peeking rising sun to his repertoire. He related, due to genealogical and work factors, to Plymouth County style to the east and also produced some strikingly rich winged, facial effigies based on Plymouth County style. His work was admired and widespread. His shop was in the Scotland area of West Bridgewater in Plymouth County. His son, too, became a carver.
Cyrus Deane was born in 1766 and died in 1856. He lived and worked in Taunton, Massachusetts. Deane may have learned to carve from an in-law, Ebenezer Winslow of Berkley, Massachusetts. He cross fertilized two completely different schools of carving as had Barney Leonard: Taunton River Basin and Plymouth County, producing very interesting winged effigies in the seventeen eighties. He was a skilled letterer. Upon his marriage in 1791, he moved to Maine where he lived and died. It is not known if he carved there.
Jabez Carver was born in 1747, died in 1833 and lived and worked in Raynham, Massachusetts. He was the son of a prosperous Taunton merchant. Carver’s work is pure Taunton River Basin style: swirling frond tympanums and simple peeking-eyed rising suns. His skilled work lacks any excitement, being generally quite precise and pedestrian. He interacts with his contemporary Barney Leonard who was in the custody of Jabez’s father. He was most prolific in the 1780s an 1790s. What he did later in life is not known.
JOHN STEVENS 2nd
John Stevens 2nd was born in 1702, died in 1778 and lived and worked in Newport, Rhode Island. He apprenticed under his father John Stevens 1st, a bricklayer who took up carving gravestones in 1705 when he was 51 years old, crudely at first but developing into a very great impressive, imaginative folk art carver. He may have once been represented in Walker-Blake but there is no material evidence left today. John 2nd went beyond his father’s rich, baroque style to achieve a truly elegant rococo style of great delicacy in his winged face effigies and borders. He, too, was a mason and his account books survive. His influence on the great Rehoboth, Massachusetts stone carver George Allen must be recognized. His sons, grandson and great grandsons created the longest working dynasty in America from 1705 down to the present where the shop is still in business under the Benson family: the oldest continuous business in America.
William Stevens was born in 1710. His death date is unknown, probably in Pennsylvania. He lived and worked in Newport, Rhode Island. He was another son of John Stevens 1st and brother to John the 2nd with whom he apprenticed. He developed his own signature style, however. He was a successful merchant and had shops in Newport employing at least four slaves who may have helped in his prodigious gravestone output. The borders of his stones are of unusual and varied interest, even incorporating native corn design in a theological context in the stone borders. His stones had the widest distribution of any Newport carver, along the eastern seaboard. He departed suddenly from Newport for Philadelphia with the threat of war and invasion in 1775 by the British. He left unfinished stones behind that were completed by slaves and the carver John Bull.
Philip Stevens was born in 1706 in Newport, Rhode Island and died in 1736. He lived and worked in Newport. He was a mariner, son of the founder of the Stevens’s dynasty and brother to three other carvers. His work had a unique spectacular development of great originality and beauty cut short by his murder at age thirty (the cause and place unknown). He had a vital impact on the development of gravestone art in Connecticut and to a lesser degree in New Jersey where many of his stones are found.
John Bull was born in 1734 and died in 1808. He lived and worked in Newport, Rhode Island. Bold and rebellious characteristics are exhibited in his youthful like and work. Age tempered his life and work in which he produced restrained, varied, innovative and heartfelt designs. As an apprentice at age fifteen to William Stevens, he must have chafed. His wild, bold, large gestured folk art apprentice work is not found in Newport. In fact, Walker-Blake contains the largest single collection. He deserted his apprenticeship and when summoned back, he threatened his master with an ax. He eventually forced his release from apprenticeship (for which he was sued in later life by his master) and ran off to sea as a teenager where he participated in leading a mutiny. He dared Puritan and Congregational prescriptions and defiantly sculpted a biblical scene on one of his stones, unthinkable in those times. But Newport was a forgiving Quaker town. Blind in old age, he turned the carving business over to his son Henry who let it die.
His birth and death dates are unknown. He was probably from Connecticut. No study has been done on Peter Barker. For someone whose work is completely basic and crudely amateurish, his stones are scattered the length of Connecticut, in parts of Rhode Island and on into southeastern Massachusetts. All this suggests he was a poor itinerant carver, moving from town to town, producing a cheap product on whatever local, unfinished stone he could find. Most have a round, cartoonishly drawn face, a few rosettes and or scrawny, leafy vines. They are usually badly worn and shapeless and the lettering leaves very much to be desired.
WILLIAM THROOPE SR.
Born 1739 and died 1817. He lived and worked in the north end of Bristol, Rhode Island. He was a leather worker, served valiantly in the Revolutionary War after which he also took up gravestone carving. In the early stages the work seems to have had some influence from that of John New of Attleboro. Throope developed, however, a very characteristic winged face of his own eventually. His border design, also very characteristic, is a misunderstood corruption of that of New who in turn created a debased version of more elegant carvers such as George Allen of Rehoboth who knew what they were doing. The Throope effigy has a wonderful, naïve charm that ranks with the best of that kind of folk art. His work merges right into that of his son and to that of undifferentiated peeking, rising, rayed suns, such as that found in Walker-Blake. Because of that, we cannot tell when he ceased carving.
WILLIAM THROOPE Jr.
Born 1771 and died 1850. He lived variously in Bristol, Rhode Island. William Throope, Jr. (the spelling varies) carried on the work of his father, developing a bull necked effigy design of his own out of that of his father that soon degenerated into superficiality. He lettered, as did his father, very well. Their work was quite popular locally on the east shore of Narragansett Bay. Along with other carvers of the late 18th century he moved into the fashionable style of stones with but an urn design in the tympanum arch. Borders begin to disappear. His interests and ambitions were truly elsewhere: civic duty, holding many offices and becoming a probate judge. It is not known when his work ceased.
THE SAULE FAMILY
The Saule Family of Plympton, Massachusetts was numerous and widely dispersed as they moved to many areas of New England. The Saule stone in Walker-Blake may have been carved by a Middleboro Saule carver.