The first post in this series featured the most straightforward Puritan graves; the next examined the ominous death’s head. Today’s essay looks at the work of Joseph Lamson, perhaps the greatest of Puritan engravers.
Joseph Lamson was born in 1658, in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He settled north of Boston and apprenticed with a stone carver. He probably began cutting his own stones in the 1680s and continued into the 1710s. Although he employed the same basic design and iconography as other carvers, Lamson charged his gravestones with unique intensity. Here is an early Lamson work, from 1691, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
This is a typical Lamson effort, assembling common Puritan symbols with uncommon vitality. He cuts deeply and crowds the stone. The text is perfectly lettered. Twin banners flow from coiled ornaments at the stone’s shoulders. At top, the winged skull binds everything, like the keystone of an arch. He places the death’s head in a recessed space, with a curtain above and a platform of gravestone motifs below. It’s as if the skull rests upon a theater stage. Look, for instance, at this stone from 1699:
Lamson encircles the death’s head with decorative energy: the curtain, bones, grave tools, pointed rosettes, coffin, and the Latin text. Together, these elements project a dynamic force. On many graves, Lamson made this animation explicit, populating the stone with busy imps:
He generally depicted the imps moving coffins. On the Peter Tufts stone (below), the coffins are lowered with ropes, with bones tumbling like drumsticks.
The imps usually work just beneath the death’s head, like busy stage hands. On the John Carter stone (below), they beat their wings and wear high pompadours.
Lamson always carved his imps with crossed legs, presumably to maintain propriety. He seemed to treat the hair as an important detail. For some reason, he often included nipples. These details can be glimpsed above and also on the John Stone grave (below).
Lamson’s final innovation was to cap the rounded shoulders of his stones with detailed busts. His early works were somewhat clumsy (below). The eyes look like goggles, the nose hangs like a pendant, and the mouth is just a slash.
His style matured, however, and grew into something truly sculptural (below).
He adorned his busts with interesting collars, which merged dynamically into patterns of fallen leaves. The faces are calm and pensive, with downcast gaze, appropriate to a burying ground.
The theatrical death’s head, the imps, and the busts are each impressive. Lamson did not invent these elements, but he rendered them with unprecedented artistry. And when he deployed them in combination upon a single stone, the effect surpassed the work of any other engraver. In 1709, he produced two masterworks, the Pyam and Elizabeth Blower stone in Cambridge, and the Deacon Jonathan Pierpont stone, in Watertown (both below).
These graves are bursting with decorative force. He carved every inch exquisitely. The stones read like tapestries as the viewer’s gaze shifts from one panel to the next. (Click on the images to enjoy a magnified view.)
The busts on both stones seem to have been intended as portraits of the deceased, which was very rarely done. See, for example, the bust from the Pierpont grave (below), wrapped in clerical vestments and carrying a preacher’s Bible.
Joseph Lamson lived until 1722, but in the early 1710s he left the carving shop to his sons, Nathaniel and Caleb. A third and fourth generation of Lamsons also followed the family vocation, cutting gravestones until 1808. They continued the custom of hanging curtains above the death’s head and used similar ornamental flourishes (below). They were prolific, yet they never matched the skill and intensity of the first Lamson.
Joseph Lamson was an American original. He was the first carver to rise above imitation of inherited European practice. He employed the same forms as other carvers, but with more skill and a unique dynamic vision. The result are densely cut works of unsurpassed energy.
Tune in for the next essay, which will examine the abstract artistry of another Massachusetts carver. Please consider subscribing; scroll to the bottom and click “Follow This Blog.”
(All photographs taken by the author. More information on Lamson can be found in Harriette M. Forbes, Gravestones of Early New England, and Allan Ludwig, Graven Images.)