Phipps Street Burying Ground, in Charlestown, Massachusetts, was established in 1630, a mere decade following the arrival of the first English settlers in New England. It sits on the outskirts of Boston, at the base of Bunker Hill. When the Battle of Bunker Hill transpired, the cemetery had already received colonial dead for nearly a century and a half. This is an ancient American site.
I visited on a recent rainy morning, interested to see the work of two engravers, the “Boston Stonecutter” and Joseph Lamson. Both men are profiled elsewhere in this series (see here and here.). The Stonecutter was the first to produce gravestones in abundance, and the first to popularize stones with death’s heads, a fundamental artistic advance. We do not know his name; his title stems from a contemporary document that referenced him as “the stone cutter at Boston.” Lamson, we believe, apprenticed with the Stonecutter, and he ultimately elevated the craft into unique artistry.
The burying ground contains a few hundred gravestones, the majority from these two men. The earliest graves from the Stonecutter, made in the 1680s, feature a large and impassive death’s head. We see it below on the grave of Phineas Pratt.
Pratt died in 1680, “aged about 90 yrs,” according to the grave, “one of ye first English inhabitants of ye Massachusetts colony.” The same skull decorates the grave of Richard Kettel, who also died in 1680 (below). Here the wings attach to an hour glass, a visual duplication of the inscribed Latin injunction Fugit Hora (Time Flies).
Both graves feature an assortment of morbid iconography: coffins, bones, shovels, pick axes, hour glasses, even the scythe of Death. The skull itself is a straightforward anatomic representation, embellished only with a finely engraved eyebrow. We see the same skull on the 1683 grave of Anna Cutler, but here the Stonecutter added extravagant spirals and leafy whorls.
I was especially interested to find Anna Cutler’s grave, for she, in dying, earned a paragraph in the commentaries of the famous Puritan minister Cotton Mather. According to Mather, when “seiz’d with the pangs of death,” Cutler asked repeatedly, “Who would go with her whither she was going.” She said, “Well, my son Robert will go, and addressing her speech therefrom as unto him, she expressed her satisfaction that they should go together.” This sounded like delirium, yet according to Mather, “This son of hers was at that time in Barbadoes, and his friends here have since learned that he also dy’d there, and this at the very hour when his mother here gave up the ghost; and (which is further odd) not without the like expression concerning his mother, that his mother had concerning him.” As we contemplate this tale, three centuries later, the death’s head remains chilling.
The design of Joseph Lamson’s early stones overlap with those of the Stonecutter, thus the belief that Lamson apprenticed in his shop. But as Lamson’s style matured, he demonstrated much greater range and skill. Look, for instance, at the grave of Nathaniel Howard (below). Rather than a dry anatomic rendering, the death’s head is artistic, animated, and alive. The entire stone is cut with certainty and purpose.
The Stonecutter often placed busts on his gravestones, flanking the death’s head on each side. Lamson followed his master’s lead, but where the Stonecutter produced a rough human form, Lamson created a miniature sculpture. Compare the Stonecutter’s chiseling, below, to Lamson’s smooth rendering.
Lamson sometimes added tiny winged imps, which created interesting animations. On the grave of Timothy Cutler, the imps transport a coffin, bound on its long spectral voyage.
On another grave, seen below, the imps wield arrows, prodding the death’s head along its morbid flight. Lamson imbued these pudgy little men with remarkable detail. Note the fine texturing of wings, hair, and fingers. Some of his touches appear humorous: the imps above have tiny nipples, and the two below have belly buttons.
The “Stone cutter at Boston” and Joseph Lamson were the most skilled and prolific of the early Puritan grave carvers. Although Lamson was the apprentice, one senses they explored the craft together, as their designs grew in complexity and ultimately the work of the pupil outpaced the master. Phipps Street Burying Ground is crowded with the work of these two American artists. Through three centuries of New England snows and Atlantic salt air, through depredations of city smog and human neglect, their creations remain crisp, clean, and powerful.
If you enjoy these essays, please subscribe. Just scroll to the bottom and click ‘Follow This Blog.’ All photos taken by the author. Note the “Stone Cutter at Boston” is the same engraver referred to in many sources as the “Charlestown Carver.” The former title is derived from a 1672 document, and I select it for this reason; the latter title exists only in modern scholarship.