Early Gravestone Art in Charleston

“Man can feel no religious awe more genuine and profound I believe, than the awe he feels when treading the ground where his ancestors – his roots – repose. – Nikos Kazantzakis

Circular Church Tombstone

The Circular Church, founded in 1681, has the richest repository of 18th century iconic gravestones in the country, according to Diana Williams Combs in her book, Early Gravestone Art in Georgia and South Carolina.

As an artist, I get such a sense of awe walking these paths off Meeting Street, in the heart of historic Charleston. My grandparents of many generations back, Mary Woodward and The Reverend William Hutson, who pastored this church in the mid 1700’s, and whose stones still stand there, with inscriptions in Latin, adds to my fascination, but imagery of putti and skulls and anchors and angel faces watch me, call to me, on these stone pathways.

Ms. Combs asks, “What can the image and the epitaph reveal about our individual and collective histories?” And she argues that early gravestones are an important part of the history of American sculpture, and are not mere folk art.

There is a sense of reverence, like Nikos Kazantzakis so poignantly writes in Report to Greco, about his own ancestors: “Man can feel no religious awe more genuine and profound I believe, than the awe he feels when treading the ground where his ancestors – his roots – repose. Your own feet sprout roots which descend into the earth and search, seeking to mingle with the quiet immortal roots of the dead. The tart fragrance of the soil and the camomile fills your vitals with tranquility and also with a desire for free submission to the eternal laws.”

Places, and certainly this place, and the other historic graveyards in Charleston, tell stories, and call us to know our history. There are ten historic churchyards, in addition to the Circular Church, which provide the most extensive record of eighteenth century iconic gravestones in America. They are St. Philips Episcopal, St. John’s Lutheran, The Huguenot Church, St Michael’s Episcopal, First Scots Presbyterian, First Baptist, Unitarian, St. Mary’s Catholic, and Bethel Methodist.

According to Diana Combs, there is evidence from the surviving iconic tombstones in South Carolina and Georgia, especially the concentration in Charleston, that New England carvers dominated the market in these communities for two centuries. Signatures of carvers, like William Codner, a Boston artisan of unusual skill whose only signed stone (Reverend Nathan Bassett, 1739) is not in New England, but in Charleston. Also the carver, Henry Emmes, known for portraiture. Thomas Walker, a Scots immigrant, too, figures as an important carver.

These stones, standing through hurricanes and wars, are extraordinary examples of our cultural and artistic past. As I walk these paths, my imagination takes me back to the sights and smells and clothes of 18th century Charleston, a place that embraced those of many cultures. People of different faiths and faces lived and worked and often worshipped together.

Mary Quincy, d. 1742, St Philips Churchyard

The 18th century was the era that nurtured American Independence. Charleston today is rich and fresh, with her rock-star chefs, her fabulous contemporary art, the Spoleto festival, the daily pleasure of the drive to Mt. Pleasant over what is only sculpture: the the breathtakingly evocative Arthur Ravenel Jr. bridge. It is often said that in order to know where we are going we must know where we came from. In no city, in no place, do I feel this power like I do standing in the sacred places of Charleston’s churchyards. It is a city that sees the future from her past.

The American photographer, Ansel Adams (1902-1984), speaking of photography (the newer than slate-carving art form;) wrote this, about photographs of people: “These people live again in print as intensely as when their images were captured on the old dry plates of sixty years ago….I am walking in their alleys, standing in their rooms and sheds and workshops, looking in and out of their windows. And they in turn seem to be aware of me.”

Yes, indeed. I see, exactly.

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I was called to be an artist. And as an old old midwife said to me "If the Lord wants you to do something, you won't have no good luck' til you do." So, here I am, sharing what I love, longing to illuminate the work of art, which is everywhere.

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Posted in architecture, art, Arts & Culture, beauty, Charleston South Carolina, creativity, Food, Poetry, religion, South Carolina History
11 comments on “Early Gravestone Art in Charleston
  1. Oh, I love this entry. Writing is fresh and clean. :) Makes me want to go take some walks in the Charleston cemetaries, and do some pencil rubbings of all the sculpture or something. I don’t know if it goes right to my “loins” or anything, but I definitely enjoy walking in places where my ancestors lived and died. Cool post.

  2. Not loins, but “vitals!” Is that the same thing?

  3. Covalence2 says:

    By visual identification, your second gravestone photo is almost certainly by Nathaniel Lamson of Charlestown, MA (the pipe figs–a Lamson family hallmark–near the cherub’s shoulders give it away, as does the style–see Ralph Tucker’s work on the Lamsons, as well as the AGS pages and database, Bostones); and if the second one is not the signed Codner you allude to in your text, it’s probably another of his.

    There’s a similar use of a ring with a floral garland in three stones in King’s Chapel Grounds, Boston; at least one is a Codner, one of the others may be his, the third may be a copy by a contemporaneous carver…these are the “three Rebeccas,” near the entrance on the chapel side (Rebecca Gerrish, et al.)

    The “pouty” lips and double row of feathers at the base of the first photo is characteristic of another Boston area carver whose name escapes me at the moment; see Gabel and Chase’s Gravestone Chronicles I and II for more on these.

    Pencil rubbings, while once popular, are not a good idea for the upkeep of the stones; in MA they’re illegal without permission from the city’s Historic Burying Grounds Initiative (which keeps a list of those who’ve been trained so as not to damage the stones).

    If anyone is interested in more information on early stones (including Coomb’s work elsewhere) see the AGS site:

    http://www.gravestonestudies.org/

    The linkage to S. Carolina’s stones has been known for some time; the original impetus may have occurred when sea captains died in the area (I believe at least 6 such stones are for sea captains, per photos a friend sent me a bit ago).

    At that time one did not commonly ship bodies back for burial, but buried the individual where they had died. Stones were ordered from their home and sent out to mark the grave, and “sport” stones (those that are obviously different from the rest of the markers in a yard) are one indication of this.

    There are stones by the Lamson family (a five-generation-long carving family located in what was then Charlestown, MA–their site is over the border in what is, today, called Somerville).

    This may of course all be in Coombs book, but just thought I’d mention it.

  4. Covalence2 says:

    Sorry, I missed finishing that sentence!

    There are stones by the Lamson family (a five-generation-long carving family located in what was then Charlestown, MA–their site is over the border in what is, today, called Somerville) as far north as Acadia, and as far south as Jamaica. They were industrious and lived and worked near the docks, so shipping stones was not as difficult. (Don’t know yet where Codner’s shop was, many were in the North End, on the Boston side of the Charles River, also need the shipping docks of the merchants like the Gee’s who have what is probably a Codner escuteon in the burying ground at Copp’s Hill.

    Maybe y’all should come up to Boston sometime and we can compare stones!!

    –C2

    • edhg says:

      Funny, I was just looking up another reference and ran across this site again.

      The offer still stands! If you’re in the Boston area I’d be glad to show you the stones that compare with the ones you have in SC.

      Best–C.

  5. Kelly Hutson says:

    My ancestor, also, was William Hutson. And Richard Hutson, of course, was related. Loved your post. I was just in Charleston a few weeks ago. Would have loved to stop and meet with you.

  6. Becky Alfrey says:

    Excellent article!

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What’s this?

Welcome to my blog about the Lowcountry of South Carolina, a place proud with beauty, history and art. Sometimes we feel a call, to be, to go, to do. I was called to be an artist, and as an old midwife from Alabama said, “If the good Lord wants you to do something, you won’t have no good luck until you do it.”

So here I am writing about what I know, about the 'under glimmer' as the poet Basho, says, the way I have learned to see, to notice. I am inspired by, and talking about the history and art and culture of this place that has called me to herself. By the ancestors.

My background includes a degree in fine arts from a small private college in Florida, and before that, four years of all girls' boarding school in Asheville. I worked as a professional photographer, helped my children grow up, and now and I love seasoned things, good food, better conversation, beauty, my beloved and beautiful Italian Greyhound, Beau. Moved by the sacred places and stories of this beautiful historic land called the Lowcountry, I am here in spirit and I hope to infect you with my love of this place.

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