FINAL MARKS: THE ART OF THE CARVED LETTER
A Film by Frank Muhly, Jr., Peter O'Neill
(SCROLL DOWN): The hand-carved letter is an expression of one of the oldest impulses—to cut into stone what we fear to forget. In a triumphal Roman inscription and on an eighteenth-century New England gravestone curves and angles of the same alphabet were given life by the hand of the stonecutter, an art that has all but disappeared. One of the few places where letters are still cut by hand is the John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island. Here in the 1920's the calligrapher John Howard Benson revived the neglected art of letter carving. Today his son and associates carry on the tradition.
(Scenes of Newport, Rhode Island: Docks and the exterior of a building with painted lettering that reads "The John Stevens Shop, 29 Thames, Stone Carving & Lettering, Founded A .D. 1705." Then interior shots: an account book on a desk flanked by a skull and an hour glass, beneath a fragment of an old slate grave marker, then tools, then stones in production. A truck backs up to an open door for the unloading of a block of stone.)
JOHN E. "FUD BENSON, JOHN HEGNAUER, AND BROOKE ROBERTS GIVING EACH OTHER INSTRUCTIONS AS THEY UNLOAD THE STONE: It's coming. Swing it over. Woah. Right. That's good. Good!
"FUD" BENSON: Brooke, you're probably going to have to get on the end with him, okay? I think you're going to have to get on the end with him. Can do?
JOHN HEGNAUER: Yeah.
BENSON: Give me the rollers, give me the rollers.
HEGNAUER: The tip is sliding back on the stone. How much bite you want to have?
BENSON: You got plenty of bite. All right. Okay, good. Try that and let's see what we get. We may or may not be able to do it.
HEGNAUER: Okay, we're on the other stick. Beautiful. Now listen, guys, let's be ready to stop at the end.
BENSON: All three, get set! Okay? Great.
BENSON: Shu-ah. Okay, let's break it there, then.
HEGNAUER: Did you find the tinsmith's, John?
BENSON: Where's the nearest bloody shackle?
(Sings, as men loosen the chains holding the stone.)
BENSON: Beauty. Okay? I'll take that off. Slowly. Now, what're you going to put in?
HEGNAUER: I'm going to put, how about a four-by-six, on the side? I'll take up.
BENSON: Look what a beautiful job they did here, look at the stone! Well, there is nothing wrong with the way they did this. They're a little under measure, apparently from back to front, so we may have to hammer back an eighth of an inch.
BENSON (V/O): Much of the work we do is small, gravestones, which can actually be picked up physically by two or three of us. Here we have a big hunk of stone that we cannot pick up. It's a pedestal for a piece of sculpture down in Washington at the Smithsonian Institution—but which now here is just a big, lovely hunk of stone.
Run it in there.
HEGNAUER: A little resin?
BENSON: No, that's not resin. A piece of the [box-?-] Oh, no, this is sincere, man. Oh, maybe so, a little resin maybe.
BENSON (V/O): And it gives us a great satisfaction and a feeling of achievement to cause this large weight to change place the way we've done.
HEGNAUER: Center the blocks end to end, or something?
BENSON: Why don't we close the door and go home?
HEGNAUER: Yeah, I've got to go. (Laughter)
(Later, Benson bending over the stone, tapping with a chisel. Hegnauer with his chisel, cutting a letter. Benson's hand painting on a piece of paper "Anno Domini"—glimpse of earlier drafts painted with the same words. Hegnauer again, chiseling letters on a stone.
Cut to Hegnauer wheeling a gravestone into a cemetery for installation.)
HEGNAUER (V/O): A gravestone is actually about the briefest biography that you could write about somebody. It's their name and their birthdate and their death date. It's the only thing that many of us will ever leave. I think just the fact of a person's existence justifies all the expense and all the care and the emotional energy that goes into the making of a stone, both on our parts and on the part of the people that commission it.
(He sets the stone.)
HEGNAUER (V/O): Our infatuation with slate goes back to again the purchase of the shop in the late '20s. John Howard Benson started using it almost exclusively. It's become so much a part of our image that when people come to us for a stone, slate is generally what is on their mind. The reason we're so infatuated with it is because it's so responsive. You can do almost anything with it. It takes detail much better than any other material. And it holds it. Once a letter is carved, it retains its look almost forever.
(He views it from several angles and checks it with a level.)
HEGNAUER (V/O): The nicest thing to observe is the continuity. Our progress is definitely a progress of evolution more than innovation. Taking a longer view of it, it has really been that since the eighteenth century, since the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the shop was founded. And we're really pretty conscious of trying to make letters an important part of the success of the stone and a part of the whole composition. We don't see our selves as just graphic designers or carvers of ornament. We see ourselves as makers of gravestones, and the whole stone is our chief concern. I think our stones look the way they should for our time and our period. To some I'm certain they look kind of primitive, but they're not, really. They don't look like eighteenth-century stones. They just kind of adhere to the same principles.
(He stamps down the turf and wipes the stone clean with a damp sponge.)
HEGNAUER (V/O): Our work seems to be about equally divided between gravestones and public inscriptions, and half of it is found in cemeteries where it is seen by very few people, and the other half out in places where it's observed by thousands.
(The camera pans down a tall stone building to where at shoulder level Benson stands carving an inscription. The scene shifts to the inside of the building, where Calder mobiles hang from beams. Beneath them Benson bends over his drawing board. Then the camera shows shots again of him at work on the inscription on the wall outside. He is chiseling out the space between lines that outline the letters.)
BENSON: The question of course arises, Why go to all this kind of trouble to get a name on a building? Why carve it on the stone? Why carve it in this particular fashion?
And the answer's really twofold. First of all, there's a tremendous emotional appeal about a carved letter. It partakes of the substance of the building. And of the carved letters, this particular style, this particular kind has the best historical association and the most ready communication with the material of stone. It's easy looking at a V-cut to see just how it's affected, to see what it is. It's a channel, consisting of the meeting of two planes, and it shows very clearly that the letter is made of the same stuff as the building itself. There are lots easier ways to do it, let me tell you.
(Inside the building again, with Benson working at his drawing board.)
HEGNAUER: (V/O) We design inscriptions entirely at the shop before we get to the site. And we come to a site with a fully developed paper text ready to transfer onto the wall and carve. In this case, when we arrived at the site, they had several last-minute revisions of the text, and these were sufficient to require us to go right back to the beginning and basically redesign the entire text here, in Washington.
(Outside, a view of the inscription "EAST BUILDING NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART".)
HEGNAUER: (V/O) In this case also we were working for exceptionally demanding clients: Carter Brown, Paul Mellon, and Tom Schmidt, from the architect's office.
(Inside view of Hegnauer at the drawing board and then at work on the inscription on a foyer wall.)
HEGNAUER: (V/O) These clients are more aware of a simple truth than most people, and that is that these inscriptions are going to be here as long as the building is. Our whole involvement with lettering is with the stone. You know, other people design things for a living, for other people to execute, and obviously the designing is what they regard as their work. But at least speaking for myself, I've always regarded designing and the drawing of the letters as ancillary to the really important function that I perform—and that's cutting the things into stone. And all the time that I spend on other things is just preparation for when I get onto the stone.
(Benson chiseling away at letters, whistling as he works, on the inscription on the outside wall. Workmen bring plants and other things into the building. Benson and Hegnauer remove tracing paper from the foyer wall and study and discuss the painted lettering.)
HEGNAUER (V/O): Well, Fud and I have been working together for ten years. Actually more like fifteen. There are plenty of times when his ideas and my own don't correspond. And in this case he's thoroughly responsible for the appearance of these inscriptions. He's totally responsible for them, even though I've drawn probably more of these letters than he has. I've done all of the paper work for this specific inscription, and I'll be the one to cut it. You know, even though I do an entire inscription from start to finish, his presence is there. His decisions are what make the shop product what it is.
(Benson again at work on the outside wall.)
BYSTANDER: How long does it take you to do one of these?
BENSON: About an hour and a half.
BYSTANDER: I don't mean that. I mean the whole sign.
BENSON: Well, you figure an hour and a half a letter, then you can figure it out. Yeah.
BENSON (VO): The light's coming round the front of the building and starting to highlight the inscription. The sun comes in and just now begins to pick up that one little edge, and slowly moves down to create one whole bright side to the V [V-cut] and one deep, dark side to the V and all the subtle shades in between around the curves. This is what V-cutting is all about, this wonderful opportunity for the light and the stone to play against each other and make a small area of excitement.
(The sound of the tapping and the chisel fades as the camera pulls back and pans the outside of the building.)
BENSON (V/O): In these large civic inscriptions very few people ever look at the letters as things in themselves. But the gravestone, of course, you get a very personal sense, and the message is urgent, and everybody examines it. A large-scale thing doesn't have that—but we did do a large-scale inscription that must be viewed as a very intimate, personal piece of communication. That was in our work for the John F. Kennedy Memorial, at Arlington.
(The camera pans across paving stones to the John F. Kennedy Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, with people standing before it and photographing it. Benson and Hegnauer walk about examining the inscriptions.)
BENSON (V/O): Getting the commission to carve the lettering for the Kennedy Memorial was a terribly exciting thing for me. At age twenty-five. This is the biggest job of lettering that our time had seen. More people were going to see this, more people were going to look at this as a piece of lettering, whether they were conscious of it or not. Ninety percent of the impact of the memorial is communicated by carved lettering—the lettering of the speeches, which are the contemplative aspect, and the lettering on the gravestone, which is the immediate recording of the terrible fact of his death, and it was up to us as carvers and me as the designer to couch these emotions in a handsome and perceivable form. It was a very, very demanding commission. Here at this angle it is possible to see a lot of the distortions that we made to the letters so that they'd read properly from the viewing distance. If you're looking now, it's very amusing for me looking at these now in the light of our development as letterers, because we have changed quite a bit, but back then it was necessary to make very intellectual judgments about shapes like this S, so I can recall drawing S's over and over again to try to arrive at one that would look well from the low viewing angle of the middle distance that I assumed the letters would be seen from. The waist of the letter here is dropped way down. The stem strokes are made much thicker than they ever would be in a standard situation, and the over-all proportions have been pulled out and attenuated. I wasn't sure that we had succeeded in constructing a unified piece of work out there. And so it was very interesting to go to the gravesite and look at these letters which we had spent so much time shaping and so much time conceiving and drawing and designing and carving, and see them with a fresh eye.
(Camera shifts from Benson and Hegnauer standing at the memorial to Benson driving in a truck past a graveyard into Newport to the John Stevens Shop, then pans around the interior, where Hegnauer is at work and Benson is talking on the telephone.)
BENSON: Okay, I'm sorry it got so telescoped till the end. We didn't get the damned stone until, you know, last Wednesday, and I couldn't start working on it till Thursday.
It should look nice when we do the design, yes.
You should use some epoxy and go back through the brick and then use the brick as a guide to drill into the concrete.
Get a long masonry drill and just go back into the concrete.
What you've a block, a block in there? Well, I can't remember.
Why don't you, John, have Vinnie give me a call, and insist that he call me. He's a nice fellow, he's not difficult to deal with at all, he's very pleasant, just hard to get ahold of.
Okay, John, I'll talk to you real soon.
Right, then. Goodbye.
(Hegnauer sharpens a tool and returns to cutting an inscription on a stone. Benson paints letters on a sheet of paper and dictates a letter.)
BENSON (V/O) (Dictating): "Dear Mrs. Metcalf, It was nice to see you here the other day and talk about your stone. We enclose two prints of a sketch showing our proposed design. It is drawn just like the existing stone with the slate marker set upon a granite base. Monson slate, as well, is difficult now to obtain since that quarry changed hands some years ago. Here again we have had a bit of luck. In our barn I located a piece of Monson stock that should serve the purpose." (To the Pat Chase): Uh, money, um? Where's your estimate. Is it this one?
PAT CHASE: Yes.
(Scene shifts to Benson at the Sullivan Quarry, then owned by the Bonner Monument Co., talking with Richard D. Comolli.)
BENSON: I'd like to get a seam at the top, you know?
RICHARD COMOLLI: Seam at the top, right.
BENSON: But I don't know what the hell we can do for the rest of it. Can we plane the edges? or should we tool them? Because I want it to look totally natural. I'll tell you where it's going. It's going on top of a sort of a knoll of granite, you know.
BENSON: It's coming out. And I just want it to sit there and have it look very natural.
COMOLLI: Guy from Stevens Shop comes over here and buys stone from us, but we do not do any of their lettering. What we do mostly for them is get the actual size for 'em. And they go into a lot of seam-space granite in the rough, and they letter it that way. Our Westerly granite of course is special because of its fine grain, and for any statuary work or any hand-carved work or anything that's, you know, hand-cut lettering, it's superb. It shows the workmanship of the hand work into it.
(The men examine stone in at Bonner Monument Company and with a winch and rope slowly lower a slab of granite onto the back of Benson's truck.)
MEN DIRECTING EACH OTHER: Good! Going to have to lift one end of this thing, okay? I'll take it this way, Dick. Beauty! (Laughter.)
(The interior of the Bonner Monument Company workshop, which uses industrial techniques to letter gravestones. Shots of machinery and Comolli at a table where he forms stencils of letters into an inscription for sand blasting.)
COMOLLI (V/O): Using a stencil-cutting machine. It's something that's been in the industry now approximately seven or eight years. It speeds up the operation. Instead of cutting all the letters with a stencil knife, it's pressed onto the rubber now, and I would say it's probably twice as fast. And again this has come into the industry to bring the cost down. In our business here, we have to go into it because of the competition. When you go into the machine-cut letter like this, all the lettering looks mechanical. And of course people are buying price, but if you looked at the letter-cutting-machine lettering and the lettering that's done at the John Stevens Shop, you could really appreciate their workmanship.
(Describing the execution of the ornament.) What has happened is that the layout man in the sand-blast room has blown the background down, but it's pretty difficult to shape a cultivated rose in the sand-blast room. So what we do is we sandblast around it, and then I shape up the rose. And then he brings it back into the sand-blast room and puts a few finishing touches. But we find it looks much better when you hand cut a cultivated rose.
Like John Stevens shop, using their hammer, hitting the chisel, this is hitting the chisel the same way, only under 120 pounds of air. It has an advantage of speed, but again your hands get all calloused up, and the circulation is stopped. The nerves in my fingers have been crimped and damaged, so they're not telling my brain that my fingers are cold, that the blood should circulate to my fingers faster to keep them warm. And he said that he don't think they'll ever cure.
(Cut to the John Stevens Shop, where Benson is humming as he studies drafts of inscriptions that he has tacked to the wall.)
BENSON, SINGING: " . . . in the west of Ireland."
BENSON: Okay. Found thee, Brush! Here we are. See, I got you now. That's going to do it for me. (V/O): I don't know how many times I've drawn the alphabet with a brush. I've done it over and over again. And for some strange reason, I never ever get tired of doing these simple little strokes and making these old—to me very meaningful—marks. This particular kind of drawing—ink and brush on a hand-made paper—is just a very pleasant sensuous thing to do. The quality of the line is so exciting, and the feel of the brush and the paper. It may or may not have much to do with the final form of the thing, which is really given to it by the chisel, the final form of the detail. We tend here to do a lot more drawing than the traditionalists. The Romans would draw a thing once with a brush on the stone and they'd cut it. That was it. The English seldom draw with a brush at all. They'll draw with pencil right on the stone and cut it.
The difficulty with an alphabet stone is avoiding pomposity, because in doing it is an act of arrogance, you know. You're saying, look here I'm doing this alphabet, you know, and this is the most beautiful alphabet that I can draw, and carve. So you have to be careful not to be too self-conscious about it, not to be too over-bearing about it. You have to let the letters contribute their own characters to the thing. Then once it's done it gets traced down onto the stone with a white sort of carbon paper. And the letters are traced with a steel scribe, which leaves a white outline. And it's from that that you paint.
(Benson goes through several stages of work on the alphabet stone: tracing his original drawing, transferring it to the stone, filling in the outline with white paint, chiseling the letters.) Okay, now.
HEGNAUER (V/O): We're looking for a kind of a perfection in our work—on the one hand cold and abstract perfection, and on the other hand an immediate human expressive kind of a thing. And in either case, these techniques are the only ones that we have to get there.
(Over shots of Hegnauer carefully putting gold leaf into the letters of the alphabet stone.)
Oh, when you sandblast an inscription you start out with an R and basically you end up with an R that's less good than the one you began with, because the techniques at all stages take away from what you start with. And with us, every stage brings something more to what you begin with, and you end up with something better. And we'll continue to do it this way as long as there are enough people out there to support us.
BENSON: (Wiping and then washing the gold-leafed lettering.) Why don't you just wet burnish this just a minute, can you?
As I went out of a May morning all in the foggy dew,
There I espied a pretty fair maid appearing in my view.
Where have you strayed, you pretty fair maid, and what brings you this way?
I am from the west of Ireland. Kind sir, don't me delay.
(Camera cuts to a pan of the Newport Common Burying Ground.)
BENSON (V/O): Here in the Common Burying Ground we have a wonderful storehouse of information about the old cutters—the Stevenses, Lamsons, Bunkers, John Bull. We draw tremendous inspiration from the work of these men, as did my father before me. He used to wander through this cemetery and study the inscriptions and the letters and the iconography of these fiercely tense moral objects.
(Benson stops before the Nathaniel Holt stone.)
BENSON: This is one of the first stones my father ever cut, which he did in the manner of John Stevens II. He used John II letters as a model and drew them as accurately and skillfully as he could with a pencil and a piece of paper, very carefully tracing the outlines, and then laying out this inscription in these funny, idiosyncratic letters, with their curious curves and oddities of detail. And then he chopped it out, as best he could, which in those days was fairly crudely, although nowhere near as crudely as the first Stevenses had cut theirs. They of course had nobody to follow, and he had the Stevenses to follow, not to mention the whole wealth of nineteenth-century gravestone technical achievement. This style was used in the very beginning of his life as a cutter, but he quickly migrated away from it and began to refine the shapes of the letters according to his own ideas rather than the ideas of someone else, as here, the Stevenses. The biggest change that happened in his letters was when he started to use the Roman models. In imperial Rome, around the second century, a wonderful style of lettering evolved, which was drawn first with a brush. Some people say the actual carving was simply meant to perpetuate the brush layouts that they did. They used to write with a brush all over the place. They'd write election notices like modern graffiti, but oh, so beautiful, done in this big, bold brush style. And my father came to know this Roman style of lettering and he came to adopt the practice of drawing with a brush prior to cutting, the one that we use now. And this changed his letters tremendously, gave them a much more solid foundation on which to rest, and formed the basis for his greatest statements as a letterer, letter cutter, that combination of the flexible weighted stroke of a brush with the V-cut. That's what so beautiful about his things. And that is what our stuff gains whatever strength it has from--that use of the brush, and the consciousness of the brush stroke shaping the skeletal form.
(Benson kneeling beside a marker laid flat on the ground.)
BENSON: This is a John Stevens II stone, done for William Ellery, who was a very prominent citizen. And then he went to Harvard. He was very proud of going to Harvard. He had it put on his gravestone. And he was the Vice Governor of the state, and he had that put on his gravestone too down here. But the thing that's so beautiful about this particular stone is that it really shows how John Stevens shaped his letters with the tools that he used. They have a very nervous, quick quality to them, which comes from the way they were cut. The chisel moves very quickly through the stone. And in that motion that gives each curve and each straight line and each termination of the letter a vitality and a life that has very little to do with the cold, dry analysis that letters are shaped with today by type designers, or by graphic designers. Look at the C here. It just swings around, like an apple, the side of a pumpkin! This f and the u. We have a sort of a texture, almost like a piece of peasant weaving here, of these vigorous, active little marks, combining in a pattern that has great vitality and great life to it.
He carved on these sandy eighteenth-century stones because they were products of a life that is completely different from our own. Mortality was everywhere. Babies died. Mothers died. Strong young husbands would suddenly die, "a profusion of blood from the lungs" one stone reads. A young man died, BANG, like that. And these marks are chopped into a stone to record this urgent and irreversible fact. "Here lie Deposited Six Children Sons and Daughters of Mr. WILLIAM LANGLEY, and SARAH his Wife. SARAH died Febry, Also NATHANIEL, Also SARAH the 2d, Also ROYAL, Also SARAH the 3d, Also WILLIAM.
Here lie Six blessed babes which JESUS said;
Heirs of his blessed kingdom should be made.
Then let my murmuring Heart cheer up with this:
They with their Saviour are in endless bliss.
You can see each tiny little chisel mark. You can see the beautiful little delicate, almost engraving lines of the hair. And here in this achievement of his craft he said an awful lot about the eighteenth century.
(The camera pans over other stones and then pulls back, panning across the whole graveyard.)
With the participation of
The John Stevens Shop:
John "Fud" Benson
Bonner Monument Co.
National Gallery of Art
thanks to Folk-Legacy Records,
Sharon, Conn., for:
SANDY RIVER BELLE
Sarah Grey, Ed Trickett
GENTLE MAIDEN PLANXTY IRWIN
Gordon Bok, Ann Mayo Muir,
thanks to Front Hall Records,
Vorheesville, N.Y., for:
Walter Michael, Tom McCreesh
STAR OF THE COUNTY DOWN,
(songwriter Pat Shaw)
Bill Spence, Tom McCreesh,
Toby Fink Strover, Alistair Anderson,
made with funding from:
The National Endowment for the Arts,
a federal agency
Catharine Morris Wright
copyright C 1979 Final Marks
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