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Reflections on Final Marks

Reflections on Final Marks

By Daniel W. Patterson

"Final Marks" offers a glimpse into one of a number of moments of exchange between the traditional craft of the stone mason and activities in the outer world. These interactions have existed, of course, since ancient times. The craftsman had his knowledge of stone and tools, his training in using them, the designs he learned from older masters of the craft, and his identity and economic interests as a member of a recognized occupational group. For much of his work powerful and wealthy patrons opened opportunities to him or imposed constraints. The work itself offered some craftsmen a path for personal evolution from journeyman to master builder to architect or artist. In some transitional periods the direction of movement has also been reversed. The outsider entered the world of the craftsman.

One of these periods was contemporaneous with the lives of the first Stevens carvers, beginning toward the end of the seventeenth century. The old medieval craft guilds were waning. They had developed to guard the training of apprentices and ensure both the quality of their products and their reliability as fellow workers in hazardous tasks. They had protected the livelihood of the workmen by preventing over-competition and provided the supportive fellowship of the lodge. They had, copying the fashions of nobles, enhanced their sense of importance with fabricated genealogies that claimed their descent from notables in the ancient world. This craft ancestry dignified the stone mason by linking him to the builders of King Solomon's Temple. In an era when a man who worked as a "mechanick" with his hands was specifically disqualified from getting a personal grant of arms such as gentlefolk flaunted, the guild itself could in England or Scotland secure the dignity of a patent of arms.

Social changes in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were undercutting the craft guilds. At the same time outsiders, in a movement not unlike that of the folk-revival musicians of the 1960s and '70s, were beginning to take an interest in the lore of the mason. They found a welcome in lodges, to which they brought financial support and gratifying respect. They in turn were stimulated by the symbolic lore and the secret initiation ceremonies and other rituals of the lodges and by their egalitarian membership. Noble patrons joined the lodges. Enlightenment ideas flowed in. The result was the evolution of the craft guild from an organization of "operative" or working stone masons into an international fraternal order of "speculative" Masons filled with many of the intellectual, social, and political leaders of the era. Probably few of the working stone masons of New England joined them. They now taught their craft mostly within their own families and worked as independent small businessmen, with diverse activities. They coordinated with other masons, however, to publish lists of agreed-upon charges for each of the kinds of work they did. The formal craft apprenticeship declined into a stratagem for keeping orphans off the public dole.

"Final Marks" is focused, however, on a second transitional phase in which outsiders again entered the world of the craftsmen. In the late nineteenth century one of the many responses to industrialization was the restiveness of intellectuals and artists with two of its results: the shoddiness of its products and the divorce of the arts from manual crafts. In Great Britain William Morris and others worked to reverse the trends by establishing such activities as the Kelmscott Press to produce books designed as beautifully as Medieval manuscripts and printed well on lasting, handmade paper. The designing of beautiful type faces was another expression of this work. A turn-of-the-century British heir to this tradition—Eric Gill—united the skills of wood-block engraver, type designer, sculptor, and stone mason. He applied the ideals of the movement to gravestones.

One influential American, Henry Adams, invigorated by the ideas bubbling in this complex movement, was stimulated to write a cultural critique of the "Dynamo" by the standards of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. If he lacked the artistic and manual skills to put ideas into physical practice, another young American influenced by the movement did not. He was John Howard Benson, an admirer of Eric Gill. His feeling for tradition was so strong that it led him to become, like Gill, a convert to Roman Catholicism. But he was rooted in a family with a history of both artistic gifts and handicrafts and in a town with a visible legacy of stone carving and a region with outstanding schools of design. Like Gill he came to unite the skills and training of the traditional stone mason with the artistic gifts of the sculptor and calligrapher. By the happiest accident of fate he and his family were also to become heirs to a workshop tradition that stretched back for two centuries in the John Stevens Shop. They continued the traditions but claimed the artistic freedom to spin that tradition in fresh directions, influenced by both new technologies and traditions from even older eras of stone carving and lettering.