Final Marks, Notes on Persons
By Daniel W. Patterson
JOHN E. "FUD" BENSON began work under his father John Howard Benson at the John Stevens Shop in 1955. He was then fifteen. His father died the next year, and Fud entered the Rhode Island School of Design, where he majored in sculpture and carried out an honors project in Rome. When he graduated in 1961, he returned to help his mother run the John Stevens Shop, producing gravestones and public inscriptions. Benson soon began filling major commissions: inscriptions for the John F. Kennedy Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., the Prudential Center in Boston, the National Gallery of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Armand Hammer Museum of Art in Los Angeles, and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. He has won awards for his calligraphy, lettering, and inscriptions and has lectured widely on calligraphy and monumental lettering. In 1993 Fud Benson turned over the John Stevens Shop to his son Nicholas, who continues his family's tradition with great distinction. The folksong that Fud Benson sings in "Final Marks" shows another of his enthusiasms. In the years before 1984 he performed in a folk-revival band called The Reprobates. Fud plays the fiddle in its album "Whiskey Johnny." The band reunited in performances for several years after 2000.
JOHN HEGNAUER met Richard "Chip" Benson in Chicago and through him, made contact with his brother Fud. Hegnauer had studied Biology at Northwestern University in Chicago and came to Newport in 1962 to work with Fud Benson in The John Stevens Shop. Both were young, and they perfected their craft together. In 1979 Hegnauer left and set up his own shop in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, where he continued to produce outstanding work. He also taught a course in lettering for the Rhode Island School of Design. He has since retired and now lives in Newfoundland.
RICHARD D. COMOLLI at the time of the filming was employed by the Bonner Monument Company in Ashaway, Rhode Island. After Bonner closed, Comolli opened his own shop in Ashaway, Comolli Granite Company. He himself is the son and grandson of Italian stone cutters who were employed in working with the famous Westley granite that had served for major Civil War monuments at places like Gettysburg. Younger family members continue the work at his shop.
THE JOHN STEVENS SHOP is a constant presence in "Final Marks." Although the present shop building dates from later, the firm was founded in 1705 and is believed to be the oldest continuously operating business in the United States. The first owner was JOHN STEVENS I (1647-1736). Born in Oxfordshire, England, he had lived in Boston prior to coming to Newport and opening his business there. He, like his sons John and William and later descendants, was a general stone mason, laying house foundations and cellars, building chimneys, hearths, and steps, and setting pots on ships, in addition to carving gravestones. JOHN STEVENS II (1702-1778) trained under his father and took over the shop when John I died. The seaport town and its businesses flourished before the Revolutionary War, and John II and his crew did the masonry work for a number of important public buildings. John II developed into a very proficient gravestone cutter, as did his brother WILLIAM STEVENS (1710-ca. 1790) and his son JOHN STEVENS III (1753-1817). Other carvers trained with one or another of them, notably JOHN BULL (1734-1808), who cut the stone for the "Six Children Sons and Daughters of Mr. WILLIAM LANGLEY, and SARAH his Wife," discussed by Fud Benson at the close of "Final Marks." John III inherited the shop but in the post-war world had to struggle for a living. His youngest son PHILIP followed him into the work and obtained the shop from his older brothers in 1848 and operated it until his death in 1866. By these years the carvers offered very different products, ones shaped by Victorian popular culture. Three of Philip's sons—LYSANDER, PHILIP, and EDWIN—followed him into the business. At Edwin's death in 1900 the ownership passed to a brother-in-law, who leased the shop to other stone cutters. At the death of Martin Burke, the last of them, JOHN HOWARD BENSON (1901-1956), a craftsman and trained artist, was prompted to undertake the carving of a stone and first rented and then in 1927 bought the John Stevens Shop. He gave it a continued life with his own distinguished work and that of successive generations of carvers from his own family—his son JOHN E. "FUD" BENSON and his grandson NICHOLAS W. BENSON. Examples of stones carved by members of several generations of the Stevens family can be identified in The Farber Gravestone Collection website by highlighting an image and clicking on the term Data. Examples of the work of both the Stevens and the Benson carvers appear, along with much additional information about the history of the shop, in Elton W. Hall's "The John Stevens Shop: Three Hundred Years of Stonecutting in Newport" in The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, 58 (No. 4, December 2005), 141-153.
JOHN HOWARD BENSON (1901-1956), who founded the Benson line of carvers, is an unseen presence in "Final Marks." He was born in Newport and studied at the Newport Art Association and then at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League in New York. Although trained as a printmaker and watercolor painter, he grew interested in the old gravestone carvings in Newport and became acquainted with the last carver of the Stevens shop. In 1927 he bought the John Stevens Shop and began carving, using the old gravestones as "examples of how to produce contemporary memorials." This propelled him into a serious study of the history of letter forms. While continuing to carve, he taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and gained high standing and many honors as a calligrapher. His published works in this field include The Elements of Lettering (1940) and The First Writing Book (1954), an edition of Ludovico degli Arrighi's Operina (1522). He himself is the subject of John Howard Benson and His Work, 1901-1956 (1957) by Philip Hofer, Lawrence C. Wroth, and Rudolph Ruzicka. After Benson's death his wife Esther, also a trained artist, managed the John Stevens Shop until their son John "Fud" Benson completed schooling and joined the business.
ADDENDUM: In September 2007 Nicholas Benson, son of John "Fud" Benson and grandson of John Howard Benson, received the National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor that our nation bestows upon its folk and traditional artists. Each year, ten to thirteen individuals, "national living treasures" from across the nation, are chosen to receive this one-time-only Fellowship in recognition of lifetime achievement, artistic excellence and contributions to our nation's cultural heritage. In 2010 Nick Benson further received the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and was extolled in its award statement.