By Thomas E. Gilson & William Gilson
Wesleyan University Press, 136 pages, $30.00
The 17th century Puritan settlers of New England left behind a great legacy, including a collection of carved gravestones depicting their understanding of death and the afterlife. From 1640 to 1810, hundreds of stone carvers created thousands of stone grave markers, many of which still can be seen today. When photographer Thomas E. Gilson discovered the wealth of history portrayed on these underappreciated works of art, he knew that he had to preserve the messages revealed on their stone faces with his camera lens. By teaming up with his brother (and author) William Gilson, the siblings created Carved in Stone: The Artistry of Early New England Gravestones. With 81 full-page photographs, readers will feel like they are walking amongst the gravestones in a New England cemetery.
The book opens with a revealing and fascinating essay by William Gilson. He possesses a great talent for describing carved stone using vivid imagery and lively, precise vocabulary. Gilson shares how he became interested in burial grounds and stone carving, specifically the carving found on the stones of the New England Puritans, and offers a brief overview of early New England history and background information on some of the stone carvers. Gilson also tackles the question of how Puritan stones came to exist in the first place given the fact that the carvers’ religion dictated “no graven images.”
Following his brother’s introductory essay comes the bulk of Thomas E. Gilson’s photographs. They capture the artistry and craftsmanship that went into creating each hand carved work of art. On display for readers to ponder and enjoy are shadows created by raised carvings, small flaws made by a real person working with a mallet and chisel, marks created by hundreds of years of exposure to the elements, varying textures and a wide variety of additional decorative detail. Accompanying the photographs are passages from journals, diaries, sermons and other writings of the period’s religious leaders.
While Carved in Stone deals with death at its core, it is never morbid. The Gilson brothers have nothing but respect for the departed. Over time, even the gravestones featured in the book will crumble and fall, but the Gilsons’ magnificent tribute will always be available for readers interested in an important part of history that is recorded in stone. This beautiful book deserves a prominent place on your coffee table or in your library collection.
Reviewed by Kathryn Franklin