Figure 1. James Thom, Old Mortality group, c. 1836. Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA. Photo: The Library Company of Philadelphia.

Supposing you had visited Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia in the 19th century, upon passing through the gatehouse you would have seen the structure in figure 1. It hosts a bespoke sculptural group by James Thom created for Laurel Hill’s creatorJohn Notman, in 1836; the title of the group is “Old Mortality.” It is still there, and the figure of “Old Mortality” himself has been repristinated (figure 2).

Figure 2. James Thom, “Old Mortality” group. Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA. Photo: author.

The scene is an imagined meeting between Sir Walter Scott and the eponymous main character of his novel, Old Mortality. In Scott’s novel, Old Mortality (the character) makes the rounds in Scotland recarving worn names into tombstones. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Old Mortality,  novel by Sir Walter Scott, published in 1816 and a masterpiece in the genre of historical romance. The story takes place in Scotland in 1679 during a time of political turmoil, when the dissenting Covenanters were up in arms against the English King Charles II. The main character, Henry Morton, is a moderate who is compelled to support the Covenanters when he learns that some of his relatives are among the dissenters. Representing Scott’s own ambiguous feelings toward his native Scotland, Morton is essentially a peacemaker, and his marriage to the granddaughter of a Royalist at the end of the novel symbolizes the hope for a union between the two countries.

Encyclopedia Britannica

The group embodied the mission of commemoration of Laurel Hill and Notman himself, but also that of clients and visitors of the cemetery. The head peeping out in the rear of figure 2 is that of Thom, the sculptor.

All of which is very interesting, though I’ve never yet thought it worth a post. Still, it’s a notable composition and it sticks in the back of one’s mind.

So imagine my surprise when in recent days, on a trip to Hollenback Cemetery in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, I stumbled across the Pearce monument (figures 3, 5).

Figure 3. Pearce monument. Hollenback Cemetery, Wilkes-Barre, PA. Photo: author.

The Pearce monument has many names on it with anagraphic inscriptions. It is best summarized by the inscription on the base (figure 4).

Figure 4. Pearce monument. Detail: dedicatory inscription. Hollenback Cemetery, Wilkes-Barre, PA. Photo: author.


Figure 5. Pearce monument. Hollenback Cemetery, Wilkes-Barre, PA. Photo: author.

The face of the monument records the names of Stewart Pearce (1820-1823), his father, Marmaduke (!), and his mother, Hannah. Many ancestors populate the other faces of the monument, though the limestone has been so badly weathered that they are difficult to read. A contributor over at find a grave dot com has reproduced Pearce’s lengthy family history which is reasonably interesting: they were Scots that went over to Ireland with Cromwell, etc., etc. One of Pearce’s grandfathers and even his brother were named Cromwell, for example.

Pearce, unmarried with no children, appears to have cast his eyes backward on his ancestors rather than creating a family plot for the future. Of course, knowing one’s ancestors in the detail he claimed and proclaiming them to have been the sort of people they were was socially elevating in his day.

Whether or not it was self-serving, rescuing his ancestors from obscurity and creating a cenotaph for most of them must have brought Old Mortality, selflessly re-carving lost names, to mind. The image atop the Pearce monument shows that not only did he know the Scott novel (everyone did, then, Scott was like John Grisham), but he was also familiar with the statue group in Laurel Hill and drew upon it to comment approvingly on his funerary project.

For the art historians, this offers an example of the Nachleben of the Thom group approximately half a century after Thom completed it. It is within a reasonably close orbit of Philadelphia, and well-to-do citizens of Wilkes-Barre might reasonably be expected to have visited that important city and its most prominent burial ground. Still, it’s a fascinating and unexpected cultural connection in the American funerary sphere.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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