One of the hoariest of chestnuts for taphophiles is the portrait statue of Gracie Watson (1883-1889) in Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. I ticked her off my bucket list last week, and I present her here as a part of my study of American funerary portraits.

Figure 1. Watson monument. Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, GA. Photo: author.

Like so many funerary portraits, Gracie’s cannot be photographed from the six standard views. In this case, the monument is in a wrought-iron enclosure with a hedge blocking all but the ‘optimum’ view, that is, the view the sculptor John Walz had in mind when he created the image in 1890. Some explanation for the enclosure may be found in the fact that someone’s knocked the tip of her nose off.

The monument sits in the center of its lot, if, at least, the lot is defined by its fence. No other burials marked within it. The monument is the cradle type much favored in the middle Victorian era. The idea was that a cradle-shaped basin in the base of the monument would be filled with earth (or a hole left in the base of the monument exposing the earth below), so that the family could commune with the dead as they came back to cultivate flowers in the cradle. These are now largely forgotten, but some fine examples that have been restored by volunteers can be seen in the great Philadelphia boneyards and occasionally elsewhere (see Appendix A, below). Here, the plant seems to be the hardy spider plant.

A plaque offering Gracie’s story sits near the gate where visitors can read it (figure 2).

Figure 2. Watson monument. Detail: didactic plaque. Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, GA. Photo: author.

Little Gracie
Little Gracie Watson was born in 1883; the
only child of her parents, her father was
manager of the Pulaski House, one of
Savannah’s leading hotels, where the
beautiful and charming little girl was a
favorite with the guests. Two days before
Easter, in April 1889, Gracie died of
pneumonia at the age of six. In 1890, when
the rising sculptor, John Walz, moved to
Savannah, he carved from a photograph
this life-sized, delicately detailed marble
statue, which for almost a century has
captured the interest of all passersby

Watson didactic plaque. Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, GA.

Walz carved the statue from a photograph. This is a useful datum, because normally it’s hard to distinguish between a funerary portrait carved during life and one carved from a photo or some other likeness after the subject’s death. What this means, of course, is that if, as is suggested by the didactic, Walz carved the portrait from a single photograph, the three dimensional features of the image will have been guessed at and created by him. Put in terms a sculptor might use, when we look at the image in the same plane as the photograph, the lines Walz created will be fairly true-to-life, and the three-dimensional modeling in the areas shown by the photograph had to be conjectured from shadows cast.

My sense is that the optimal view of the statue (figure 1) is the view in the photograph. I take as evidence for that the photographer’s need to get the subject as close to lying in a plane as possible so that Gracie was in focus. See how her torso is turned right toward us, with her head turned a little and her lower legs tucked back into the plane, or nearly so. If I’m right, the profile views would not be trustworthy, and the top and back of the head views pure guesses.

The original photograph may well have employed props to give some life to the image. Yet surely the sculpted image has been altered from the photograph to have Gracie’s right hand rest on a tree stump–a symbol of life cut short. The ivy on the stump (and the sprig in her left hand) is a standard funerary symbol denoting affection. The fern, too, under her dress, is almost certainly an add-on to provide stability to the image.

The elegant gothic-adjacent characters of the anagram of her initials in the shield on the cradle portion of the monument and the rustic log-letters of the name GRACIE on the statue base stand in odd disjunction, but the pull of rustic writing was strong and examples of its use in even neoclassical settings could be found.

Nikon Z 7ii with Nikkor Z 24-200 mm f/4-6.3 lens.

Figure 1. 60 mm, f/8, ISO 100, 1/30 s.
Figure 2. 48 mm, f/8, ISO 100, 1/30 s.

Edited in Apple Photos.

APPENDIX A. Cradle graves.

It occurred to me that I owe you an image of an abandoned (figure 3), and a well-tended (figure 4) cradle crave.

Figure 3. Burwell monument. West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, PA. Photo: author.
Figure 4. Brown cradle monuments. West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, PA. Photo: author.

Of course, West Laurel Hill being what it is, even the untended Burwell monument (figure 3) has had its weeds clipped down to nearly ground level.

Nikon Z 7ii with Nikkor 24-70 mm f/2.8 lens.

Figure 3. 50 mm, f/9, ISO 100, 1/160 s.
Figure 4. 50 mm, f/9, ISO 100, 1/160 s.

Edited with Apple Photos.

The fact that Gracie’s image has had its nose struck off reminds me of Monty Python’s skit showing German attempts to develop a lethal joke during WWII.

Hitler (to crowd, in stock footage): My dog has no nose!
Crowd (adoringly): How does he smell?
Hitler: Terrible!

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: