Updated: Jun 9
By Bruce Weber
This essay and the one that follows next month in Learning Woodstock Art Colony enlarges upon aspects of Tomas Penning's art and career explored in the exhibition and catalog for Native Stone: The Art of Tomas Penning, on view at the Woodstock School of Art through December 11th. To find out more about the exhibit as well as to order the beautifully produced catalog go to https://woodstockschoolofart.org/exhibitions/native-stone-the-art-of-tomas-penning/.
I'll be giving a gallery talk on the exhibition at the Woodstock School of Art on Saturday
November 20th at 2 p.m.
The bluestone sculptor Tomas Penning (1905-1982) carved countless gravestones in the Woodstock Artists Cemetery over the course of the second half of the 1930s to about 1980. In about 1940 he explained that he had “been surprised myself, delighted at the demand for them---for they are a departure from the customary marble and granite. But I have found that people appreciate a thing that is different.”(1) According to his son John, Penning planned most of the cemetery’s original layout, and also planned and constructed the oval terrace with the 15-ton Shotwell Memorial atop the Artists Cemetery, and its two benches, as well as the Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead Memorial along the western edge.(2)
Artists Cemetery, Woodstock, New York
Gravestone of John A. Kingsbury, Jr.
Artists Cemetery, 1934
The initial burial ground of the Artists Cemetery (formally known as the Woodstock Memorial Society Cemetery Association) is located on a gently sloping hillside tucked off Rock City Road on Mountain View Avenue. It was initiated in 1934 following the death of 19-year-old John A. Kingsbury Jr. in a car crash. Following the accident his father, Dr. John Adams Kingsbury, Sr., visited the Evergreen Cemetery on Rock City Road with a few intimate friends, and discovered an adjacent area situated on the eastern slope of a small hill surrounded by the hills of the Catskills and facing Overlook Mountain. Among other public roles, Kingsbury served as the New York City Commissioner of Public Charities. The other founding members of the cemetery were Dr. John T. Shotwell, who taught the history of international relations at Columbia University and was active as a diplomat; James H. Stagg, an accountant who served for a period as president of the Woodstock Country Club; and artists Carl Eric Lindin and Bruno Zimm. The Evergreen and Artists Cemetery are located across Rock City Road from the Woodstock Cemetery, where Tomas Penning’s Wilgus Memorial was installed in 1936.
The Artists Cemetery is almost exclusively the resting place of artists, musicians and writers. It originally was not intended to be mostly a creative person’s cemetery. At the start, membership was based on the conception of a community of old and more or less intimate friends of like minds and purpose, many of whom dwelt together as neighbors for decades. To preserve the spot’s natural beauty and maintain a sense of peace, the founding board decided to undertake little if any landscaping, and to lay the gravestones flat. In the cemetery there is an absence of mounds, conventional gravestones and symbols of mourning. With the basic exception of the Shotwell and Whitehead memorials, and a small sculpture of a curled female nude atop the grave of sculptor, painter and opera singer Enzo Baccante (who died in 1938), everything is laid flush to the ground. Unfortunately, over the decades the stones have suffered damages, as well as the ravages of time and weather. In later life, Penning lamented the chips the stones he carved had suffered due to careless lawnmowers.
Hervey White Gravestone, c. 1944
Artists Cemetery, Woodstock
Penning served in the United States Army from 1942-1946. While away he missed the opportunity to carve the tombstone laid over the grave of the Byrdcliife and Maverick founder Hervey White, who died in the autumn of 1944. Previous to the service, Penning had taught stone-carving for nearly four years at the National Youth Administration Work Center in Woodstock (now the home of the Woodstock School of Art). Following his instruction, a dozen of his NYA students went on to become journeymen stonecutters. According to writer Sylvia Day, one of Penning’s former students carved White’s gravestone in Penning’s absence.(3)
Shotwell Memorial, Artists Cemetery,
Upon his return to Woodstock in late 1946, Penning’s involvement with the Artists Cemetery increased. The Shotwell Memorial was erected over the course of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Dr. John T. Shotwell was the catalyst for the memorial’s creation. Penning provided the huge stone that crowns the top of the hillside. The artist recalled that the memorial "was built in ’48 or ’49 . . . and we were at it for about a year.”(4) He spent a long period searching for just the right piece of bluestone. It was taken from the last quarry operating on The Patch in Saugerties. Blast holes are visible on the surface. The stone was moved to Penning’s studio in High Woods.
The sculptor was engaged in the early 1950s in completing commissions for religious statuary, including for Presentation Church in nearby Port Ewen, and as a result he was delayed in arranging for the move of the stone to the Artists Cemetery. Finally, in
1952, Kingsbury and Dr. Shotwell arranged for the move of the 30,000- pound bluestone. It was lifted up on end using the old Egyptian method of lifting that was later employed in raising the 9-ton bluestone monolith at Opus 40. The huge stone was set in the exedra, whose semi-circular design is based on porticos of ancient Roman and Greek houses and gymnasia. The base of the memorial, which is encircled by pine trees, was designed by the sculptor Bruno Zimm, who died in 1943, and therefore did not live to see its completion.
Penning and his helper Gene LaCass had to cut a recess in the Shotwell Memorial so that the bluestone panel, with its poetic inscription written by Dr. Shotwell, could be laid in. The inscription reads: “Encircled by the everlasting hills, they rest here who added to the beauty of the world by art, creative thought, and by life itself.”
Byrdcliffe Shrine, before 1929
The Winterthur Library,
Joseph Downs Collection of
Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera
Tomas Penning (1905-1982)
The memorial to Byrdcliffe founder Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, with its Della Robia School porcelain figure of the Virgin Mary and the young Christ, was probably created in the late 1940s. The sculpture was formerly in a structure next to White Pines, Ralph and Jane Whitehead’s house in Byrdcllffe. The base of the monument is created in bluestone, and, like the Shotwell Memorial, bears an inscription carved by Penning on a bluestone slab.
Tomas Penning (1905-1982)
Gravestone for Charles Rosen, c. 1950
The majority of the gravestones that Penning carved over the course of close to five decades are simple in design and modest in scale. Typical of his efforts is the small stones he carved for Charles Rosen and Wendell Jones' wife Jane, which he apparently undertook in the 1970s when she became ill with Legionnaire’s disease. Penning came to visit her, and in the spirit of their close friendship offered to right then make her a tombstone in the event she did not recover saying, ‘You are not well . . . and it never hurts to be prepared.”(5) Jones eventually recovered and lived till 2001. Penning worked slowly, and admittedly fell behind in filling the orders he received for gravestones, including for those who requested them in advance.
Tomas Penning (1905-1982)
Gravestone of Wendell and
c. 1956 and 1970s
Tomas Penning (1905-1982)
Gravestone of Louise Hastings Lindin,
Penning carved large gravestones in bluestone for Wendell Jones, Eugene and Elsie Speicher, Carl and Louise Lindin and Henry Morton Robinson. The gravestone of Jones is decorated with a carved image of a tree, and the Speichers' joint gravestone is decorated with an image of flowers. The graves of the Lindins are united by the image on each of them of a Viking ship, symbolic of Carl’s Scandinavian heritage. The grave of Robinson bears an inscription taken from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “He was a man. Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.” For the cemetery Penning also created a bluestone cross.
Tomas Penning (1905-1982)
Cross, c. 1950s
Tomas Penning in Studio with Cross
for Artists Cemetery, c. 1950s
Penning Family Archives
Penning’s tombstone for the grave of his close friend Wendell Jones ranks among his most beautifully and sensitively carved works. Jones was born in Gelena, Kansas, and grew up in a suburb of Boston. Following his graduation from Dartmouth College in 1925, he entered the Art Students League where he met his future wife Jane and lifelong friend Eugene Ludins. On Ludins’ suggestion, Jones spent the summer of 1928 in Woodstock. He returned in 1929, and that year Wendell became engaged to Jane. They married in 1931 and moved to a house on the Maverick, close to that of Hervey White.
Wendell Jones (1899-1956)
Tomas Penning in Studio, c. 1946-1948
Gelatin silver print
Penning Family Archives
The Pennings were very tight friends with the Jones’, and the couples shared friendships with many artists in the Woodstock and Maverick community. Among the group was John B. Flannagan, who would walk in the woods with Wendell Jones when he was looking for stones to carve.(6) The Jones’ were frequent visitors to the Penning home, and their sons Peter and Wendell, Jr. often swam in their quarry pool. Jane even paid a visit with the Pennings to Elizabeth’s mother in Florida.
In the late 1940s, Penning and Wendell Jones played an active role at the Woodstock Artists Association. They served together on the executive committee in 1947 and 1948, and Penning served as chairman in 1947 and Jones the following year. The Woodstock art colony thrived in the late 1940s, rejuvenated by the artists who returned from the war, a new group of arrivals, and the reestablishment of the Art Students League’s summer school (the league had a summer program in the town from 1906 to 1922), which was headquartered in the former quarters of the NYA from 1947-1979.
In 1948, Jones accepted a teaching position in the art department of Vassar College. Seven years later he was granted a sabbatical and arranged to spend a year in Europe touring the art galleries and collecting information in preparation for writing a book on painting. While traveling in Italy in February of 1956, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage following a brief illness. Upon Jones’ death the Ulster County Townsmen reported that his “widow, Mrs. Jane Hayes Jones telephoned the news to Mrs. Penning last Friday night.”(7)
In 1936, Wendell Jones helped Penning design the lettering for the Wilgus Memorial in the Woodstock Cemetery. Penning continued to primarily use this typeface on his gravestones in the Artists Cemetery, as well as on the panels for the Shotwell and Whitehead memorials. An experienced and talented letterer, Jones initially gained experience as a commercial artist in New York City in the early 1920s, and as editor of Jack-O-Lantern, the Dartmouth College humor magazine.
Tomas Penning (1905-1982)
Birdbath, Arboretum Garden, Chautauqua Institution, New York, late 1930s
Thomas A. Edison and Mina Edison Memorial, Chautauqua Institution
Penning identified the basis for his lettering in a letter to Mina Edison about the birdbath she commissioned the artist to create in the late 1930s as a memorial for her husband, Thomas A. Edison, for the Arboretum Garden of the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York, one of a number of birdbaths Penning created during the course of his career. Penning noted that the typeface “is a variation from the Roman dating 1085. It is taken from the tomb of Gundreda, the sister of William the Conqueror. I think it suits the looser treatment of the stone work better than the hard-classic lettering.”(8)
William A. Mason,
A History of the Art of Lettering
(New York: The Macmillan Company, 1920), p. 431
Penning and Jones likely discovered the 11th-century typeface in William A. Mason’s publication A History of the Art of Writing, published in 1920. Mason referred to this typeface, which was reproduced, as “an interesting example of capital letters used in the inscription on the tomb of Gundreda, sister of William the Conqueror [in Southover, England]. The Roman spirit predominates, only four uncial forms being employed. The letters are beautiful in shape and proportion, and with hardly an exception would dignify any modern poster design.”(9)
Penning’s personal library included a copy of Lettering Today by C. G. Holme. The introduction to the book, by Dr. Eberhard Holscher, discussed the reform of lettering that had occurred in Europe and America around 1900, an aesthetic revolt against the increasing mechanization of everyday life. The two most important exponents of the great European reform of lettering, Edward Johnston of London and Rudolf van Larisch of Vienna, wanted the art of lettering to once again be exalted into a medium of artistic expression, and helped set off a revolt against the purely utilitarian and commercial conception of writing. (10) In modeling his lettering on a script from the 11th century, Penning was embracing a design dating from the Middle Ages, a period which increasingly inspired him as a sculptor.
In the late 1940s, Penning sculpted a bluestone cross. His son John later had the name Penning carved on the cross, and used it to straddle the graves of his parents Tomas and Elizabeth, which according to John’s sister Mary was then marked by a plaque. The Pennings did not wish to be limited to having a flat stone to mark their gravesite, and, according to John, he acquired a large plot in the neighboring Evergreen Cemetery which is close to the front edge of the Artists Cemetery, as the result of winning a bet from someone he had met in the S. S. Sea Horse tavern on Rock City Road. The cross, which was removed by John Penning in the autumn of 2018, and replaced by low headstones, appears prominently in one of the photographs of Tomas Penning in his High Woods studio taken by Wendell Jones.
In June 1978, Elizabeth Penning passed away in Ft. Meyers, Florida following a lengthy illness. By this time Tomas had not created sculpture in several years. Following Elizabeth’s death he informed their joint friend the Louisiana sculptor Anna Gregory that he mostly was doing “lettering in stone . . . cemetery markers. So many old friends come and ask, I can’t refuse but I’m not too good at it as I have never studied lettering so it’s a real struggle. I have about ten to do now. They are small markers but sometimes low relief designs. Anyway there is a certain satisfaction in doing something that is needed. St. Thomas Aquinas says ‘Art is the well-making of things that need making.’” (11)
Many people have provided valuable help in making my research, writing and curatorial work on the art and life of Tomas Penning possible, including Mary Giuliano, daughter of Tomas and Elizabeth Penning; her husband Marty Giuliano; Paula Nelson; John Kleinhans; Nina Doyle, Executive Director, Woodstock School of Art; Kim Apolant, Librarian, Woodstock Public Library; Emily Jones, Archivist, Woodstock Artists Association and Museum; James Cox; Peter Jones; the late Father Carl D, Johnson; Diana Boggs; Nancy Kline; Matthew Leaycraft; JoAnn Margolis, Archivist, Historical Society of Woodstock; Kate McGloughlin; New York Public Library; the late John Penning; Marc Plate; Tad Richards; Joel Rosenkranz; Saugerties Public Library; Michael Sullivan Smith; and Joanne Pagano Weber. For this essay, Peter Jones, Diana Boggs, Paula Nelson, John Kleinhans, Mikhail Horowitz, Marc Plate, Richard Pantell and John Penning were especially helpful and generous.
(1) Transcript of a radio Interview with Tomas Pennng by Frances Hasbrouck for her program Gadabout, c. 1939-1942, unpaginated, Penning Family Archives. Hereafter referred to as “Radio Transcript.” The name of the radio station that the program was broadcast is not known.
(2) John Penning, “Add A Grave: Tomas Penning,” added February 16, 2017, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/176387745/tomas-penning).
(3) Sylvia Day, “Serenity, Contemplation, Emotion are Evident in Penning’s Work,” Ulster County Gazette, October 5, 1978, p. 15.
(4) Radio Transcript, n.p.
(5) Penning is quoted in Joan D’Arcy, “Thomas Penning (1905-1982,” essay in Majesty and Magic: An Exhibition of Bluestone Sculpture by Tomas Penning (Woodstock: James Cox Gallery, 1994): n.p.
(6) Email from Peter Jones to Bruce Weber, October 4, 2019.
(7) “Woodstock Artist Wendell Jones Dies in Italy,” otherwise unidentified newspaper clipping, Wendell Jones files, Woodstock Artists Association Archives.
(8) I would like to thank Jon Schmitz, Archivist and Historian of the Chautauqua Institution for sending me a copy of this undated letter to Mrs. Mina Edison from Tomas Penning in an email of May 16, 2019.
(9 )William A. Mason, A History of the Art of Writing (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1920), p. 431.
(10) Dr. Eberard Hölscher, “Introduction: The Principles of Hand lettering,” introduction to C. G. Holme, Lettering Today, (London: The Studio Limited, 1945), p. 9.
(11) “Letter of Tomas Penning to Anna Gregory,” December 3, 1978, Anna Gregory Papers, Special Collection Library, Tulane University.