For no particular reason except that I’m fond of the guy, last spring I was strolling in the Old North Burying Ground toward the grave of Thomas Dennis, the master joiner who lived here from 1667 till he died in 1706, “aged about 68 years,” as his headstone says.
So, he lived in town for about 40 years during which he made the best furniture the fledgling colony had yet seen. Spring is not the time to think about death, but there I was, enjoying the April sunshine in the Old Burying Ground in Ipswich. Come to think of it, though, all those tombstones are actually ways of cheating death rather than celebrating it. They are stand-ins for the early townsfolk.
His furniture is still very much alive today, 300 years on and counting. Collectors vie for it on the rare occasion that a piece comes on the market, and museums grant it pride of place in their collections.
We’re so lucky. Here in Ipswich we have both his tombstone and a chest that he made, two of the ways in which he lives on. There are tombstone fanatics, just as there are antiques fanatics – two groups whose enthusiasms run in parallel and occasionally overlap.
Both want to keep alive in one way or another the people who formed our country centuries ago, and they want to keep them alive, not just in memory, but in tangible objects. Antiques and tombstones are the past tangibly in the present. In keeping the past alive, they also keep death in perspective – which is why enjoying a burying ground in spring is not paradoxical after all.
Now I’m more of a furniture guy than a tombstone guy, so of course I believe that Dennis is more alive in his furniture than in his tombstone. His artisinal knowledge selected the tree that he and his apprentice felled; his hands and his tools turned the tree into pieces of timber and turned those pieces of timber into this chest. The eye that chose the best tree for the job turned the tree into the best job possible. Dennis’s eye and hands and skill, his love of his craft – they are as alive in his chest today as they were when he made it.
The tombstone is different. It wasn’t made by him, but by a carver for his family, who of course wanted him to live on after his death. But oddly perhaps, there may be more of Dennis in his wife’s tombstone than in his own. Grace Dennis died 20 years before her husband. In a town as small as Ipswich, Dennis and the stone carver knew each other well, and knew each others work.
Look at the decoration on the sides of Grace’s tombstone, and look at how Dennis carved a drawer in a box he made, possibly for Grace herself. It’s a motif that Dennis learned in England and introduced to America, so I can safely bet the farm that the stone carver copied Dennis.
Whether the carver thought that a Dennis design was right for Dennis’s wife, or whether he just thought it was fashionable and attractive, we’ll never know. But the design was Dennis: guilloches (which is what we pundits call those linked circles) filled with flowers and pinwheels – pure Dennis.
Dennis’s tombstone may not be as “Dennis” as his chest, but it does something equally important; it puts history in its place. Dennis’s furniture is dispersed all across the country, but his tombstone is necessarily here, right here where he lived and worked. It anchors all those widespread masterpieces to the place where they began. –John Fiske, Ipswich, Massachusetts
Thomas Dennis embodies a world that had begun to disappear even during his lifetime, one that today may seem unimaginably distant. In The Artisan of Ipswich Robert Tarule brilliantly recreates Dennis’s world in recounting how he created a single oak chest. Writing as a woodworker himself, Tarule vividly portrays Dennis walking through the woods looking for the right trees; sawing and splitting the wood on site; and working in his shop on the chest—planing, joining, and carving. He also depicts the natural and social landscape in which Dennis operated, from the sights, sounds, and smells of colonial Ipswich and its surrounding countryside to the laws that governed his use of trees and his network of personal and professional relationships.