Readers will of course remember the mysterious bas-relief in “The Call of Cthulhu”. Interestingly, Lovecraft had a memorable encounter with a professional maker of bas-relief tablets in Salem, just a few years before. No dragon-squid-octopus clay tablets were involved, but he met the artist and discovered that they shared a mutual interest in the weird and macabre.
The local artist was Sarah W. Symonds (1870-1965). Lovecraft had seen her bas-relief plaque of Marblehead on an earlier visit, but had then been penniless and unable to buy it. In mid-February 1923 he returned to Salem. It was a memorable winter visit to a Salem with snow on the ground and bitter winds blowing o’er the hilltop burying-grounds. On this chilly visit to Salem he did have money to spend, and thus he returned to the “Symonds Shop in Brown-Street” [Bray House, 1 Brown St., abandoned and derelict by the 2000s] in search of her “haunting plaque of Marblehead”. He intended to purchase this… “together with one of the Salem Witch House, brooding under its horrible overnourished oak tree.”
“… and by rare good fortune [I] discover’d the artist herself in charge [of the shop, seen above]. Mistress Symonds is a plain, stoutish, elderly person who brilliantly refutes the fallacy of some little boys I know, that artists must be decadent, bohemian, hecktick, dissipated idiots; for to a genius of the most undoubted sort, she adds the homely and wholesome personality of an old New-England conservative aristocrat. She has dwelt always at Salem in the conventional manner of an old Salem gentlewoman, and lives in a house that knew the tread of an ancestor’s buckled shoes. When I enter’d the shop she knew who I was, for her clerk had describ’d me as one who not only admir’d the bas-reliefs but loved all things old and weird. And thereupon I struck an ideal fountain of antique Salem lore, for Mistress Symonds has hunted up every ghost and ghoul in the town, and is on familiar terms with most of the daemons. In 1692 she wou’d have been hung as a witch, but in 1923 she is safe in expressing an undying devotion to Poe and all that is antient and sinister. From her I learnt of new sources of wild tales […] Thence conversation inclin’d toward weird tales, and I mention’d that I had written some. [Her plaques] now adorn my walls, and I gaze with a shudder at that Witch House glowering under its terrible oak-horror stalks there. And beside it rise the mad maze of gables, vanes, and chimney pots that form hoary Marblehead! Truly, my travels have come home with me, for the scenes live poignantly in those vividly fashion’d bas-reliefs.”
Lovecraft’s description of his Marblehead plaque suggests a wide panorama of Marblehead’s roof-scape, and may have been a similar view to this…
Or perhaps this…
But the sparse online pictures of Symonds’s work that has come up for sale recently can only suggest a few twee doorways and lane scenes for Marblehead. Symonds was a savvy businesswoman and she had a very long career. I’d suspect that her earlier work from the Poe-loving era of 1915-1925 is quite rare in terms of coming up for sale, in comparison to the chintzier 1945-65 work she appears to have made for her hotel-lobby booth in Salem and the hotel trade.
But I did find this 1917 example in colour, which almost certainly shows the sort of finish and style that Lovecraft saw and admired. Her plaques often had an ivory coloured or ‘chalkware’ finish, with partial colouring in the glaze.
He also purchased two small circular ‘witch plaques’ as presents for his aunts. Here is one of the larger oblong witch plaques, albeit in a dull flat b&w, which shows the same figure as was on the small medallions the aunts acquired…
His vivid letters clearly show that his Salem experience became part of the basis for “The Festival”. They are also interesting for their winter timing. This shows Lovecraft could set off on his travels in a bitter mid-winter, and trek about in such weather, if he really wanted to and he felt well enough. But there may have been another reason. My guess is that Salem in the summer was insufferably rammed with tourists, and thus midwinter was the optimal time for an antiquarian gentleman to visit.
[In Salem] “I several times paused to stroke cats, which abound in all parts of the town; whether or not left there by witches, none may say. At last I reached bleak Boston-Street on the western rim of the town, and walkt north toward Gallows-Hill. Here the houses were greyer and more uncommunicative, and the cold wind made sounds I had not before notic’d. A very old man told me where to find the approach to Gallows-Hill, and hobbled beside me a while as if knowing that I was, like himself, in some way strangely linkt to the spectral past. When the ascent became steep he left me, but not without hinting that Gallows-Hill is not a nice place to visit at night.
On and on I climb’d, crunching under my heavy over-shoes the crushed, malignant snow. The wind blew and the trees tossed leaf-less branches; and the old houses became thinner and thinner. […] overhanging gables and latticed windows which told me that they had been standing there when the terrible carts rattled with their doomed load from the gaol in Federal Street. Up…. up… up…, Damn that wind — why can’t it sound less articulate?
At last I was on the summit, where in the bed rock still lurk the iron clamps that held the witch gallows. It was getting on in the afternoon, and the light was reddish that glow’d over all the outspread town. It was a weird town in that light, as seen from that hill where strange winds moaned over the untenanted wastes on the westward. And I was alone on that hill in that sepulchral place, where the allies of the devil had swung… and swing… and hurled out curses on their executioners and their descendants. […]
Silently I descended past the leering houses with their centuried small-paned bleary windows, and as I did so my fancy brought vividly to my eyes a terrible procession going both up and down that hill beside me — a terrible procession of black-cowled things bearing bodies swathed in burlap. And so ample were the cowls, that I could not see the face of any of the things…. or whether they had any faces.”
As for his comment on his purchased plaques — “the Salem Witch House, brooding under its horrible overnourished oak tree” / “now adorn my walls, and I gaze with a shudder at that Witch House glowering under its terrible oak-horror stalks there.” — this postcard is probably the closest to the scene he was describing. Even in the summer sunlight the house seems to glower and brood under the tree, as he described. One can see how it would lend itself to a bas-relief done in the Sarah W. Symonds style of circa 1917, perhaps in moonlight with the trees black and the house-boards done in a ‘chalkware’ ivory colour….