SMITH, ALEXANDER, stonemason; b. 1819 or 1820 in Nairn, Scotland; m. Isabella —, and they had at least one son and one daughter; d. 25 Sept. 1892 in St John’s.
Alexander Smith came to St John’s in 1847, one year after a fire had destroyed a large portion of the city. Trained as a mason, he hoped to capitalize on the massive rebuilding that was then occurring. He soon established a masonry business and initially concentrated on the building trade, constructing the waterside mercantile establishments of the Stewarts, Duders [see Edwin Duder*], and others. Smith also worked on the penitentiary and on several stone lighthouses in various parts of Newfoundland. However, in order to provide himself with a livelihood that did not depend solely on the limited demand for stone buildings, by 1851 he had begun carving and selling gravestones, the trade with which he would be associated for the rest of his life. Establishing the St John’s Marble Works, he soon had a market all over the island. His stones, though well executed, demonstrate no real creativity in design or pattern. Smith was obviously content to copy the major gravestone styles of his day. It is certain that he had various British stone carvers’ pattern-books, which he used for both visual sources and epitaphs. In many cases his designs are not distinguishable from those of his competitors.
Alexander Smith also made table tops and chimney-pieces. He worked primarily in marble that he imported from the United States or Italy. Although the carving of gravestones provided him with a livelihood, his most important works are objects commissioned for churches in different parts of the island. He carved an octagonal font for the Anglican Church of the Epiphany in Woody Point, Bonne Bay. His finest work, however, is an altar commissioned by the Presentation sisters in 1883 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their arrival in Newfoundland [see Miss Kirwan*, named Sister Mary Bernard]. The front portion of this altar contains three exquisitely carved scenes that depict facets of the history of the Presentation order in Newfoundland: the initial panel illustrates the first sisters arriving by boat through the narrows at St John’s, the second depicts the sisters instructing local children, and the third shows the complex of ecclesiastical buildings that dominates the St John’s skyline. The Presentation order apparently first contacted masons in Boston to carve this altar, but none could be found who were able to execute the work. Smith was then given the commission, and he was assisted by his apprentice, John Whelan.
Smith’s business not only produced important work but also provided apprenticeship training for other carvers who later became important craftsmen in their own right. James McIntyre, a fellow Scot, worked for Smith from 1869 to 1879 and was put in charge of his branch office in Harbour Grace, which had opened in 1862. McIntyre assisted Smith on projects such as an altar for a church at Oderin, Placentia Bay. He later opened a business of his own. Smith’s grandson, Charles F. Muir, was apprenticed to him and took over his business after Smith died. Besides gravestones Smith continued to work on the occasional building project until his death. He provided the marble trim work for the Waverley Hotel in St John’s, completed in late 1892.
Alexander Smith had been extremely active in the freemasons as a member of the Tasker lodge in St John’s. He died in 1892 at the age of 72. One of his obituaries described him as having the “typical stamp of the good, brusque Scotchman; but underneath that brusqueness, beat as kind a heart as ever dwelt in the body of man.” The gravestone that marks his resting-place is a singularly unimpressive monument, an indication of the secondary role of this craft in comparison with the more impressive commissioned works Smith had done for churches.
Evening Herald (St John’s), 26 Sept. 1892. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 12 Sept. 1883. Times and General Commercial Gazette (St John’s), 8 Nov. 1884, 1 Oct. 1892. Nfld. directory, 1864–65: 368. Nfld. men (Mott), 241, 249. G. L. Pocius, “The place of burial: spatial focus of contact of the living with the dead in eastern areas of the Avalon peninsula of Newfoundland” (ma thesis, Memorial Univ. of Nfld., St John’s, 1976); “Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Newfoundland gravestones: self-sufficiency, economic specialization, and the creation of artifacts,” Material Hist. Bull. (Ottawa), 12 (1981): 1–16.