Along with several other Masonic items from the Hill family of Beverly, Massachusetts, a donor recently gave this print (at left) to the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library. Designed by J. Coles (dates unknown) of Salem or Boston, Massachusetts, A Free Mason Composed of the Materials of his Lodge shows a fanciful Freemason; his body formed of Masonic symbols. His head is a shining sun (a symbol of the lodge master), his neck and body are shaped out of Masonic tools (including a plumb, a level, closed compasses and a rule). He has columns (symbolizing the pillars at the entrance of King Solomon’s Temple) for legs and blocks, or ashlars (representing perfection through education), for feet. The figure stands with his bent arms pointing up and down on a black and white pavement, another Masonic symbol. An elaborate surround of curving elements supports the flooring and frames a verse. The verse suggests that even when Masonic symbols are easily observed, their meaning is known only to Freemasons.
This striking image closely resembles others. A London printer issued one delineated by A. Slade (dates unknown) in the 1750s (at left, below) now in the collection of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. In the 1700s Americans who sought to depict Masonic symbols often relied on English models for their own work. The Slade print was, in turn, the model for a watercolor painting thought to have been undertaken by a young Rhode Island artist named Samuel King (1749-1819) in 1763 (at right). The London version also likely inspired the design of transfer prints on ceramic vessels decorated to appeal to Masonic consumers.
In crafting these images Slade, King and Coles drew on a tradition of whimsical images of artisans first popularized in prints published in Europe in the late 1600s and early 1700s. In those depictions, artists cleverly portrayed craftsmen and women in shapes formed out of their tools and finished wares. You can see an example, an etching of a glazier published in 1695, here. These eye-catching images can be read as satires, grotesques or as affectionate depictions of skilled tradesmen. Likewise, Coles’ image of A Free Mason Composed of the Materials of his Lodge can be interpreted as either a caricature or as a celebration of its subject.
Barbara Franco, Masonic Symbols in American Decorative Arts. Lexington, Massachusetts: Scottish Rite Masonic Museum of Our National Heritage, 1975, 47-52.
John D. Hamilton, Material Culture of the American Freemasons. Lexington, Massachusetts: Museum of Our National Heritage, 1994, 29-30.
Aimee E. Newell, Hilary Anderson Stelling and Catherine Compton Swanson, Curiosities of the Craft: Treasures from the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts Collection. Boston and Lexington, Massachusetts: Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts and Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, 2013, 72-73.