Published: October 11, 2022
KENT, CONN. – Late in the afternoon on Saturday, October 1, nearly 50 people gathered at the Kent Barns Gallery in Kent, Conn., to celebrate the scholarship – and life – of one of the area’s most well-known artists, itinerant limner Ammi Phillips (American, 1788-1865). The event, sponsored by the Kent Historical Society (KHS) and hosted by KHS trustee, genealogist and Phillips researcher, Melanie Marks, featured a Q&A with KHS executive director, Ron Marasco and Phillips’ scholar David R. Allaway.
Phillips first came to be known through Kent resident, Helen Nelson, who featured seven of his works at the 1924 Street Fair in Kent; the reception on October 1 featured several photographs from the KHS’s collection that depicted this fair. Known at the time only as “The Kent Limner,” Phillips’ identity gradually came to be known through the art historical sleuthing of Phillips scholar Barbara Holdridge and her husband Larry, who purchased in 1958 a signed and titled portrait of George C. Sunderland from Lincoln Mitchell’s Silvermine, Conn., shop. As the Holdridges carried their new acquisition to their car, Mitchell suggested they research more about the artist, a search the couple embarked on whole-heartedly.
Mary Black, curator at the American Folk Art Museum, was ultimately persuaded by the Holdridge’s research, which was published by Crown Publications for the museum in 1969. Ammi Phillips: Portrait Painter, 1788-1865 was the first monograph on the artist and tied together scholarship that reattributed the Border Limner and the Kent Limner to Phillips.
Marks and Holdridge have been working together since 2017, ever since Marks was hired to identify and authenticate some paintings purported to have been painted by Phillips. Since then, the pair have helped identify many paintings and have contributed to Allaway’s ongoing catalog raisonné for Phillips, published currently in two volumes, My People: The Works of Ammi Phillips (2019), both of which are viewable in a digitized version at (https://issuu.com/n2xb/docs/ammi_phillips_-_abstract__thumbnail).
Holdridge was not at the reception but had recorded a tribute to the history of Phillips research, which Marks played at the event.
The October 1 event was a preamble to the exhibition, “Kent Before Cameras: When Ammi Painted the Town,” a short-term exhibition of works by Phillips from his Kent period that will be on view at Seven Hearths through October 23. Several paintings from private collections are on load for the exhibition, which was made possible by a $3,750 grant received by the Kent Historical Society from Connecticut Humanities.
Marks says, “By recreating the Kent Street Fair and bringing out for another visit those esteemed village inhabitants painted by Ammi Phillips nearly 200 years ago, we hope that another generation of Kent villagers, society members, art lovers, historians, tourists and the general public will continue to learn and appreciate the life and work of this now famous, self-taught, itinerant folk artist.”
“Kent Before Cameras: When Ammi Painted the Town” will be on view at Seven Hearths Museum, 4 Studio Hill Road. For information, 860-927-4587 or www.kenthistoricalsociety.org.
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