one of the most fascinating figures in the history of early American folk art, until recently had been known almost entirely because of his remarkable diary. He was bornin Halifax, Vermont, on July 9, 1797, to Nathaniel and Mehitable Guild. His mother, a widow early in life, was probably unable to care for her four children, and Jameswas placed as an indentured servant with a family in Tunbridge, Vermont. Given his freedom on July 9, 1818, his twenty-first birthday, he began his diary about threemonths later.With no desire to continue life as a farmer, he used what money he had to buy goods and started traveling through Vermont as a peddler. He found this unrewarding,however, and turned to work as a tinker, then became part owner of a traveling bison show. In Albany, New York, where he played the “tamborin” in a band, helearned how to cut profile likenesses and started calling himself a “profile cutter.” After spending a day with a local painter, he told a woman that if she would wash hisshirt he would paint her portrait. He describes the result as looking more like a strangled cat than it did his subject. Nevertheless, he continued his travels, on foot and by horse, wagon, stagecoach, and ship, through New York, New England, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, and North and South Carolina, painting smallwatercolor portraits and at times teaching penmanship. He writes of interesting and humorous experiences, and of the low esteem in which itinerant painters were held.Frequently, he placed advertisements in local newspapers. Initially charging just one dollar for a portrait, later he earned thirteen thousand dollars in only seven months.In 1824 he went to England to continue painting, returning some time before September 22, 1831, for on that date he married Maria Phelps in Hartland, Vermont.Where he lived and what he did during the next thirteen years is not clear, but he died on June 11, 1844, at the age of forty-seven, and was buried in the Summer HillCemetery of Springfield, Vermont.Today, only nine miniatures and two of his calligraphic exercises are known, but judging from his diary as well as records regarding his estate, these must representonly a very small portion of his total production. Guild’s watercolor and pencil-on-paper portraits are small, generally of bust length and in profile, with six signed anddated.
Miniatures; Painting, American Folk
Kern, Arthur, and Sybil Kern. “James Guild: Quintessential Itinerant Portrait Painter.”
vol. 17 (summer 1992): 48–57.Peach, Arthur Wallace, ed. “James Guild, from Tunbridge, Vermont, to London, England—The Journal of James Guild, Peddler, Tinker, Schoolmaster, Portrait Painter from 1818 to 1824.”
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vol. 5 (September 1937): 249–314