Art Historian, Ammi Phillips Expert Joins CT House Histories

Art historian Barbara Holdridge joins CT House Histories, LLC, as a consultant as the genealogical research firm expands into identifying the portraits done by American folk artist Ammi Phillips.

Holdridge is a preeminent authority on the work of Ammi Phillips and co-wrote with her late husband, Lawrence B. Holdridge, the groundbreaking book Ammi Phillips Portrait Painter, 1788-1865, with an introduction by Mary Black, that was distributed by Crown Publishers Inc. for the Museum of American Folk Art in 1968.

“Larry and I discovered the totally unknown portrait painter Ammi Phillips when, upon buying one of Phillips’ very rare signed, dated and named portraits, ‘George C. Sunderland,’ we decided to learn as much as we could about the unknown artist,” Holdridge said.

“In our quest, we traveled New England, combed antique shops, were invited into private homes with ancestral Phillips portraits, co-authored articles on our discovery of Phillips, lectured and ultimately convinced even the most reluctant museum authorities that this prolific artist was also the mysterious ‘Border Limner,’ ‘Kent Limner’ and ‘Artist Unknown’ on their walls; all, in fact, representing different periods of his long life. It took the two of us and our one great convert, art historian Mary Black, years to convince all the unbelieving folk art experts; but those erroneous labels in museums everywhere were very gradually corrected to read simply ‘by Ammi Phillips.’”

As she will do for CT House Histories, Holdridge responds to collectors’ requests throughout the country for a determination on whether their portraits are definitely by Ammi Phillips. “Thanks to his prolific career of portrait painter – as he identified himself in each U.S. census – exceptional paintings by Ammi Phillips are still coming to light, often requiring attribution and sometimes subject identification,” she said.

Marks first contacted Holdridge in August 2017 on a whim and since, she said, she feels like she “has been living a dream.”

“To be able to speak and share information with one of the most prominent researchers of Ammi Phillips portraits is an incredible feeling,” Marks added. “Not only is Barbara a repository of information, she is also an incredibly gracious lady. I will forever be indebted to her kindness and assistance. In one of our many email exchanges she wrote, ‘It has been a pleasure for me, I assure you, not only to make your acquaintance, but to revive all the great memories of the sleuthing done over the years by my husband and myself in pursuit of Ammi’s portraits and life history. Come to think of it, I wonder whether he ever did portraits of his own family? Hmmm. And on we go!’

“I’d like to think we have turned up the light – the light that has rekindled her passion for researching Ammi further. I know her light has never gone out but rather it has only been refocused on other pressing projects requiring her attention over the years.”

A native New Yorker, Holdridge is a graduate of Hunter College of the City of New York, with a B.A. cum laude in humanities, and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. Subsequently, she was inducted into the Hunter College Hall of Fame, the American Women’s Hall of Fame and the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, each one for her work in discovering and establishing Ammi Phillips as a major American master, as well as for her other innovative work with Caedmon, the groundbreaking spoken-word recording company, which she cofounded with a fellow Hunter graduate in 1952. She later founded and was editor of Stemmer House Publishers, and also served as adjunct professor of writing, editing and proofreading at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland.

She also is the author of “Found: A Berkshire Old Master,” published Aug. 29, 1959, in the Berkshire Eagle, and the co-author with her husband of “Ammi Phillips,” published in Art in America in 1960 and “Ammi Phillips: Limner Extraordinary,” Antiques magazine, December 1961.

Holdridge assisted CT House Histories in confirming the research completed on three Ammi Phillips portraits, which the company identified as Phoebe Wing Sheldon and her husband, Egbert Sheldon, and Phoebe’s brother, Preston Wing. The three portraits – which always were grouped together when they were owned for decades by the same family were separated when sold – recently were reunited. Holdridge provided her critique of CT House Histories’ work.

“I am happy to help, having never lost my fascination with Ammi Phillips’ life and works. There is still, in fact, so much more to know, and there’s the challenge,” she said.

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