SOME OF THE best views of the early architectural history of Baltimore are painted on chairs and sofas, the famous Baltimore painted furniture. The most important pieces were made in the workshops of John and Hugh Finlay in the early 1800s. The White House commissioned a suite of furniture, unfortunately destroyed in the fire of 1814. But, for years, no one knew who was responsible for the charming houses and seascapes decorating the furniture.
Now an exhibit of paintings and furniture in the Maryland Historical Society Museum and a book by Stiles Tuttle Colwil has unmasked the anonymous artist, and declared the artist to be Francis Guy (1760-1820), sometime dyer to her majesty, the British queen, sometime tailor in Baltimore, always public protester against the religious sect of deism, and a founder of the American natural landscape painting style.
Colwil believes that from 1804 to 1807, Guy painted marvelous minatures on the backs of chairs: views of country houses with wide porches, spacious fields and many columns; of town houses with many stories and straight walls with trees as upright as Guy's religious views. During this time, he was also painting commissions of country houses.
The prosperous farmers of the country were proud to have their homes immortalized by Guy's quick brush. Unlike many British and other European painters, Guy painted what he saw, without glamorizing it.
Though self-trained, Guy went from naive painter to a practiced practictioner of the picturesque style which later developed into the Hudson River School.
His paintings, on canvas and chairs have come down to us, as Colwil points out, as a true record of ordinary people of the times.
The paintings have all the fascination of Japanese screens, where you can see people scurrying around their wonderful houses, delineated in such detail that you could recognize them anywhere.
The Guy show is open through Aug. 15 at the Maryland Historical Society Museum, 201 West Monument St. Baltimore.
Colwil first got the idea that Guy was the furniture painter when he saw together a photograph of a painting of Mount Deposit, the home of David Harris, on canvas, and a similar painting of the house on a piece of furniture.
The chairs and settees, most of them painted black with cane seats, usually had pictures of the houses painted in an oval at the center back. The houses are not depicted with the skill of a Benjamin Latrobe, the architect who practiced and painted in Washington on the Capitol and the White House. But you can still see very clearly what these early houses looked like.
Greenwood, the home of Philip Rogers, was a very grand house, with columns in front, below a high facade intended to make it seen taller than it was.
Beach Hill, the home of Robert Gilmor, the father of the first American art collector, is shown with many columns around an expansive porch. Guy painted a picture on canvas of "the view of the bay from near Mr. Gilmor's" in 1804. This painting is the one from which all others are attributed because it was exhibited at the Maryland Historical Society in 1856 as a Guy.
A wonderful pair of twin houses, belonging to Mary Buchanan Allison and the Misses Sidney and Margaret Buchanan, presumably sisters, was painted on a pier table. The neat three-story house has three prim trees on each side. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a a painting Colwil believes to be Guy's of a marine scene on a card table. Another card table is decorated with the Mount Clare home of Charles Carroll, a barrister of Carroll Park, Baltimore.
One day last year, when Colwil was working on the show, a young couple brought in a painting, dark with age, to see if he could tell them anything about it.
According to the family stories, the husband's Great Aunt Esther had been a slave at Perry Hall, south of Gunpowder Falls near Baltimore. The family believed Aunt Esther had painted the picture.
The landscape shows the slave quarters, small houses with steep roofs. In the foreground is owner Harry Dorsey Gough's sheep. In the fields are the workmen, both black and white, with Gough distinguishable by his tall hat. Two small children stand near him.
Colwil recognized the painting as one of a set of five listed in the Gough inventory at his death. The painting is a valuable and rare portrait of plantation life of the period.
The painting had been given to Esther Hall when she was emancipated. She had been the servant and close companion of Sophia Gough, and at Gough's death was set free and given the painting by the son, Harry Dorsey Gough Carroll Sr. The painting has been handed down in the family ever since, going to Ida Rebecca Cummings, who left it to her nephew, the present owner, who asked not to be identified.
The value of the paintings can be surmised from the fact that several paintings had such high insurance evaluations that the museum couldn't afford to borrow them.
Rembrandt Peale, one of the artistically named sons of Charles Peale of portrait fame, was 78 when he wrote the following account of Francis Guy:
" . . . he boldly undertood to become an artist, though he did not know how to draw. His wife encouraged the idea, and by her industry and frugality maintained themselves, whilest he prosecuted his studies, which he accomplished in a novel and ingenious manner.
"He constructed a tent, which he could erect at pleasure, wherever a scene of interest offered itself to his fancy. A window was contrived, the size of his intended pictures -- this was filled up with a frame, having stretched on it a piece of black gauze. Regulating his eyesight by a fixed notch, a little distance from the gauze, he drew with chalk all the objects as seen through the medium, with perfect perspective accuracy. This drawing being conveyed to his canvas, by simple pressure from the back of his hand, he painted the scene from Nature, with a rapidly improving eye, so that in a few days his landscape was finished, and his tent conveyed in a cart to some other inviting locality.
"In this manner he continued his studies, til he produced four pictures of extraordinary merit, as rough transcripts from Nature. They were exhibited in the ballroom of Bryden's Hotel [in 1803-4], and soon found purchasers at $25 each.
"Whilst he continued this mode of study, his pictures were really good -- but, excited by the reputation he was gaining, he afterwards manufactured landscapes with such vigor that I have known him to display in the sunshine on a lot contiguous to his residence near the city, 40 large landscapes, which were promptly disposed of by raffle.
"He painted standing, stepping frequently back to study the general effect, and taking a huge pinch of snuff from a large open jar -- perhaps in emulation of Mr. [Gilbert] Stuart -- then advancing with dramatic energy to his picture, first flourishing his pencil in the air, executed the leaves of his trees with flat brushes and cut quill feathers, as he imagined no one had ever done before."
Colwil has found that Guy, by way of study, also copied the paintings in Robert Gilmor's collection in Baltimore. "Gilmor, the first major art collector in the United States," said Colwil, "had paintings by the Europeans: Vernet, Claude Lorraine and Salvador Rosa. From them, Guy learned how to paint with such a luminous quality. He may actually be the father of the luminous movement in the United States."
Guy came to painting by a circuitous route. After securing a royal commission as a dyer, in his native England in 1788, his finances made it imperative he leave the country. In New York in 1795, he came down with something like yellow fever. He then went to Baltimore, when he dyed silk for about a year until a fire devasted his plant.
In June 26, 1800, an advertisment invited the public to the Exchange Coffee House where he had painted murals on all the walls.The "painted room" became the great forum for town meetings. By 1802, he had joined with a group who planned to build a Pantheon, with a coffee house on the first floor and a ballroom on the top.
Doubtless, the Pantheon was never built, because in 1803 he was advertising his first major painting exhibition of views of Baltimore from Chapel Hill, from the basin and Federal Hill, from the brick yards, up Gay and Frederick streets, and of course, the standard views of ruins and mountains at "fun fet" and "fun rife," by which of course, without the long S, we translate as sun set and sun rise.
Guy was anxious to have his paintings seen in the best light, so he promised in his ad in the Federal Gazette to "light the room, that the citizens may have an opportunity of seeing them by candle light, as the light by day does now shew them to that advantage I could wish."
Today, with television, movies, plays and concerts to entertain us, we forget how the people of the early republic looked forward to diversions. Guy often hired a hall and charged 25 cents to see his pictures. When they didn't sell outright, he sold them at a raffle.
His 1804 raffle sold so poorly that he inserted in the Federal Gazette, this heartfelt farewell:
"For six years . . . in this city, I have done my utmost endeavors to support myself by Landscape Painting; but whether you want taste or I want judgement, I cannot tell, nor do I care, since fate ordains that my labor never can procure an adequate, moderate, or reasonable recompence of reward; for like a man with a wooden leg, pursuing game, the longer and faster I have run, the farther I have been off, till quiet exhausted, dispirited and dignified, I have given up the chace [chase] -- thrown away my pencil, broke my pallet into a thousand pieces -- substituting therefore, those respectable manufacturing instruments called thimble shears and needles, with a firm and resolute intention to hunt for dollars in the more honorable, profitable and manly calling of a TAILOR, in sure and certain hopes that whatever adverse winds may blow, or tempests rise, I shall at least have goose and cabbage -- which is more than landscape painting can insure, and infinitely preferred to painted canvas, though it should exhibit an exact representation of good roast beef, plumb pudding and all the substantial delicacies of English fare; for this would only create an appetite for which its price would not procure, and of course would but mock the starving artist with the aggraving mummery of a painted dinner."
Guy went on to say that he thought himself a fine tailor. He said he'd practiced the art of "cutting, contriving and forming cloth to fit the bodies of Cocknies, who, in general, are fearfully and wonderfully made, til I really think I could fit the Mammoth skeleton with a coat, and of course an fully competent to fit the nice proportioned human forms with which this clime abounds -- but let this suffice -- wonderous deeds tell the rest."
Despite this fine protest, Guy doesn't seem to have tailored much from then on, according to Colwil. He dropped out of sight in 1804 and wasn't heard of again until April, 1807.
Colwil believes that in these years he was hired by the Finaly brothers to decorate their furniture. On Jan, 31, 1803, John and Hugh Finlay offered furniture "painted and gilt in the most fanciful manner, with or without views adjacent to the city." Colwil thinks John painted the early furniture. But in 1804, the Finlays claimed the exclusive rights to views, advertising in November 1805, "real views taken on the spot to any dimension in oil and watercolors."
Likely Guy was ashamed of such a lowly task as decorating furniture, because his name is never mentioned. (Colwil points out that contrary to our opinion now, such companies had assembly lines. The Finlays employed 30 men, 25 women and 13 boys in 1815.)
The seemed to have continued the practice of painted furniture after Guy left them. Rembrandt Peale wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1825 that another professional artist, Cornelius de Beet, had ornamented Windsor chairs for Finaly but that his "practice on the chairs had been injurious to his taste."
By April 1807, Guy was back to exhibiting his painting, notably one showing the "wanton attack made by the British ship Leopard on the United States frigate Chesapeake." It must not have been too profitable, because in August he was advertising his toothache cure, later revealed as a concoction of spirits, vinegar and salt. During this time, he carried on a frenetic newspaper battle on the subject of painting, as well as discourses on religion.
In 1811, 65 of his small paintings were auctioned off for $1,600. In 1817 he moved to Brooklyn. He went back to Baltimore briefly in 1819 when Gen. Andrew Jackson was one of those visiting his paintings illuminated by candles. As the press said, the showing was also "graced by the presence of many highly respectable ladies."
Colwil's catalogue quotes the last days of Guy as reported by Henry R. Stiles (no relation) in his "History of the City of Brooklyn":
"Guy, as he pointed, would sometimes call out of the windown, to his subjects as he caught sight of them on their customary ground, to stand still, while he put in the characteristic strokes. . . Jacon Hicks, whose house is just visible on the corner of Main Street, was 'brought to a halt,' goose in hand; and after he had been stacked, politely sent the goose as a present to the painter, that he might 'stretch the fowl more deliberately and eat him afterward.'"
Sadly, Guy took to drink after finishing "Brooklyn Snow Scene" and died in August 1820.