A painter, illustrator and craftsman, he was born in Bridgeton, New Jersey on January 2, 1910, and was educated in the public school system there. Having displayed a strong interest in drawing, he was enrolled at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art following high school graduation in 1928. His interest in drawing seems to have been influenced by his mother Emma Pettit Cox, who had studied at the School of Design for Women in Philadephia during the 1890s. The faculty at the School of Design included many notables such as Robert Henri and Emily Sartain.
Among James' instructors at the museum school was illustrator Thornton Oakley. Oakley had been a student of Howard Pyle at the Old Mill in Chadd
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