Start With A House, Finish With A Collection

Photo: Gavin Ashworth

In Miller’s dressing room hang samplers by, left, Maria Bolen, Philadelphia, 1816, silk on silk on wool, and, right, Matilda Filbert, Womelsdorf, Berks County, Penn., 1830, silk and paint on linen with silk binding ribbon. Above, the painted papier-mâché milliners’ heads are French and were made between 1800 and 1860.

PHILADELPHIA, PENN. — “I have never thought about this before,” mused Leslie Anne Miller, when asked if she saw any connections between the avocations of practicing law and collecting antiques. But this attorney of 25 years went on to answer in the affirmative. “My legal background has provided the ability to conduct analysis, to focus clearly and to research an issue. I am a strategic thinker and, as my husband and I became more serious collectors, we became more strategic, not only about collecting but also in how to integrate our different collections.”

In her beautiful new book Start With a House, Finish With a Collection, Miller constructs a persuasive case in which she argues that antiques collecting can enrich a couple’s life immeasurably and that antique objects are completely compatible with contemporary interior design and lifestyles.

In no uncertain terms, Miller states that her aim was to create a new kind of art collection-focused publication, one unlike all other books in this genre. The result is a combination collecting memoir, advice book on antiquing and decorating and scholarly catalog documenting a portion of the collection Miller and her husband, Richard Worley, have amassed. The scholarly catalog component, referred to as the Compendium, was authored by Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, the Montgomery-Garvan associate curator of American decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Kirtley succinctly summarizes the Miller-Worley assemblage when she calls it “a collection of collections.” With some notable exceptions, it centers on arts produced in southeastern Pennsylvania during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Areas of particular strength include Queen Anne, Chippendale and Federal high-style furniture made in Philadelphia, Chester County and environs; Pennsylvania German painted chests, boxes, carved figures, fraktur and related folk art; and samplers and needlework pictures from the region.

Also impressive are holdings in the categories of American and China Trade painting, weathervanes and other base-metal objects. While there are many big-ticket rarities here, it may be heartening to the less-flush collector to find breadboards, game boards, yellowware, baskets and vintage holiday decorations enjoyed with equal gusto. Leitmotifs that run across media include images of house exteriors — appropriately enough considering the book’s title — and all sorts of animals, especially cats.

The Miller-Worley collection partakes of that grand Pennsylvania “city and country” style of collecting and interior design championed by Henry Francis du Pont and his circle. Miller cites the Port Royal Parlor period room at the Winterthur Museum as the design inspiration for her living room. Much of her approach bears the imprint of H.F. du Pont and his Brandywine Valley decorative arts palace. Although not highlighted in the book — in which recent provenance is rarely mentioned — the Miller-Worley collection contains early Philadelphia furniture that once belonged to the late Pamela and Lammot du Pont Copeland.

Using the parlance of their intimates, Pam and Motsie turned to cousin Harry to advise on the furnishing of their estate, Mount Cuba, in Hockessin, Del. In 2002, Sotheby’s auctioned 368 lots from the Copeland collection for $12.6 million. An object with a Mount Cuba provenance is about as close to a Winterthur pedigree as one can get.

The sumptuous “du Pont taste” includes elaborate curtain treatments and upholstery fashioned from damask or striped silk, as well as plush Oriental rugs serving to center and highlight vignettes of early American furniture. From a history of interior design perspective, this abundance of textiles had more in keeping with the taste of the 1890s than the 1790s and, beginning in the 1970s, museum curators swept away such rich fabric furnishings in favor of a sparer, more historically accurate look. To see it here reminds us both of its ability to dazzle as well as its connotations of Brandywine Valley estate life during the mid-Twentieth Century. It speaks of a grand and glorious regional tradition and is certainly appropriate for this Philadelphia Main Line house, a French Country design by Walter K. Durham that dates to 1939.

Philadelphia Quakerism, references to which run through the book, is another important influence. When asked why this was meaningful, Miller noted that Philadelphia is the couple’s adopted hometown and that she and her husband appreciate the Quaker values of peaceful coexistence and self-effacement as beliefs upon which the city was founded. They also recognize the significant role Quakers played as successful merchants importing great goods through the port of Philadelphia.

Miller and Worley are personally drawn to a simpler and cleaner line in high-style Philadelphia furniture that is in accordance with a taste broadly associated with the Quakers. Miller points to “Penn’s Treaty With the Indians” and the inclusion of the same scene in the background of the “Peaceable Kingdom,” both paintings by Edward Hicks, as compelling evidence of their interest in Quaker history. In summary, it is Quaker philosophy, general aesthetics and historical events that, taken together, serve as a touchstone for the couple.

The title Start With a House, Finish With a Collection not only indicates how this antiques-filled dwelling was created, but also mirrors the book’s two sections. Part One is based on the concept of “the house” and here Leslie Anne Miller leads readers on a journey through her home room-by-room, ending with a seasons-based tour of the gardens and a chapter on decorating for the holidays.

Readers learn about her purchase of this domicile in anticipation of marriage to Richard Worley; the married couple’s start as collectors with different interest levels and tastes; the invaluable guidance that the antiques dealer Harry B. Hartman of Marietta, Penn., provided in regard to collecting Americana and incorporating it successfully into home décor; the blending of their lives and collecting interests; and the philosophy and guiding principles they developed over the years as their seriousness and expertise deepened. Much like one of the darning samplers in the collection, this personal and room-based commentary is interwoven with tales of individual possessions.

Part Two of the book offers a view of the collection from a different perspective. In the Compendium, stellar objects have been pulled from their domestic setting for closer examination and appreciation. It contains expert cataloging by Alexandra Kirtley, who began working with the Miller-Worley collection in late 2009.

The Compendium consists of nearly 200 catalog entries with thumbnail photography, a majority of which document select individual objects, pairs or parts of sets. It is divided into sections on brown furniture, including seating, upholstered seating, tables, case furniture and clocks; painted furniture, most of which is Pennsylvania German in origin; fraktur, including birth and baptismal certificates, and bookplates and spiritual drawings; paintings, both American and Chinese Export; schoolgirl needlework from Pennsylvania and Maryland; and assorted folk and decorative arts — cigar store figures, weathervanes, garden ornament, baskets, band boxes, tobacco boxes, stoneware, yellowware, porcelain and carved animals attributed to Wilhelm Schimmel.

In some entries, Kirtley focuses her attention on the specific history and issues of connoisseurship relating to the chosen object. In other cases, she holds up the object as emblematic of culture, manufacture or use in southeastern Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the tiny type size used in the Compendium section makes the text difficult to read. This is a pity because there is so much useful and interesting information here.

The book’s dual approach facilitates the appreciation of an object in its own right through the Compendium while also allowing readers to witness its contribution to the assemblage as part of a designed interior in Part One. The wealth of catalog information, combined with the volume’s overall and detail photographs, will delight scholars and collectors of this material.     

“They don’t make them like this anymore” can refer not only to the extraordinary Miller-Worley collection, but also to this book. The number of beautifully illustrated art tomes produced by museums and publishing houses has dwindled, due to obvious financial constraints as well as the prevalence of online databases and exhibitions as a preferred mode for sharing images, information and scholarly interpretation. But Start With a House is a testament to the idea that the art catalog is not dead yet. The creation of this lavish offering with its 500 gorgeous color photographs by Gavin Ashworth is an elegant and noteworthy achievement.

Practitioners of the antiques trade will appreciate this book on several levels. In both the acknowledgements section and throughout the text, Miller testifies to the many contributions Harry Hartman and other dealers have made over the years, a welcome recognition of the vital role the trade has long played in building great collections. Inviting consummate auctioneer Ron Bourgeault to pen the foreword is another indication of Miller’s high regard for the dealing community. As active buyers and strong supporters of the Philadelphia Antiques Show in particular, Miller and Worley are models of exemplary behavior.

With this book, Miller primes the proverbial pump by explaining the couple’s collecting approach in hopes of encouraging others to get out into the market place. Finally, the Compendium offers museum-standard cataloging of key objects in the collection, making it a valuable scholarly reference tool. The court of public opinion will easily find in favor of this impressive effort.  

Start With a House, Finish With a Collection is published by Scala Arts Publishers Inc. Containing 500 color illustrations, the 271-page hardcover book lists for $75. For information, www.scalapublishers.com.

Kathleen Eagen Johnson is an expert in American decorative arts and an independent museum consultant, lecturer and writer. 

 

 

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