Come right in, says her house (not you, that pitcher)

Miller holds her newly published book "Start With a House, Finish With a Collection": "I did not want this to be some Main Line matron of means showing off her house - well, it's a little of that."
Miller holds her newly published book "Start With a House, Finish With a Collection": "I did not want this to be some Main Line matron of means showing off her house - well, it's a little of that." (VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff)
Posted: August 04, 2014

These things begin innocently enough, with a Fire-King jadeite batter bowl, or maybe a couple of rye-straw baskets.

But sometimes the condition worsens, and other bowls and baskets start following you home. You diversify into furniture and paintings - and pumpkin-head Halloween figures, embroidery stitched long ago by Pennsylvania schoolgirls named Mary and Ruth, a row of 19th-century French milliners' forms with their daintily painted red-lipped faces staring vacantly into space.

And if you have a really advanced case, like Leslie Anne Miller's, you end by having to write a book about it because, really, what more can you do with all that stuff?

Quite a bit more, it turns out. Not only has Miller cataloged the thousands of items, chiefly from southeastern Pennsylvania, with which she and her husband have filled their Bryn Mawr home, but the book she has produced is also a cri de coeur - for perpetuating the endangered field of antiquing, for making connections with the past and discovering the odd satisfaction of sensing one's transience while living among artifacts of an enduring culture.

"I did not want this to be some Main Line matron of means showing off her house - well, it's a little of that," says Miller, who readily owns up to the fact that Start With a House, Finish With a Collection (Scala Arts Publishers, $75) shows "how one couple collected to a significant extreme."

The book is as lavish as the collection. A generous 4ΒΌ-pound quarto slab filled with 271 pages of ardent text by Miller and images by noted museum photographer Gavin Ashworth, it is coffee-table-ready. But a scholarly compendium by Alexandra Kirtley, an American decorative arts curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, adds welcome layers of context and history.

"I think what I have produced is a hybrid unlike any I have seen," says Miller, who writes of the couple's acquisitive process and evolution as collectors, and of the importance of keeping antiques not as distant beauties but quotidian and utilitarian. "Things that are 100 to 200 years old arrive with scars and marks, and will leave here one day with more wear and tear," she said recently on a spin through rooms scaled from formal to folksy.

She can be disarmingly funny. "My husband, who once had eyes only for brown furniture, has now become passionate about folk art," she writes.

If Miller is a Main Line matron of means, she has never been mistaken for only that. A lawyer, she led a staff of more than 450 attorneys as Pennsylvania's general counsel in Gov. Ed Rendell's administration, and was the first woman elected president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association. She was chief of the Kimmel Center during key moments in its development, and has been an active campaigner for Hillary Rodham Clinton (and expects to be again).

The husband who moved beyond brown furniture is Richard B. Worley, an investment adviser, and it is hardly possible in Philadelphia to be involved with culture without tripping over one, the other, or both. He is chairman of the Philadelphia Orchestra's board; she has served on the boards of the Free Library, Pennsylvania Ballet, and Philadelphia Museum of Art.

She sees involvement with antiques and cultural organizations as two manifestations of the same impulse: to be stewards of culture, and, more specifically, culture in jeopardy.

"The issues in collecting are not unlike those at the organizations at which we are involved. The parallels are obvious," Miller says. "Antiques and collecting are on the wane. We have been collecting for 30 years, so we've witnessed the value of these things, and you don't collect for investment. The values have really declined, save those at the high end, which have not declined as significantly. We have many friendships with dealers, and all of them lament the decline of the business. You see it in the attendance of antiques shows, you see it at auctions.

"And we look at the demographics of those who are buying," she says, referring to the lack of young people entering the collecting pipeline. "There is a common theme - it all ties together. It's just an extension of our ongoing interest in arts and culture, and our small but firm commitment to preserving what we think is a critical part of life."

As with arts and culture, you could come cold to antiques later in life, but that wasn't Miller's route. She grew up in central Pennsylvania, in Harrisburg and Mechanicsburg - where her collecting heart lies as well - among her family's smaller collections. What she and Worley have amassed is populated with both modest items - yellowware batter bowls and holiday tchotchkes - as well as early-Philadelphia furniture and tall case clocks, snuffboxes and bandboxes, and a couple of Horace Pippins.

"Richard said, 'Who's Pippin?' My mother said, 'Buy it.' "

There were other significant art buys, including an Edward Hicks Penn's Treaty and The Peaceable Kingdom; two snowy canvases by New Hope impressionist Edward Willis Redfield; numerous works of Peale family members Charles Willson, James, Raphaelle, and Rubens; and a luminous 1850s oil of a pensive, silk-wrapped opium merchant by a nameless Chinese artist.

If there's a harmoniousness between the setting and its thousands of items, it wasn't inevitable. Miller was always interested in having antiques, but not necessarily here. Early on in her career, before she met Worley, she had pictured herself becoming what she called "the Emily Dickinson of Rittenhouse Square." Spinsterhood wasn't in the cards, but Bryn Mawr was.

"I never wanted to move to the suburbs nor did I need a large house," she says. "Where we were going to live and how we were going to live was one of the most contentious issues in our early relationship." The house was great, she said, but "it was in the suburbs, where I did not want to go."

The resulting collection was a marriage of interests that grew. It now includes porcelain, weather vanes, Pennsylvania fraktur drawings (a genre of illuminated folk art) and blue stoneware, Windsor armchairs, Berks County painted chests, folk portraits, Philadelphia Queen Anne walnut easy chairs and stools, Federal chairs, Chester County spice boxes, period oil paintings of all major Chinese harbors, black Steiff cats, a bestiary of silver napkin rings, card tables, tea tables, and Pembroke tables. Miller defines the scope from high-style Philadelphia furniture to flea market.

"I don't buy one of anything," she says, a confession to the obvious if ever there was one.

There's an undeniably voyeuristic quality to Miller's book; it is a lot of stuff, viewed intimately in situ. And while there are certainly other antiques assemblages in Philadelphia homes more important and art collections more valuable, there was a certain measure of bravery involved in putting it all out there in a book.

Miller, though, says one reward in particular outweighed any potential hazard.

"We have had a wonderful time doing this. It has enhanced our lives in so many ways. With any luck," she said, "the risk of exposure will inspire some new collectors."


pdobrin@phillynews.com

215-854-5611

www.inquirer.com/artswatch.

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