For years, Eleanor Miller dreamed of seeing her tiny village cared for and preserved.
The village is a precious place, one of a kind in Bucks County, a charming village right out of the English countryside, just outside New Hope in Solebury Township. Phillips’ Mill is known as the birthplace of the Pennsylvania Impressionists.
The mill itself, across from the village, became the artists’ center for exhibitions, theater and social gatherings, through the artists’ support and today it continues as the home for the Phillips’ Mill Community Association.
Eleanor, once a Broadway actress, was involved with the mill association for a long time before she moved to the village. She worked on children’s theater productions and eventually created the cabarets and wrote scripts for the riotous mill spoofs that continue today.
An artist and architect, Morgan Colt, built the village in the early 20th century, with his studio, cottages, a kennel, a forge for Colt’s metal work, and the Holmquist School for Girls.
After a few years in New York and in Hunterdon County, Eleanor moved to the Village of Phillips’ Mill in 1995 with her late husband, Shaun, and son Kurt. It was actually a homecoming for Shaun.
Eleanor lives in Morgan Colt’s former studio – its center, a large room with vaulted ceiling, a magnificent stone fireplace and a artist’s massive window to let in the light, an enviable Arts and Crafts creation that cries out for preservation. So when the movement to restore and preserve the village began to materialize, Eleanor was first in line to make it happen.
At Easter 2018, the group that was to become the Phillips’ Mill Foundation for the Arts gathered at the Millers’ house to make plans. What emerged was a plan to acquire all of the village buildings and make them temporary homes for artists, who would be awarded fellowships with stipends, to live in the buildings and concentrate on their art. The group wanted to form an art colony.
Led by architect Bret Webber and Eleanor, the group formed a new 501(c)3 nonprofit and began seeking donations to fund their vision of a global residency program and giving the public an opportunity to learn and to interact with the artists.
“This is a moment in time that just ‘happened’ and if we hadn’t done this when we did, that moment would have passed and we could never have created this incredible opportunity,” Webber said. The long range vision is to acquire properties in the entire Phillips’ Mill Historic District as they become available for sale. “Through the tremendous generosity of local philanthropists, who were very impassioned by our vision, made it possible to acquire two of these key properties,” he said.
One point that Eleanor has been anxious to make is the history of the village because her husband was a part of it. He was a grandson of Dr. George Marshall, the Philadelphia physician, who bought the mill and the farm surrounding it as a summer residence in 1889. The Marshall family lived in the Lentenboden House set back from the corner of Phillips’ Mill and River roads.
Marshall sold the miller’s house, the stone house across from the mill, and 4 acres to his boyhood friend from Ohio, artist William Lathrop, a member of the faculty of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Lathrop’s presence encouraged the artists to move into the area and the Lathrops’ Sunday afternoon teas were the beginning of today’s Phillips’ Mill Community Association. The artists who moved nearby became known as the New Hope School and the Pennsylvania Impressionists.
After a few years, Marshall worried that the mill would be lost to community gatherings after his death. To ensure its survival, he sold the building in 1929, after a committee raised more than the $5,000 needed to purchase it.
Around that time, an artist named Robert Alexander Darrah “R.A.D.” Miller, known as RAD, enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under the tutelage of Daniel Garber. In 1928, Miller moved to Bucks County where he would meet and marry Celia Belden Marshall, an actress, and Dr. Marshall’s daughter.
RAD Miller, an accomplished landscape painter, whose work trended toward Modernist, was a regular exhibitor at the Phillips’ Mill along with the traditional New Hope Impressionists. Although the founders of the New Hope Art Colony decided to not include the growing group of Modernist painters in the area to exhibit with them at Phillips Mill, Miller was not excluded – because his father-in-law had owned the mill and was one of the association’s directors.
RAD was sympathetic to his fellow Modernists. In 1933, he was one of the original members of the Independents, a group formed for Modernist artists who chose to embark on a nontraditional creative path. They would exhibit in with the Impressionists but at different locations.
According an account by gallery owner Jim Alterman in “New Hope for American Artists,” Miller became known for his “naturalistic landscape and still life paintings which have a feel unto themselves – possessing an almost eerie and mysterious quality with rich velvety colors and a sense of isolation, seemingly undisturbed by human activity.”
Shaun Miller, RAD’s son, grew up in the idyllic world of Phillips’ Mill, in a house located by a dam and waterfall on the Primrose Creek. RAD Miller took his family to winters in Palm Beach and sailing on a schooner to the Caribbean where on-board tutors taught Shaun and his sister, Darragh.
Shaun studied art then moved into the corporate world of marketing for publisher Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.
The Michener Museum staged “An Independent Spirit: The Art and Life of R.A.D. Miller” in 2010.
“Miller was simply one of the most gifted, although underappreciated, painters of his day, and proved that many times over in a variety of genres," former Michener Art Museum Gemmill Research Fellowship scholar Cher Krause Knight wrote.
Eleanor Miller, his daughter-in-law, described him as having “a sadness, always, in his life.”
After his wife’s death in 1953, RAD painted less and sunk into depression, committing suicide on Dec. 22, 1966 at age 61.
“Beyond the sensationalized aspects of Miller’s life, we find a complex man who forged his own personal style, rather than subscribing to the traditions and trends set by others,” the curator said.