Darragh Miller Ellerson was in New Hope last week catching up on the status of paintings her father had made. The news she confirmed was alarming — some paintings had been copied and they were being sold as originals, at reduced prices.
The lower prices were affecting the value of the originals. Just a few years ago, paintings by R.A.D. Miller were going for $70,000 to $95,000; now collectors were buying “originals” for only $2,500 to $5,000.
At least one of the paintings offered for auction, Ellerson said, had to be a copy, because the original was hanging in a relative’s house. “My father never painted two of the same thing,” she said, certain the paintings on the market were copies.
Ellerson, 92, visiting from Vermont, was speaking at a house in the village of Phillips’ Mill, where she spent much of her time growing up with her late brother, Shaun Miller. He was married to Eleanor Miller, one of the founders of The New Hope Colony Foundation for the Arts, a movement to preserve the replica of an English Village created by Morgan Colt.
Dr. George Morley Marshall of Philadelphia, Darragh’s grandfather, purchased the mill and surrounding area as a refuge from city life in 1894. He invited artists to come to his farm and, in the idyllic setting along the Delaware River, they painted landscapes and became known as the Pennsylvania Impressionists.
Dr. Marshall had seven children. The sixth was Celia Belvin Marshall, who married R.A.D. Miller, and their marriage produced Shaun and Darragh, who spent many months growing up at the farm. R.A.D. had been drawn to Bucks County when he was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where Daniel Garber was his teacher. Garber, at that time, was established at a farm on Cuttalossa Road in Solebury. Miller moved to Bucks County to join the group of artists here in 1928.
In 1929, painter William Lathrop and a local committee negotiated the purchase of the mill property from Dr. Marshall and formed the Phillips Mill Community Association centered on the mill as an exhibition space. Miller, whose work was changing to a more contemporary style, was among the artists who exhibited at the mill.
The association decided not to include a growing group of modernist painters in mill exhibitions but Miller, tending toward modernist but somewhere between the modernists and the impressionists, was allowed to continue. (He was also Marshall’s son-in-law.)
In a few years, R.A.D. became one of the members of the Independents, a group formed for modernist artists. In protest, because they were denied entrance to the Phillips’ Mill exhibitions, they took their paintings to New Hope the night before the annual Phillips’ Mill exhibition opened.
The Michener Art Museum staged “An Independent Spirit: The Art and Life of R.A.D. Miller” in 2009, and noted that he disliked the idea of being called a modernist.
“I think you just paint and you paint according to your time and environment,” Miller said to Dr. Cher Krause Knight, assistant professor of art history at Emerson College in Boston, who assembled Miller’s work at the Michener show.
Kurt Miller, Shaun and Eleanor’s son, was with us as his Aunt Darragh spoke of his grandfather’s art.
“R.A.D. Miller,” Kurt reminded us, grew up on a farm in Delaware. His parents separated when he was young, and he lived with his grandparents and then an aunt.
As others had done, Kurt mentioned R.A.D.’s independence and said that he and other family members can recognize with certainty genuine R.A.D. Miller paintings.
One of the highlights of R.A.D. Miller’s upbringing was sailing on a yacht owned by an aunt and uncle.
A biography published by Jim’s Antiques of Lambertville notes an idyllic childhood. “Miller had a wealthy aunt and uncle who were successful real estate barons in Palm Beach, Fla., where he would often spend winters with his family. His son, Shaun, spoke of winters spent with the family on a refurbished 130-foot schooner captained by R.A.D. from Palm Beach to the Caribbean where they would live on board for months at a time, his father painting, while Shaun and his sister received schooling from tutors on board the vessel.”
One of R.A.D. Miller’s lasting contributions to the Delaware Valley was a group of murals depicting Bucks County scenes, on the walls of the Stockton Inn, which is presently being renovated. Local artists and organizations have been hoping to preserve the murals, which were painted originally by R.A.D. and restored several years ago by artist Illia Barger.
R.A.D. Miller ceased painting in the 1950s. Suffering from depression, he committed suicide in 1966, leaving behind an extensive art legacy. His work is in the collections of the Michener Art Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Reading Art Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the United States Congressional Art Collection.
It’s no wonder his family protests that R.A.D.’s legacy is in danger of losing its significance.
And it’s not just R.A.D. Miller’s work that’s being copied. The FBI has been to local galleries asking questions about original art.