I have wanted to do a post on Lewis Miller since I started this blog, even though we don't have any of his work in the Fenimore Art Museum. His story, and the body of work he created, is rich and compelling in its attachment to a locale and the daily habits of its inhabitants. Between 1810 and 1865, Miller created some 2,000 drawings that give us a picture of the life of York, Pennsylvania that is unparalleled in any other American city. He called the volume, humbly, “The Chronicle of York.”
Miller was born in York in 1796 the 10th and youngest child of German immigrant parents who brought him up with a literary and classical education few folk artists ever receive. He even went so far as to take a Grand Tour of Europe in 1840, an undertaking usually reserved for the wealthy or those artists underwritten by a patron. It’s worth noting that he traveling through Europe chiefly on foot. Throughout his life Miller was a master carpenter, an avid traveler, and a writer of poetry and prose.
His greatest asset was his ability to record the mundane and the miraculous, often with a gentle, earthy humor. At the beginning of “The Chronicle of York” he states: “All of the Pictures Containing in this Book…are true Sketches, I myself being there upon the places and Spot and put down what happened. And was close by of the Greatest number. Saw the whole scene enacted before my eyes.” Here are some examples.
A self-portrait (top), not as an artist but as a carpenter, shown at his workbench with all of his trusty tools of the trade, along with detailed information on the location and nature of his shop.
A depiction of Tom Thumb’s visit to York, showing him on a miniature stage and surrounded by local dignitaries.
Two boys being thrown over a fence for stealing apples.
A robbery in a butcher’s shop.
And my favorite, “The Retreat of the Bad Woman’s,” showing a group of concerned citizens tearing down a local house of ill-repute while the “bad women” jump a fence to get away in the background.
These drawings, along with nearly 2,000 others, are in the collection of the Historical Society Museum of the York County Heritage Trust. A selection is always on view.
In May 1882, the 85-year-old Lewis Miller was impoverished and in poor health. He wrote to an old friend for financial help, and was so grateful for the 50 dollars he received that he produced another 200 portraits of people from their old hometown. Although his body and his bank account were failing, Miller’s memory and his passion for the world around him remained undaunted until the end. He died in September of the same year.