Hanging with the Presidents
If a visit to Mount Vernon is in your summer plans, be sure to take a close look at the pictures hanging in the full-scale restoration of the grand Front Parlor. Curators painstakingly recreated the room down to the smallest details. The gilded frames holding the Washington family portraits were handmade by Berryville’s own Peter Miller, a highly skilled carver, gilder, conservator, and restorer. He creates one-of-a-kind frames using the same traditional methods used by 12th and 13th century craftsmen.
Miller was contacted by a Mount Vernon curator to craft 13 historically accurate frames. These replicas were essential because some paintings are too valuable to be put on public display, some original frames did not survive, and some paintings are owned by others. After extensive research and trips to photograph and take exacting measurements, Miller and his apprentice and assistant Christian Ferrante produced the ornate hand-carved and gilded frames.
Miller has also crafted frames for pictures in the George W. Bush Presidential Library. They hang in a floor-to-ceiling recreated Oval Office, the only recreation of the Oval Office in the world.
Originally from Connecticut, Miller learned to work with wood as a child, serving as his father’s eyes and additional hands. His father was a wood shop teacher in the 1940s–50s as well as a hobbyist, but lost his sight when Miller was just a year old. “He continued to work in his home shop,” Miller recalled. “My first tasks were sanding for him and cleaning his brushes. Eventually, I learned to use a drill press.”
Miller didn’t do any woodworking in high school, and gave no thought to a career in the field. In fact, he had no idea what he wanted to do, so his guidance counselor advised him to go to a business college. “I got a bit of business, accounting, economics,” he said. “It wasn’t for me.”
He gave woodworking a second look and switched to another college, where he majored in teaching woodworking, in what was called industrial technology. However, he never did teach, deciding that, “I couldn’t teach in the public school system and build birdhouses for the rest of my life!”
After college, he went to work drafting and engineering for New England Log Homes, then for a millwork company doing cabinetmaking, drawing, engineering and estimating. However, it was a family business and he could advance no further with them. He started thinking of what he could do on his own, and framing was a viable option. A family member had a framing business and he went to work for them.
He started his own business in 1983 in a small frame shop that had been established a few years before. “All they had been doing was typical ‘walk into a frame shop and see the stuff you would order from distributors.’ Then one day a client asked, ‘Do you ever get or work with closed corner frames?’”
Miller explained that with ‘closed corner’ or ‘finished corner’ frames, all of the work—the joinery, carving, etc.—is done prior to any finishing, resulting in a frame that looks seamless. “That was the kickoff point for me,” he recalled.
He began seriously learning more about hand-made frames and became enthralled with gold leaf. “The community I got involved with, The International Society of Gilders, is primarily in the USA but with members around the world. These are the people who taught me to gild. I went in there as a newbie and took workshops and studied with some of the finest gilders in the United States for many years, and I still take classes.”
He added that most of the work he does is focused around frames, but he also does furniture. In addition, he does architectural gilding—he gilded the crosses at the Episcopal Church in Berryville.
Christian Ferrente, 22, was working on an ornate wall bracket that will be gilded. “I’ve been working here a little over a year. I’ve been doing woodworking since the summer after high school, taking whatever cool opportunity came my way, and I’ve been lucky enough to do some pretty awesome jobs. I did a little bit of gilding, but just very basic. I got referred to Peter. There are very few people around that know gilding like Peter does, so I’m here, learning.”
“Christian doesn’t boast,” added Miller, “but he has done timber framing at Mount Vernon, and a little over a year working at the National Gallery in the Conservation Department.”
Miller explained that they use very old traditional techniques. “One of the things I’m most passionate about with gilding and this entire art form is that virtually nothing has changed since the Renaissance.” He pulled out a translation of a book on techniques and materials written by an Italian craftsman in the 15th Century. “Our tools are the same, nothing has really changed, even the formulas and recipes.”
Miller offers occasional classes and workshops on frame-making and gilding.
P.H. Miller Studio is located at 1 East Main Street, Berryville. For information, visit www.phmillerstudio.com or call 540-955-3939.