Who exactly was Henry W. Miles, a Baltimore commercial painter who left behind a delightful legacy of handmade miniature carriages, wagons, horsecars and buses?
Curators at the Peale Museum are seeking the life story of the elusive gentleman-artisan who died in Baltimore in 1936. For nearly 60 years, the man must have spent his evenings and free time laboriously carving replicas of the vehicles he'd seen around town -- the old horsecars that rumbled past Franklin Square (Fayette and Carey streets), the produce wagons that called at the Light Street wharves.
"There's a mystery that surrounds the man, the creator," said Dean Krimmel, of the staff of the Baltimore City Life Museums, which includes the Peale. "We'd like to know, 'What kind of a painter was he? Where did he work?' "
Actually, the museum was given a considerable number of artifacts that once belonged to Miles.
A handsome paint box, probably handmade, contains his palette knife, animal hair brushes and some numbering stencils. It also contains a photograph of the artist taken in the mid-1920s, showing him attired in sporty summer whites, and a small photo of an old Baltimore horsecar, part of the city's mass transit system in the 19th century.
Miles even saved an old draw-string pouch that once contained Maryland Club tobacco, a brand once made by Marburg Brothers.
Krimmel said the collection of 23 models was given to the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1936 after Miles' death. His son, William F. Miles, probably donated the items. They were put on public display once, then housed in the BMA's inventory until it was decided to donate them to the Peale.
Also included with the gift were two photos, again taken in the mid-1920s, showing Miles with all his models arranged in a living room Christmas garden.
The photos show a village packed with his models alongside a decorated artificial Christmas tree. There are also a 1920s airplane made of wood suspended from wires, skyscrapers, a church and a few small houses. But these apparently haven't survived.
Miles' miniatures are lovingly made of wood and are often intricately carved, painted and varnished. Because they are well-preserved, their oil-based colors still shine. Miles didn't seem interested in carving the horses that pulled his tiny wagons. He bought toy wooden animals from Germany instead.
The artisan made the models throughout his life. There are vehicles he'd known as a child as well as a doubledecker motorbus that first ran in Baltimore on Charles Street after World War I. After electric trolley buses came here, he made one of these as well.
Krimmel and his staff have researched the name Henry W. Miles in copies of the old Baltimore City Directory. In 1890, he lived at 1600 Argyle Ave.; in 1910, at 2444 W. Baltimore St.; by 1920, at 2808 Rayner Ave., between Dukeland and Poplar Grove streets. The neighborhood was known then as Rayner Heights. Miles even made a miniature Rayner Heights sign for his Christmas garden.
The care that went into the models may lend a few clues to Miles' life. Could he have been a painter for the old United Railways and Electric Co., the firm that operated Baltimore's fleet of streetcars. Its vehicles were once elaborately decorated with fancy numbers and stripes. Could his hands have done similar work on city fire engines? Or did he paint names and numbers on plate-glass windows and office doors?
"This is a nice collection and we'd like to have something more to say when we put it all out the day after Thanksgiving for our annual Christmas show," Krimmel said.
Krimmel suggests that children who possibly visited the Miles household in the 1920s when the family lived on Rayner Avenue might recall his Christmas garden.
"Maybe there are some relatives or grandchildren out there. We'd like to tell his story better," Krimmel said.
Anyone who can unlock the Mystery of the Miles Miniatures can contact Krimmel at the Peale Museum, 225 N. Holliday St., Baltimore 21202, or call 396-1164.