The latter part of June will be delicious
for me – and never mind
Clovelly – stay here June
and July and August –
and you shall have such
children to draw –
and such flowers – and such thanks –
and be sent home as merry as a daffodil
Your loving JR.
Ruskin to Lilias: 25 April 1885
We travel northward, by train, from London to the Lake District. Destination: Brantwood, the home of John Ruskin for the last quarter century of his life. I’m on pilgrimage, tracing the footsteps, so to speak, of Lilias who made this same journey on many occasions. The train arrives at the station in Windermere and we continue our final approach by taxi.
There are some vistas for which photos cannot do justice. This is one of them. The narrow road twists and turns each bend revealing fresh delights. The vista opens up to the breathtaking sight of Coniston Water banked by the gentle rills peaked by the majestic Old Man. We have arrived at Brantwood!
What was Lilias thinking, what was she feeling when she made her first pilgrimage to Brantwood, guest of John Ruskin, properly chaperoned by her sister and, possibly, her brother? She, most likely, took the train to the Lake District but, unlike us, would have completed the journey in a horse-drawn coach provided by Ruskin. As a special welcome (as for all his guests) he would have opened the sluice gates from the water reservoirs, ensuring that the cascade was flowing for her benefit.
Our three-day sojourn in the Lodge (designed by Ruskin) was a hint of her visits a fortnight in duration – but in Ruskin’s home. Mountains. . . sky. . . waters. . . gardens brilliant with azaleas. . . banks of rhododendrons.. . strawberry blossoms spilling from rocky walls. . . bluebells in the woods above the house. . . Surely Lilias had all the views her beauty-loving soul could hold. I picture her with her ever-present pocket sketchbook capturing the loveliness with brush and water colors.
But all that was heightened by the presence of the man himself, a formable figure in Victorian England and beyond: artist, art critic, poet, writer on art, architecture and social and political economy. It was at Brantwood that a friendship was forged, her art was developed – and, where she would make the life-defining decision concerning the role of art in her life.
The next day, film makers, documented the interior spaces that fostered their relationship a century past. The little turret room on the second floor, guest room for the duration of her visits. . . the drawing room where she would break fast with John Ruskin reading aloud for him his daily mail and, later in the day, his most current writing. . .
It was in the Study that the essence of both the man and their friendship was most palpable. Here, in the heart of the home, Ruskin taught and challenged and engaged the mind and heart of his eager student as witnessed by her sister Margaret on the occasion of Lilias admitting a dislike for the color purple: “Cupboards full of lovely minerals were opened, rock crystals and amethysts of every shade were spread forth, flowers were picked, watercolours of birds by William Hunt, mountains scenes by Turner, were all called into contribution by her master to persuade her of the greatness of the heresy. She never dared to object to purple again.”
All around was evidence of the principles Ruskin promoted and which were evident in Lilias’ art and life. A dried leaf on the desk top brought to mind the same subject in her Parables of the Cross. A bird feather, wasps nest, sea shell held its own in the company of the watercolours of Turner or an original Della Robbia.
The visit culminated in the rare opportunity of presenting to “The Friends of Ruskin” the story of the Ruskin/Trotter friendship augmented by a slide show of eighty paintings. What a privilege to return to this significant site for Lilias – over a century later – and resurrect her life and legacy!
The pilgrimage carried us to Oxford and to the Print Room of The Ashmolean Museum where more than thirty of her paintings were stored – some of which Ruskin used in his famous “The Art of England” lecture. Interviews with scholars (“What would Ruskin’s friendship have meant to Lilias – or for that matter anyone at that time?” “What was the significance of her decision?”) shed greater light on this aspect of her life.
The final day was spent in London filming “Lilias sites” – the Ames House where she founded the first public restaurant for women, Victoria Station where she”rescued” prostitutes and brought them to the Welbeck Institute (YWCA) for lodging, food, and training for honorable employment. Iconic views of Lilias’s London were filmed with a final shot of Buckingham Palace – cameras covered by umbrellas – the sun shining through the clouds long enough to allow a short shoot and to reveal a glorious rainbow arching over the darkened sky. A benediction. . .
Each place was special for its specific place in her life but in the looking back I find my heart returning to Brantwood. Perhaps because it remains true, in its restoration, to the place that Lilias inhabited. Moreover, it is evocative of the most difficult decision in her life triggered by Ruskin’s challenge: “to give herself up to art.” We know her choice: “I cannot give myself to painting in the way he means and continue still to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God.'”
Was it worth it? That question dogged my research and was raised again as I reconsidered her life in the light of this pilgrimage. I might agonize over the “what if’s” and “might have been’s” but one thing is certain: Lilias did not. The decision made, she continued to enjoy art, yes, but she pursued what for her was the higher path, without looking back and with an undivided heart. It is important to note that she did not generalize her radical choice to others. In Parables of the Cross she writes: “There are those to whom a blessed life of fruitfulness to God comes in a simple way, with seemingly no hard process of dying involved. . .” But for herself she spoke of “a grand independence of soul” – the liberty for those who have nothing to lose because they have nothing to withhold. For her, for me, for anyone the question is simply: Am I willing to say “yes” to whatever God asks of me?
I leave England with some photographs, some small tokens of remembrance. The film crew leaves with miles of film – and the task of editing it down to a fifty-five minute documentary. The rest is “over to God” – how He chooses to use the life and legacy of a remarkable woman who lived over one hundred years ago for His purposes – today.
Photograph: Brantwood, John Ruskin’s home in the Lake District of England