“Many things begin with seeing in this world of ours.” Between the Desert & the Sea
I hold within my gaze a little gem of a book – A Way of Seeing* – 40 of Lilias’s inspirational reflections exquisitely illustrated with paintings selected from the Egerton Collection (Lilias’s family). While either the paintings or the writings alone would be reason enough to own or gift this book, there are two added features that make it unique: 1) a Preface by Stephen Wildman, Professor of the History of Art, Lancaster University/Director, Ruskin Library and Research Centre, on the relationship between John Ruskin and Lilias Trotter; 2) an Introduction by Darcy Weir, classics scholar/lecturer on faith and art, on the art of seeing.
Because Darcy Weir captures so beautifully the essence of Lilias unique way of seeing, I have chosen, with her consent, to print in full her introductory essay – with the belief that these words not only introduce us to this work but to a wonderful way of viewing our own worlds. Read. Look. See!
This little volume, A Way of Seeing, is intended to be more than simply a selection of Lilias Trotter’s work, presented for the viewer’s enjoyment. Lilias’s drawings, paintings, and sketches form a record of her visceral and almost mystical communion with the natural world, a world which she beheld as much with a quickened spiritual eye as with the trained vision of an artist. The result is a collection of colorful jewels, each capturing the very essence of the scene, the plant, the person, or the object before her eyes. Her ability to see and then artistically render the very essence, the quiddity of what she beheld, was singled out by her mentor and friend, the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin, when he praised her uncanny skill in making a “minute, instantaneous and unerring record of the things that are precisely best.”
Very few people possess this rare artistic gift, but all of us possess, at least potentially, the ability to pay close attention to what is before our eyes, to be patient as we behold an object or scene, to linger on it long enough, tenderly and attentively enough, for it to begin to reveal its own unique nature. This was Lilias Trotter’s way of seeing, and it can become yours as well. Spend time with the images, enough time to allow your spirit’s inner eye to awaken, and your imagination to stir. Be patient. Gradually, the mystery, the unique identity, of the object or scene will unfold before your eyes. As you become more accustomed to this way of viewing Lilias’s works, so will you begin to see the beauties of your own surrounding world reveal themselves. And then the purpose for which this little volume was created will be fulfilled.
Before you embark on this voyage of discovery, a few bits of background and biographical information are in order. You will be looking at scenes from a variety of places where Lilias lived and journeyed, from the English countryside to the deserts of North Africa, from perilous mountain passes to scenes of everyday life in the Casbah of Algiers. To all these vistas she brought a fresh and eager eye, but also an unerring gift for capturing vast expanses in the smallest compass. Living the life of a missionary in rugged terrain, Lilias did not have the luxury of large canvases and boxes of paints and brushes with which to work. She captured these impressions “on the fly,” using a bare minimum of equipment—a small brush or pencil, a few paints, and a tiny 4×6 sketchbook or 2-inch square space in the margin of a journal for canvas. Some of the images you will see in this book—scenes of a glorious desert sunset, of a large bay, of a sunrise on the sea—will have been created on a surface no larger than a matchbook. Conversely, she could fill up that small space with a single image of a seed pod or a bee fumbling amongst flower blossoms, and you would swear that you are seeing a much larger surface—a canvas of, say 36×24 inches. Very few artists have this capacity for elegantly rendering vast spaces in a tiny compass, or depicting a seemingly insignificant thing—a shell, a puppy, or clump of grass—as if it were the subject of a large and major work. Rembrandt and Dürer come to mind, but very few others. Lilias Trotter is one of those very few.
This faculty of accurately interpreting space, of attending with equal care and attention to the very large and the very small, was also emblematic of her approach to people. Each person, no matter how destitute, dirty, and downtrodden, was a precious soul, a being who bore within him or herself the image of God. Just as the fumbling bee could be as worthy a subject of painting as a distant view of a vast mountain range, so was a six year old Muslim child as worthy of attention as a powerful London banker.
Lilias Trotter renounced a potentially glorious career as an artist in order to work as a missionary in North Africa, a calling both difficult and fraught with peril for a young woman of frail health from London’s upper middle class. The great critic John Ruskin said “she would be the greatest living painter and do things that would be Immortal” – but only on condition that she give herself up entirely to art. This she would not do, but the images in this little book reveal how she continued to use her artistic gift, even though art was no longer the main focus of her life. Rather like her contemporary Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose exquisite poetry only came to light after his death, and who often felt his life as a priest in God’s service bore little fruit, Lilias’s art was hidden for long years, and her toil in the deserts of North Africa seemed to meet with limited success. But Hopkins and Trotter have now both been brought back from obscurity into the light, and both artists in their respective domains are inspiring new ways of seeing, new ways of appreciating God’s magnificent, infinitely varied, wonderfully curious creation. As Hopkins said,
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things….
It is those things and more that await you, as you learn to practice a new Way of Seeing.
by Darcy Weir
*Available at Amazon Books