John Ruskin, in his 1883 Oxford lecture, “The Art of England,” tells of meeting a young woman, Lilias Trotter, who challenged his prejudice about artists. “For a long time I used to say, in all my elementary books, that except in a graceful and minor way, women could not draw or paint. I’m beginning to bow myself to the much more delightful conviction that no one else can.” Exhibiting a half-dozen framed pages from her Norwegian sketchbook for his students to copy, Ruskin advised, “You will in examining them, beyond all telling, feel that they are exactly what we should like to be able to do, and in the plainest and frankest manner shew us how to do it – more modestly speaking , how, if heaven help us, it can be done.”
Eight decades later, Sir Kenneth Clark, in the introduction to his Ruskin Today, mentions Ruskin’s “ecstasy” over the drawings of Lilias Trotter, noting that she is no longer remembered – and thereby implying that she was not of artistic consequence. Today, over a century after Ruskin’s historic lecture, the exhibition paintings, along with thirty-four other leaves from Lilias’s sketchbook are buried in the Print Room of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, filed in the Long Cabinet of the Ruskin Art Collection – a hidden testament to potential recognized, promise unrealized.
Who was this Lilias Trotter? She was born Isabella Lilias Trotter on 14 July 1853 into the large and wealthy family of Alexander and Isabella Trotter. She grew up in the privileged surroundings of London’s West End during the Golden Age of Victoria, experiencing the private tutelage of governesses at home and the stimulation of Continental travel by horse-drawn carriage during the summer months.
Her spiritual receptivity, early observed by family and friends, was quickened in her early twenties during the deeper-life conferences held at Broadlands, Oxford, and Brighton, which developed into the permanent Keswick Conferences, a worldwide institution vital to this day. Hungry for nourishment that would draw her closer to her heavenly Father, she found her understanding of Christian faith and practice clarified and solidified, and “the rudder of her will was set” toward God’s purposes.
Lilias’s freshly kindled faith was stretched and applied to volunteer mission work with the then-fledgling YWCA at Welbeck Street Institute, a hostel for London working girls. Her heart also reached out to women of a more questionable occupation – the prostitutes of Victoria Station -whom she brought to the institute for training in “honorable employment.” Her heart was moved with compassion for these “lost sheep,” and along with offering them training in an employable skill, she introduced them to the Good Shepherd. Her part-time work at Welbeck Street Institute eventually evolved into the full-time role of “honorable secretary.” As part of this work she helped open London’s first affordable public restaurant for women, so that they would not be forced to eat bag lunches on city sidewalks.
Parallel to her zeal for service was a passion for art born of an innate sensitivity to beauty, matched by an exceptional God-given artistic talent. It was this talent that caught the eye and interest of John Ruskin, the foremost art critic of the day and a monumental and influential figure.
The fortuitous meeting of John Ruskin and Lilias was initiated by her mother during their residency at Grand Hotel in Venice. Upon learning that the great master was residing at the same hotel, Mrs. Trotter sent Ruskin some of Lilias’s watercolors, accompanied by this note:
“Mrs. Alex Trotter has the pleasure of sending Professor Ruskin her daughter’s water-colours. Mrs. Trotter is quite prepared to hear that he does not approve of them – she has drawn from childhood and has had very little teaching. But if Mrs. Trotter could have Mr. Ruskin’s opinion it would be most valuable.”
Ruskin’s response is immortalized in his “The Art of England” lecture. “On my somewhat sulky permission a few were sent, in which I saw there was extremely right minded and careful work.” And thus began the unique friendship of the fifty-seven-year-old John Ruskin – artist, critic, social philosopher – and twenty-three-year-old Lilias. Ruskin, author of the The Stones of Venice, the definitive artistic and architectural history of the city, took her under his wing squiring her about on sketching expeditions and inviting her to study with him upon her return to England. Quickly he became convinced that she had a rare talent, which, if cultivated, would make her one of England’s “greatest living artists.”
It is impossible to overestimate the effect of this distinguished mentor and friend on the art and life of Lilias. She viewed the world as Ruskin did, with “heartsight as deep as eyesight,” to borrow a phrase he used to describe his hero, J.M.W. Turner.
She adored nature and was moved to tears, as was he, upon first sighting the Alps. Ruskin believed that without a knowledge of drawing, one could not fully appreciate nature: “I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love Nature, than teach the looking of Nature that they may learn to draw.” He told his students, “Go to Nature, in singleness of heart.” Technique, he believed, must be acquired hand in hand with the skill of “learning to look.”
If Ruskin was the consummate teacher, Lilias was the ideal student. Ruskin said in his lecture, “She seemed to learn everything the instant she was shown it, and ever so much more than she was taught.” To Lilias he wrote, I pause to think how-anyhow-I can convince you of the marvelous gift that is in you.” Just as Ruskin had championed such artists as John Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he was prepared to advance Lilias’s career in both the development of her art and the promotion of the same.
As Lilias’s immersion in painting deepened, so did her commitment to her spiritual calling. But Ruskin complained of the toll her ministry was taking on their friendship and expressed concern that her work in London was affecting the character of her art.
It was with this in mind that Ruskin brought Lilias to Brantwood, his home in the Lake District, in May 1879, three years after their initial meeting to put before her the brilliant future he maintained would undoubtedly be hers if she were to give herself fully to the development of her art. Dazzled, Lilias wrote to a friend that Ruskin believed “she would be the greatest living painter and do things that would be Immortal.” With his talent as a teacher and his power as cultural leader, Ruskin could launch her career single-handedly. But the offer came with a caveat. To become “Immortal” she would have to “give herself up to art.”
This challenge shook Lilias to the core. “At first,” she wrote, “I could only rush about in the woods all in a dream, and it was like a dream for the first day or two. Since then an almost constant state of suffocation half intoxication so that I can hardly eat or sleep except by trusting the Lord about it.” After days of agonizing deliberation, she saw she could not devote herself to both art and ministry. She wrote, “I see clear as daylight now, I cannot give myself to painting in the way he means and continue to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness.'”
Many of her friends and family members were shocked and disappointed by her decision. And, indeed, anyone venturing into the Ashmolean Museum, will find it heart-wrenching. There, in frame after frame, are works by Ruskin’s disciples – Millais, Rossetti, Holman Hunt, Ford Madox Brown – whereas Lilias’s works, clearly their equal in artistry if not complexity, are filed away, viewable only by request.
No one knew better than Lilias how her renunciation of Ruskin’s offer would impact her life. Many years later, a life-long friend recounted that “the ache of desire was with her to the end, not so much on the many days when she did no drawing, as on the days when she took up her brush… conscious of the pain of the artist who takes up an unpracticed tool and knows full well to what beauty he might bend it if he could but give to it his strength and life.”
Lilias returned to London and threw all her energies into her city work, integrating all her past teaching, training, and life experience into a vocation of caring. She continued her friendship with Ruskin as well as her art, but now with “a grand independence of soul,,” which she would later describe as “The liberty of those who have nothing to lose because they have nothing to keep. We can do without anything while we have God.”
Then, in May of 1887, in a meeting about the challenge of foreign missions, she listened to a message about those in North Africa who had never heard the name Christ. She felt the call of God on her life to bring the message of Jesus Christ to the people of Algeria.
The rest happened in an astonishingly short period of time. She applied to the North African Mission and was turned down for health reasons. Then, with her own resources, she set about to go to Algeria to work alongside, but not officially connected with, the same mission. The following March, at the age of thirty-five, she set off for North Africa with two friends (one of which left after the first year) to Algiers, where she knew no one nor knew a word of Arabic. She eventually took up residency in the Arab section of the Casbah, the ancient fortified city in Algiers, with its steep, narrow streets crowded with people and warren-like shops.
Over the next four decades, from her base of Algiers, Lilias set up stations along the coast of North Africa and deeper south into the Sahara desert, scouting on camel, areas never before visited by a European woman. In sum, she spent the rest of her life bringing the light and life and love of Jesus to the Arab people of North Africa.
At the time of her death in 1928, Lilias had established thirteen mission stations and had over thirty workers, under the name Algiers Mission Band, united in her vision to bring “the light of the knowledge of God, in the face of Christ” to the people of this land, from the cloistered world of Arab womanhood to the Sufi mystics in the desert southlands. During her forty years in North Africa, she pioneered means, methods, and materials to reach the Arab people, which, in retrospect, are considered to have been a hundred years ahead of her time. She wrote, as well, a body of English devotional literature, most notably Parables of the Cross and Parables of the Christ-life.
Lilias’s story is detailed in the biography A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter. Her soul is revealed through writings and watercolors that document the inner as well as outward events of her life. Through the years she remained faithful to Ruskin’s artistic vision. With her pocket sketchbook and her keen eye she lived the credo he outlined in Modern Painters: “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.”
Within months of her arrival in Algeria, Lilias captured in a pocket sketchbook images painted in a glowing range of colors that would have delighted the color-loving Ruskin: sunrise in golden shades of coral, a bit of blue bay, white-washed houses stacked against hills or nestled within valleys, exotic and common plants and flowers, nationals in robes and headdress. Years later she would exult: “Oh how good it is that I have been sent here to such beauty!”
Lilias’s early journals and letters (1888-1898), followed by thirty compact leather-bound page-a-day diaries (1899-1928) supplemented by travel journals, were studies in both beauty and economy of space. Day by day, decade upon decade, through the seasons of her life, Lilias “looked” with “heartsight as well as eyesight” recording in a watercolors and words her observations filtered through her heavenly vision: God working out His purposes on a land and in a people. From these records illuminated by exquisite watercolors and strong sketches – a museum in miniature – emerges a country, intimate and varied, and a people “bright and living.”
Ultimately, and most profoundly, emerges a spiritual reality from her eyes of faith: a vision of the invisible. Francis Bacon wrote: “God has two textbooks – Scripture and Creation – we would do well to listen to both.” Lilias “listened” to both. In the early hours of each day she studied Scripture and texts from her little daily devotional volume, Daily Light, to hear God’s voice. One of her earliest letters state: “I have found a corner in the Fortification Woods, only five minutes from the house, where one is quite out of sight, and I go there every morning with my Bible from 7:15 till 8:30 – it is so delicious on these hot spring mornings, and God rests one through it for the whole day and speaks so through all living things. Day after day something come afresh.” Throughout her life she sought out a “place of quiet” – a rooftop refuge, a desert palm garden, a Swiss forest of firwood, an Arab prayer room – to listen to God’s voice through Scripture and prayer.
And she read God’s work, seeing lessons in their design and processes, that revealed to her the Creator, nourishing her beauty-loving spirit as well as her God-loving soul. Her diaries are filled with paintings of lessons learned from the natural world, and her language is laced with such expressions as “The daisies have been reading me a faith lesson,” The milky looking glacier torrent spoke with God’s voice,” The snow is speaking.”
Stamped on every page of her diaries and journals is a woman fully immersed in the practical realities of everyday living even as she is totally engaged in assimilating these realities through an eternal perspective. It is from the tension of these two realities, the seen and the unseen, that hard spiritual truths are hammered out which later appear in her English devotional books and leaflets, elegant and reasoned, and in her Arabic story parables and booklets, sensitively illustrated to satisfy the color-loving Eastern mind and eye.
A Blossom in the Desert, a companion to the biography, A Passion for the Impossible, has been culled from the writings and watercolors of these many sources – some paired as she intended, others matched for resonance of word with image – and organized under the great unifying themes of her life: Light and Life and Love. These themes are further developed under topics of vital spiritual significance through Lilias’s eyes of faith that continually integrated the visible world with the verities of the unseen.
In her introduction to Between the Desert and the Sea, her love story of Algeria, Lilias invites the reader to “come and look… The colour pages and letter press are with one and the same intent – to make you see.” Echoing her mentor Ruskin, she concludes, “Many things begin with seeing in this world of ours.”
Lilias painted and wrote in obscurity with no concern for fame or recognition . Yet there is no doubt that she would welcome the reader to “come and look” at her writings and watercolors – with “heartsight” as well as “eyesight.”
This blog is intended to further expose you to the vision – visible and invisible – of the remarkable Lilias Trotter!
Come. Look. See!