Lilias Trotter is not a household name, but she almost was, and perhaps one day she might be. Born to a wealthy family in 1853, after a chance meeting in Venice she became a student of John Ruskin, who told her that she had the potential to become the greatest living painter. Her life is told in a new documentary film, Many Beautiful Things, from director Laura Waters Hinson.
The title of the film is instructive. Throughout her life Trotter saw nature in a way that perceived a spiritual beauty. Her art, mainly watercolours of landscapes and floral studies, was often set alongside quotations from Scripture. Her sense of beauty was tied to her belief that nature was the work of a creator. Her own appreciation of this gift was itself an act of praise.
Her relationship with the older Ruskin is fascinating. She became a student of one of the greatest figures of the 19th century, who promised her greatness (in an era already heavily populated with great art) – but she took lightly to such accolades, detailing them in her diaries only in order to reflect more deeply on the call that she felt from God to do something more.
Trotter undertook charitable work with the Victorian poor, at which Ruskin somewhat despaired: although even he saw the benefits of her dealings with those he termed “naughty people”. Trotter, it seems, saw the profound beauty of God’s creation not simply in nature – that is, not simply in a sunset, or a tree line, or cloud formation – but in the dirty faces of the inner-city slums.
This affected her painting and Ruskin (though doting on her until his death in 1900) remarked that the colour and richness of her work became dull, even “vulgar”.
He noted that her sketches and studies had become monochrome, with rough bold greys set against other darker and lighter shades. In later Protestant missionary work in Algiers, she again found the beauty that had stirred her artistic work. She used her art to communicate and to teach, particularly women abandoned by their husbands, and once more the colour and vibrancy of her earlier painting surfaced – not now in works for display, but in the intimacy of her diary.
In Many Beautiful Things, her story, with the central theme of faith preserved, is told in an astonishing way. We see a sketch of a quiet but impressive life of faith – particularly of the abandonment of worldly fame in favour of obscurity. Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and John Rhys-Davies (Indiana Jones) provide the voices of Trotter and Ruskin. Ruskin scholars and Trotter enthusiasts provide the interviews in this remarkable montage.
Many Beautiful Things (Cert U, 70 mins) is available to buy on DVD from Amazon