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  • Russ Ramsey

Lilias Trotter Subverts Expectations

For today’s Art Wednesday, let me introduce you to Lilias Trotter, one of the best watercolorists you’ve probably never heard of. Lilias was a naturally gifted artist with a world of opportunity opened to her. But she also felt called to be a missionary in Algeria. The final chapter in my book Rembrandt is in the Wind offers a more in-depth telling of her story, if, after reading this column, you’d like to know more.

Lilias Trotter Portrait

Lilias was born into a wealthy family, but at a young age her father died. The experience drew her to serve others who suffered. When she came to believe that her gifts were not her own, she said the rudder of her life was set for the purposes of God.

Lilias Trotter Watercolor

Lilias’ mother gave some of her work to John Ruskin—one of the most celebrated critics in Europe. He told Lilias if she would devote herself to art, “she would be the greatest living painter in Europe and do things that would be immortal.”

John Ruskin, Self-Portrait, 1873

Hoping to persuade her to be an artist, Ruskin wrote, “Of all the bits of clay in the hand of the potter that ever were fashioned, I think you have the least grit in you… I pause to think how I can convince you of the marvelous gift that is in you.”

Lilias Trotter Watercolor

After wrestling with Ruskin’s offer to develop her, Lilias wrote, “I see clear as daylight now, that I cannot dedicate myself to painting in the way that he means and continue to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”

Lilias Trotter Watercolor

Weighing the cost of becoming a missionary, Lilias said, “The results need not end with our earthly days. God may use, by the reasonable solidarity of the church, the things he has wrought in us for the blessings of souls unknown to us.”

Lilias Trotter, Wine Poured Forth quote

During a particularly difficult time in her ministry, Lilias wrote, “A bee comforted me very much this morning. He was hovering above some blackberry sprays just touching flowers here and there, yet all unconsciously life, life, life was left behind.”

Lilias Trotter, Bee

Lilias’ friend said artistic “desire was with her to the end, on the days when she took up her brush… 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 life.”

Lilias Trotter, Prepared as a Bride

As Lilias lay dying, friends gathered around. One asked what she saw. She said, “I see a chariot with six horses.” A friend asked, “Are you seeing beautiful things, Lily?” She said, “Yes, I see many, many beautiful things.”

Lilias Trotter, Missionary




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