Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Many Beautiful Things : The Life and Vision of Lilias Trotter

The word serendipitous is one I use a lot when describing the fortune of books and other things of interest coming my way at just the right time.  The film, Many Beautiful Things came to me in this fashion.  I deal with problem audio visual materials at the library where I work.  If not for the chance of someone reporting a problem with this DVD, I could have never discovered this film.  It took me all of a few seconds once I popped it into the computer to check it for damage to be smitten with this film.  The film is about a Victorian era artist, writer and missionary that I had never encountered although I am fond of all forms of British literature, art and history.

Who was Lilias Trotter? If not for the the thirty year journey of a minister's wife who also pondered this question when she first received a small book that contained some of Lilias Trotter's watercolor illustrations, we all possibly never would have known.  Miriam Rockness began stealing the quiet moments in her busy life, doggedly searching for information on this unknown artist that has been brought to life in this lovely piece.  Rockness credits her ability to travel through books and art in the earlier years of her somewhat confined life when her children were young.  Books and art fed her curiosity and gave her access to the information she would use spanning the three decades it would take to research the life of someone that would have been otherwise forgotten.

Isabella Lilias Trotter was born in 1853 into a family of comfortable means in the West End of London.  Her family's upper class means afforded her many daily luxuries.  At the age of twelve, her father passed away and she seemed to develop a deep spiritual awakening.  In 1876, while traveling in Venice with her mother, they found themselves staying in the same hotel as one of the foremost leading figures of English culture, natural history and art, the famous John Ruskin.  Mrs. Trotter wrote Ruskin a note and enclosed a few of Lilias' art pieces and asked if he considered her work to show a talent that would benefit from instruction.  Ruskin, saw promise in Lilias' work and took her on as a protege.

Many Beautiful Things chronicles Lilias Trotter's life and the decisions she makes along the way that had such a profound impact on her journey. What could have intrigued me in a few seconds?  Was it the promise of a mystery solved?  Or perhaps that this movie began to unfold as one of the most beautifully executed biographical films I have ever seen?  Perhaps a bit of both.

Lilias was primarily a watercolor artist.  The film is told using watercolor portraits that magically appear and then fade at times into the real life scenes of the actress portraying Trotter.  Other watercolors capture the piercing wisdom in the eyes of John Ruskin, and in the visual portfolio presented you can compare the work of the two artists.  Michelle Dockery gives a voice to Lilias Trotter, reading diary passages or expressing her feelings at the different stages of her life.  John Rhys-Davies is the voice of John Ruskin in the readings of the letters the two exchanged over their more than twenty year relationship.

The film is the story of two women really, Trotter and Rockness.   The film time travels with Miriam from her home in the present day.  It travels across the sea to both the present and the Victorian era in England and beyond the horizons in Algeria as she traces Trotter's footsteps in search of answers to the questions she's sought throughout her life.  You will visit both present and historic London and the magnificent county estate of Ruskin named Brantwood before taking aerial flight through the beautiful English countryside to witness the beauty that inspired the artwork of both Ruskin and Trotter. With Miriam you will experience reading the diaries, letters, journals and seeing vintage photographs that piece together Trotter's history and meet everyone that has helped Rockness with her research and became friends throughout her quest.

In the film, Trotter's paintings also come unexpectedly to life. From a small boat rowing in a golden sea to a duo of white moths flitting across a still life of flowers, as well as the other artwork that helps to illustrate Trotter's path until her death at the age of 75 in 1928. The score from the film is also hauntingly rendered by Sleeping At Last.  The film is a complete visual and spiritual masterpiece for all the senses and is sure to inspire and feed the soul.  One cannot help but be astounded by the lifetime of one obscure individual that made a silent impact on so many. 

Anyone who has encountered the type of crisis of soul like Lilias Trotter had, that lead her on the path to almost certain obscurity, will recognize the peace in the clarity of her decision.  There was a calmness and unwavering confidence in her choice that allowed her to live, although not a famous life, one of deep spirituality and contentment in her mission in Algeria for more than forty years.  Did her art suffer?  Did she regret not having given her life to Ruskin?  These are questions answered in watching this beautiful film.

One regret I have when watching the film is the quote offered by John Ruskin, "There is no wealth but life."  I wish they had included the entire quote.  It is beautifully stated it shows how like-minded Ruskin and Trotter were.  The enlightenment I had regarding the people that look without seeing resonates with me still.  I think Trotter's perspective helped her greatly in not only her art but her life choices.  There is a tendency for some to lack the emotional intelligence in truly feeling, exhibiting compassion and seeing a need.  But once recognized, someone that acts with the giving heart that Trotter possessed, needs no reward.  The act or deed is not for the praise of doing something right or good but in the comfort it gives others. 

I would also like to bring up one other point if I may.  I have long been sad that the art of letter writing and journal keeping is in danger of being lost.  Our daily lives are given to texting, emailing and blogging and other technical ways that have allowed us to keep in contact with our families and friends. In letter writing and journaling, the written word becomes tangible.  It will endure when kept by another. It is our history, in our own words, to describe our thoughts, feelings and the events in our lives. It is my legacy, it is yours... please write it down for posterity.  If not, our history will not endure like this beautifully told story of this young woman's journey.  It would have been lost but for the tangible trail that fed the efforts of someone devoted to knowing more about another.
For more information on the life of Lilias Trotter, her art and relationship with John Ruskin, you can read A Passion for the Impossible  by Miriam Huffman Rockness.

Review by Phyllis

1 comment:

pixie2 said...

Here is the entire quote by Ruskin...

“There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest numbers of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest, who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.”