As a biographer by trade, I love telling the stories of lives well lived. And one new documentary film tells one such story beautifully.
Suppose you were given the choice between using your God-given gifts in a way that would make you famous, or in a way that would guarantee a life lived in obscurity.
That’s the choice one Victorian-era artist had to make. And her decision is the focus of the wonderful new documentary called “Many Beautiful Things.”
Lilias Trotter had a gift for seeing beauty and for capturing it in exquisite watercolors. Trotter was mentored by the greatest art critic of the period, John Ruskin. He told her that if she would devote her life to her painting, she could become one of the best artists of her time.
Lilias Trotter was torn over this. As tempting as the prospect was, she had other gifts that she felt called by God to use. Her gift of sight involved more than just her art; as one of the experts in the film tells us, she had “a rare gift for seeing a need.” She spent much of her time helping prostitutes and other needy women—time that Ruskin thought should have been spent on her painting.
In the end, Lilias Trotter chose the kingdom of God over artistic fame. She decided to become a missionary to Algeria, and when a denominational mission board refused her application because of health issues, she and two friends simply went there on their own. She never gave up her art—indeed, it seemed to be reborn, as she filled sketchbooks with beautiful paintings of her new surroundings. But she spent the bulk of her time ministering to women and children in need.
After Lilias Trotter died, she was all but forgotten. Only recently has she been rediscovered by biographer Miriam Rockness. It was Rockness who contacted filmmaker Laura Waters Hinson—which is a name you might remember, as we’ve talked before about her great Rwanda documentary “As We Forgive.”
Hinson’s new film is full of Trotter’s paintings, brought to life through the skillful addition of depth and animation, until it almost feels as if we’re walking through some of her landscapes. Experts on Trotter tell her story, and actors Michelle Dockery (of “Downton Abbey”) and John Rhys-Davies (of “The Lord of the Rings”) read from Trotter’s and Ruskin’s writings. The viewer comes away deeply moved by this woman’s talent and by her courageous choice to put others before herself.
The film makes clear that Lilias Trotter did not see her path as a universal one. There are those who are called by God to make art or music or writing their career. But Trotter knew that was not her calling.
Paradoxically, her obedience to God gave her great freedom from the restrictions and boundaries that most women of her era dealt with. She simply went where God called her to go and did what He called her to do, and though she dealt with great obstacles, she also found great joy.
What a difference from many of us today. Some Christians will do almost anything for fame, telling themselves that whatever they do is justified as long as it gets God’s name out in public. But as Trotter knew, God doesn’t need us to be His PR people; He only requires us to be faithful.
“Many Beautiful Things” is now available on DVD and as a digital download from the website ManyBeautifulThings.com. Copies of Trotter’s paintings and writings are available for sale there as well.
If this film finally brings Lilias Trotter the fame that her art deserves, that will be a great thing. But I think she might say that, in a life devoted to serving God, she already received a far greater reward.
Further Reading and Information
Many Beautiful Things: The Gift of Sight
Find out more about the choice this remarkable woman made between artistic fame and relative obscurity. Click on the links below to see the trailer from “Many Beautiful Things” and to read further details about the life of Lilias Trotter, missionary and artist.
Many Beautiful Things
Promoting the Good, the True, and the Beautiful: A Q&A with Filmmaker Laura Waters Hinson
Warren Cole Smith | BreakPoint.org | March 9, 2016
‘Many Beautiful Things’: Lilias Trotter and the Theology of the Cross
Rebecca Miller | Christ & Pop Culture | March 4, 2016
Lilias Trotter: Missionary, Artist
The Conservation Center | February 13, 2014
A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter
Miriam Huffman Rockness | Discovery Books | July 2003
‘As We Forgive’ Premieres Today on PBS
Catherine Larson|BreakPoint.org | July 15, 2009