When God Calls You to Leave the Art World

Lilias Trotter could have been a famous painter. Instead, she chose to travel with two other single women to preach the gospel in Algeria. Why?
When God Calls You to Leave the Art World
Image: Oxvision Films

In a recent New York magazine cover story, journalist Rebecca Traister notes that many more US women are embracing “that it’s okay for them not to be married.” She calls the decline of marriage “the most radical of feminist ideas.” But in fact, many women throughout history chose to be single not out of feminist commitments but out of Christian faith.

One such woman was Lilias Trotter, an English missionary who remains surprisingly obscure, even among missionary-loving evangelicals. Born to a well-to-do London family in 1853, Trotter showed an early aptitude for watercolor painting and in her teens became a protege of John Ruskin. She challenged the influential art critic’s assumptions about women artists (namely, that they shouldn’t be), and he promised her a life of fame under his guidance.

Then, at just the moment her career was set to take off, Trotter traveled by boat, then train, to Algeria with two other single women to preach the gospel to Muslims. She died there in 1928.

Trotter is the subject of Many Beautiful Things, a new documentary by D.C.-based filmmaker Laura Waters Hinson. The film, which is much more narrative and aesthetically pleasing than most of its genre, premiered in February at the National Gallery of Art. It features voiceover narration from Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary in Downton Abbey) and a soundtrack from Ryan O’Neal of Sleeping at Last. It released to DVD and online streaming channels in time for International Women’s Day, observed on Tuesday.

Hinson recently spoke with print managing editor Katelyn Beaty about the film, and whether we must necessarily choose between the way of art and the way of faith.

Given how obscure Lilias Trotter is, even among Christians, how did you learn about her? And what sparked you to devote this documentary to her life story?

I had never heard of her, like most people. I got an email a few years ago from biographer Miriam Rockness. She introduced herself and asked, would I be interested in directing a short documentary. She was leading a board of people; a board had been put together by funders to oversee a film. (I get a lot of weird emails. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten emails about, “Here’s this book I’ve written about how there was a demonic witch who got converted to Christianity.” I get a lot of self-published books mailed to me.)

I ended up talking with Miriam on the phone for two hours the first time. I was taken by the story of Lilias and this decision that she made, and with that, the producers of the film wanted to explore the question of her calling. They wanted it to be a film that could go to a PBS audience or to universities, to reach beyond the church. I found that enticing.

I was drawn to this historic woman artist and historic woman of faith—you hardly ever seen stories like this spotlighted.

Why has Trotter remained so obscure?

Partly because she lived in Algeria for 40 years, until she died. A lot of her work did get smuggled back bit by bit to England by missionaries, so some of it’s preserved. But some of it was lost. The Algiers Mission Band of hers disbanded when things got politically tense in Algeria, and they pushed all the missionaries out. Even though she was a contemporary or an influence like Elisabeth Elliot and Amy Carmichael, she just didn’t gain the prominence of these other famous female missionaries. She had written books, but they didn’t catch on; she also came earlier.

You know the song “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”? That hymn was based on the writings of Trotter. I do know that Noel Piper has written about Trotter. Richard Foster has written about Trotter in a section of a chapter in one of his books; an older generation who was connected to missions knew about her. But she was really content with full-blown obscurity.

Yeah, that is such a striking theme in her life story. Many people live lives before God that are relatively obscure, but the fact that she had the choice of fame and actively turned away from it, there’s a part of me that wonders, was she someone who we would describe today as a bit “extreme” or “prone to fanciful ideas”?

And who knows what they said about her in her day? In her time it was even more unusual to forsake marriage and having children. She applied to and got turned down by several missions agencies; they didn’t want to represent her because of her health, as she had heart problems. She didn’t want the normal things that women of her day wanted, and she ended up essentially self-funding her 40 years in Algeria. She had inherited money from her family that was a very well-to-do London family. At the end of her life, at age 75, as she was dying, her money was running out, so her money ran out at the same time that she died. That’s extreme.

The Algerian context was one of the harshest of all the mission fields. It was very slow progress. Whereas I think in some of these other big female missionaries, like Mother Teresa or Amy Carmichael, there’s still an organization that exists. For Lilias, the Algerian government stamped out any efforts by missionaries, such that today it’s illegal to be a Christian in that country.

But I’ve talked to former missionaries in Algeria who have done some estimates of underground Christians, and the estimate is that anywhere from 50,000 to 75,000 Christians worship in the underground church, primarily in the mountains. There were other missionaries who came after Lilias, but what I’ve been told is that she and her mission band laid the groundwork for Christians in Algeria today.

There’s a quote at the end of the movie: “Her efforts seemed on the surface to be like water on the sand; they would sink down and evaporate immediately.” Lilias knew what she had been called to do, but she never saw a church built, she never saw her artwork hang in a major museum, she never saw these external outcomes of success, and yet she maintained her joy.

It’s a bit Abrahamic in that sense. Is the fact that Lilias was a woman something that drew you to her story, as a woman of faith and an artist?

Most definitely. I’m drawn to telling stories about women as the protagonists, because they make up such a minority in all films. So I was drawn to it because I want to do my part to tell stories about women.

But also these questions about, what is the measure of true success? That’s a core question we explore in the film and that Lilias’s life speaks to, because she measured her success very differently than we do. Artists, writers—the whole point of what we do is to have people see it, and to, quote, “make an impact.” I would put missionaires in there as well. Anybody who’s trying to create something and make an impact on human thought or hearts, the hope is that you actually see impact. Lilias is this example of long-suffering and patience and commitment to a call regardless of external outcomes.

Obviously the film explores the relationship between art and faith. The crisis in Lilias’s life centered on what place art would continue to have in her life, as art seems to many a temporal, this-world concern while missions is an eternal, next-world concern. Would Lilias have seen her decision this way?

My biggest fear in producing the film was it would somehow reinforce a false dualism and [imply] that it is holier to go be a missionary than it is to be an artist. When I talked to the people putting together the film, I said, “That’s not the conclusion I would make; is that okay with you?” They said yes. And we put a line in the film from Miriam that says, “This is a decision that Lilias made, not a decision that she would think other people would have to make.”

In reality, all work is sacred and important, and I believe everybody is created with a set of gifts. And living out those gifts in an individual call with excellence is valid. I don’t think that Lilias would believe in a dualism, that you had to do missions to be a true Christian and that art was not holy enough. But the culture was so different back then, that’s what people thought.

Well, not just back then. It’s hard to imagine a film being made today about a missionary who leaves the missions field to become an artist.

There’s a section in the film about Lilias’s time in Algeria, that she never left her art. Her art flourished and exploded when she was in Algeria. It was just that she wasn’t pursuing notoriety for it. She was pursuing it because of her deep love. She painted every day of her life in Algeria. She was painting on her death bed; she was scrawling images of the people around her. It just wasn’t the way John Ruskin wanted her to be a painter.

The question is posed in the film: Did Lilias make the best or worst decision of her life by refusing to follow Ruskin? How have you come to answer this through working on the film?

I don’t think it was the worst decision of her life, but there were many people who did think that. What permeates her writings is a persistent, delible joy that ran throughout the whole thread of her life. I think she actually really loved the adventure she was on in Algeria. I think she really loved what she was doing: going and learning Arabic, she loved being part of this different culture, and loved just the adventure. According to her own writings, her final statement would be, “I was more alive and had more joy and more creativity and richness than if I had stayed in London.”

On a personal level, I think, “Oh, she could have stayed in London and continued under Ruskin and kept working with the prostitutes at Victoria Station and as a volunteer with the YWCA,” which is what most women of her stature and class were doing. There’s a big part of me that wishes she could have found a life where she could have done both [art and missions], but according to her journals, she had an irrepressible joy that followed her throughout those 40 years. I think she loved it.

God often calls us to do things that are hard but that are things we are equipped for. It was a hard thing, but Lilias was equipped for that adventure.

December
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When God Calls You to Leave the Art World