PEN & BRUSH
Lilias came from a long line of writers and artists. Her great-grandfather, Sir Robert Strange, distinguished as an engraver “of the very first rank,” is remembered for designing the currency for the foiled dynasty of Bonnie Prince Charles! Both her mother and father published books, he on finances and she memoir-letters from the “new world.”
There is no doubt that Lilias was encouraged in her drawing from an early age. It is noteworthy that before her parents’ four-month trip to the United States (inspiring the letters to her daughter that were later published) five-year old Lilias was given her first sketchbook, inscribed “Lily Sept. to Dec. 1858” to record her impressions during their absence. Though without formal training in art, she was provided views and experiences to stimulate her aesthetic sensibilities and the materials to express them, a series of pocket-sketchbooks from her youth, documenting the same.
Indeed, it was her ability to capture rapidly on paper a faithful and convincing representation of the sights and scenes from their many family travels, throughout the UK and the Continent, that caught the eye of the imminent artistic arbiter of the Victorian Age, John Ruskin. Taking leaves from her Norwegian sketchbook for his students at the Oxford School of Drawing to copy, Ruskin observed, “What skill is more precious to a traveller than that of minute, instantaneous, and unerring record of the things that are precisely best” – words immortalized in his Slade lecture, “The Art of England.”
Her writing is considered by many to be on a par with her art. Like her parents, Lilias did not hesitate to publish her writing when it furthered a purpose dear to her heart. Her History Lessons for Junior Classes, published by the Church of England Sunday School Institute, reveal both her mastery of the material and pedagogical methods, combining text with graphics to clarify concepts – skills for which she would later distinguish herself. And it is not surprising that an article, “Making A Venture,” would be published in the YWCA monthly newsletter just one month before her “call” to Algeria!
All was in place to employ “pen and brush” upon her arrival in North Africa, in 1888. Thirty-five-year-old Lilias was dazzled by her first views of this exotic new land – skies, bay, hills, groves, houses, plants, flowers – capturing these images in a pocket sketchbook in a glowing range of hues that would have delighted her color-loving mentor, John Ruskin! The very skills that many lamented being denied her full expression or recognition in the world of art and letters were to be lavished upon Kingdom work for the remaining years of her life.
From her earliest days in Algiers, Lilias explored means to develop written material that would resonate with the Arab nationals – a unique challenge as women and children rarely were readers while, at the same time, printed materials were among the most effective means of communicating the Gospel, allowing individuals the privacy to read without the need to defend or argue. With their earliest scraps of Arabic, Lilias and her comrades hand-printed Scripture texts to distribute on the quay and in public squares, even venturing Saturday evenings into cafes in town where the men often delighted in assisting them in reading the texts aloud! The most effective way to reach the women, they discovered, was by putting Scripture texts into rhyme and rhythm, chanting in a cadence they grasped and remembered. Soon, the need for a yet more colloquial translation of Scripture became apparent and with that, the recognition of the importance of presentation: lithographed in their own, beautiful writing and printed on rough, creamy paper with marginal lines and flap covers – all as Arab as possible – the Gospel of Luke being the first venture of their “revision committee.”
Methods and materials would evolve, over the years, with greater understanding and availability of resources. Early on, Lilias observed the Eastern love of storytelling, and realized if their small band of workers were to hold the interest of the people they needed more attractive leaflets, printed and autographed in their Arabic script and peopled with their own local characters. This eventually evolved into booklets for boys – story parables – an endeavor given a great boost by collaboration with the Niles Mission Press, at the invitation of Dr. Samuel Zwemer, to further expand this concept in literature for women and children of Arab-speaking lands. Three months “residency” in Egypt, assisted by Blanche Haworth, triggered a flow of writing employing skills of the mission band which they laughingly called “tractitis!”
Through the years, Lilias continued to develop evermore effective means of printing, driven by the need of color-printing for this color-loving people, at a price for broadcast distribution. The ingenious solution to the problem was a process called two-color printing: the application of a single color to details in the simple picture insets and decorative borders designs. The four-page leaflets written in the classical Arabic interfaced with a French translation for the benefit of the French-speaking population along the coast had enormous appeal to their eastern sensibility. An additional set of “blanks” was prepared – illustrations without the text – to allow for translations to be autotyped in countries where Arabic was not understood. Alongside this ongoing venture was the development of a series of themed text cards, ornamented with decorative borders – boys’ painting classes filling in the color – the script done by native scribes who, alone, could fully capture the subtlety of lines and curves. Fifty-seven different leaflets, parable stories, and folders had been printed out in Algiers but over one-hundred-fifteen have been documented, most of which were published and distributed by the Niles Mission Press – some still in print to this day.
It must be noted that concurrent with her developing literature for Arabic and French-speaking Muslims of Algeria and Tunisia, was a wealth of English writing, some devotional in nature, other informative of the work. Her devotional classics, Parables of the Cross and Parables of the Christ-life were lessons drawn from nature and illustrated respectively with plant life of England and seed-bearing vessels of North Africa. Tiny leaflets with covers of pen and ink or watercolors, were taken from spiritual insights, first recorded in the diaries and journals which documented her forty years in North Africa. Her final years, while confined to bed, she expanded her original foldout on the seven “I AM’” texts in John’s Gospel into her consummate work for the Sufi Mystics: The Sevenfold Secret.
Her final major work, Between the Desert & the Sea, was in essence her love affair with the land and the people, moving chapter by chapter from one region to another. Paintings culled from her forty years of journals and diaries lavishly illuminate the oversize pages. The text reveals her intimate knowledge and love of the people and the land; the watercolors bringing the same to life with unforgettable images, exquisite and exotic. The foreword begins with an invitation to “come and look.” She continues to state the purpose of the book that at once reflects the influence of her mentor John Ruskin and captures the very nature of her calling to “pen and brush:” “The colour pages and the letterpress are with one and the same intent – to make you see. Many things begin with seeing in this world of ours.”
Lilias’s unique giftedness with pen and brush was given over completely to capturing her unique way of seeing – both inward and outward – translating lessons from the natural world into spiritual verities of eternal significance for herself – then conveying the same to others. In the process she was nourished in her spirit and has left a lasting legacy of beauty and truth.
To Purchase Lilias Trotter Prints, Notecards, and Products:Fine Art America Gallery
A Way of Seeing, by Lilias Trotter, compiled by Miriam Rockness
Parables of the Cross by Lilias Trotter
Parables of the Christ-Life by Lilias Trotter