Seeing Many Beautiful Things: Items from the John Ruskin Collection at The Armstrong Browning Library

By Melinda Creech
Graduate Assistant, Armstrong Browning Library

seeing-many-beautiful-thingsOn Thursday, November 10, from 3:30-4:30 pm, in the Cox Lecture Hall, Jerry Eisley, Director of the Washington Arts Group will present a lecture, “Lost in Translation: The Challenge of John Ruskin and Lilias Trotter to Art & Culture in the 21st Century,” examining how John Ruskin and Lilias Trotter sought beauty and truth in their own time. Each generation seeks to translate transcendence and define sacred space for itself.  The Washington Arts Group does the same today. Eisley will discuss the intersection of art and culture with belief, from the perspective of the displaced artist.  He will address the question, what would modern art have been like without the influence of Ruskin and Trotter?

The next afternoon, Friday, November 11, from 3:30-5:00 pm, Many Beautiful Things, a documentary about the lives of Lilias Trotter and John Ruskin, will be screened in the Cox Lecture Hall. The film was produced by Hisao Kurosawa, directed by award-winning filmmaker Laura Waters Hinson, and features the voices of Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones). Eisley portrays John Ruskin in the documentary film Many Beautiful Things. The film focuses on the life of Victorian social reformer, artist, and missionary, Lilias Trotter. Lilias was a favored art student of John Ruskin. Despite Ruskin’s claim that “she would be the greatest living painter and do things that would be immortal,” at the age of 35, Lilias chose to leave her career as an artist and become a missionary to the people of Algeria. She lived in Algeria for the next forty years of her life.

many-beautiful-things A physical exhibit, “Seeing Many Beautiful Things: from the John Ruskin Collection at the Armstrong Browning Library,” presented in the Cox Reception Hall, will focus on a few items from the John Ruskin Collection at the Armstrong Browning Library: some letters, books, and memorabilia connecting the Brownings and John Ruskin, books and letters connecting author and illustrator Francesca Alexander and John Ruskin, and a book and a letter connecting Lilias Trotter and John Ruskin.

An accompanying blog will extend the physical exhibit and address more completely:

—Ruskin’s correspondence with the Brownings
—Images and descriptions of wood blocks used in Ruskin’s books
—Ruskin’s correspondence with French art critic Joseph Milsand
—Ruskin’s correspondence with other artists
—Ruskin’s correspondence regarding St. George’s Guild
—Ruskin’s letters to family
—Ruskin’s letters to friends
—Ruskin’s letters describing his travels
—John Ruskin and Francesca Alexander
—John Ruskin and Lilias Trotter


Trotter, I. Lilias. Facsimile Edition: Lilias Trotter’s 1889 Sketchbook: Scenes from North Africa, Italy & Switzerland. Oxvision Books, 2015.

The flower reproduced on the exhibit poster is from Lilias Trotter’s 1889 Sketchbook, a tiny sketchbook Lilias carried in her pocket as she traveled around North Africa, Italy, and Switzerland. Although here she portrays a lovely purple flower, she did not always paint in purple. Once when she was visiting John Ruskin at Brantwood she admitted that she had a dislike for the color purple. She was sternly rebuked by Ruskin who opened cupboards full of beautiful minerals, rock crystals and amethysts of every shade, picked purple flowers; brought out watercolors of birds by Hunt, and displayed mountain scenes by Turner to persuade her of the greatness of her heresy (Blanche A. F. Pigott, I. Lilias Trotter. London: Marshall, 1929, 13). Ruskin taught her to “see” purple.


John Ruskin, 1863

In the third volume of Modern Painters, a book primarily written as a defense of J. M. W. Turner, Ruskin argues that art should devote itself to the accurate documentation of nature. He says:

“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, — all in one.” Modern Painters, vol. III, part IV, chapter XVI, 1856


Lilias Trotter

On 27 August 1928, members of the band of missionaries who had labored together in Algeria gathered around Lilias Trotter’s death bed and sang her favorite hymn, “Jesus Lover of My Soul. ” She looked out the window that framed her garden view and exclaimed, ‘A chariot and six horses!’ ‘You are seeing beautiful things?’ asked Helen Freeman. Lilias looked up and spoke her last words: ‘Yes, many, many beautiful things.’” (Miriam Huffman Rockness, A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Discovery House Publishers, 1999).