Lessons from a Victorian engineer

by Joanna Pieters | Follow her on Facebook here

On a grey London evening in December 1847, eight of Britain’s most celebrated painters were enjoying dinner in a house in one of London’s finest streets. I imagine them, perhaps having nervously dusted off their best evening jackets, scrubbed their hands, but, natural mavericks, still with traces of paint on their shoes.  

Their host was a prominent figure in British society, passionate about art and theatre, a competent artist himself. His wife came from a family of established painters, closely connected to the leading musicians and composers of the day.

He’d invited them to commission them to each to create a painting based on a scene from Shakespeare, to hang in the dining room of his house.

His name? Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

If you’re British, you’ll know him immediately as a celebrated engineer – in particular, the creator of the Great Western Railway, Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, and ships that changed world trade and travel.

But a knowledgeable and passionate commissioner of art? That was news to me.

A ship, and Shakespeare

Last week I spent a few days in Bristol, where Brunel’s great ship the SS Great Britain sits in the dry dock where it was built. Brunel was just 32 when he was drafted into the design team in 1938, but already celebrated for his extraordinary mind and engineering skills. I found it humbling to see this great iron vessel, the product of a hugely innovative mind backed up investors, project managers and hundreds of other engineers, craftsmen and labourers.

In the museum there, a whole room is devoted to Brunel’s Shakespeare project. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. The more I study creative people, the clearer it is that creative people aren’t boxed into to one discipline. For natural creatives, it’s not a choice between music and art, literature or science.

It’s true that professionally there’s usually a choice to be made. Passion and interest isn’t the same as mastery, and to reach the highest levels of success, it’s necessary to choose mastery of one thing.

Brunel was fortunate, though. His engineer father took charge of his artistic education, deliberately developing his son’s skills. And he lived at a time when engaging with the arts was normal for an educated, successful Victorian, and easy for a well-connected, highly creative person like Brunel.

Creatives and curiosity

The myth of the artist in the garrett is just that. There are the solitary writers: Jane Austen, writing about a London society of a city she never even visited. Emily Dickson, notoriously reclusive, breaking every rule of poetry in the bedroom she rarely left.

But most great minds reach out continually. They’re curious, engaged, interested.  

If creativity is about joining dots in new ways, seeing things in a way that haven’t been seen, we need the dots. Our creative brains do that naturally – we have fewer filters, we see more, we absorb more. But we also need to do it deliberately. Even in our connected world, we can easily get caught in our own echo chambers of the same people, the same ways of thinking, the same kinds of books, music or habits.

This week’s creativity prompt, and why you might want to try it:

Deliberately take yourself out of your knowledge zone. Find a book or an in-depth article about something you know nothing about, go to an exhibition you’d never normally consider, or find a playlist on Spotify that’s unlike anything you normally listen to. Spend ten minutes, or an hour.

Then think about what emotions it creates inside you. Interest? Frustration? New ideas? Boredom? How can you use that to be more interesting, curious or creative this week?

We can all broaden our visions. In fact, the wider our knowledge, the greater the view we have, and the more ways of seeing.


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