There is a view that we inhabit a society of specialists in the late 21st century. Professional pathways separate early as people gain expertise in their field. I once ran a project with both scientist and artist environmental consultants. They struggled to agree on what constituted even a basic grounding in education.
We think of those who pursued contrasting career paths with equal energy and intensity as ‘Renaissance men’, (no women), as if that possibility ended then, but is that true? John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) son of a cloth-merchant; started his career in the East India company but became infamous sexy playwright defending women’s rights, and the architect who built Blenheim Palace, initiating the English Baroque. Aphra Behn (1640-1689) survived and then succeeded as poet, spy, translator and playwright.
Hester Bateman (1708-1794) mother of six, widow of a gold chain maker, became a leading silversmith, making pieces with her own mark, developing the business and training both sons and daughters. She was one of sixty-eight female English and Irish silversmiths with their own marks. They combined three careers: craft maker, business woman and running a family household; in an era when everything had to be made, stored, mended, and maintained without electric appliances.
The 19th century trading and artisan classes took advantage of the new libraries and museums to self-educate en masse. Young women became teachers and set up their own little schools across England. John Brown of Colchester (1750-1859) began as builder and stone mason, added a career as excellent sculptor and became a famous geologist, a specialist in the study of fossils.
In the 21st century contemporary artists as ever use any media with which to weave a view, mixing it up with the opportunities of digital global connections. We are independent people. We choose what we do.
BA First Class Hons: Fine Art, Philosophy of Art, History of Art and History;
MA Museums Studies ( Education) University of Leicester.