Pluripotent creativity

The oddest tourist attraction in Guernsey must be the town house on a hill above St. Peter Port in which Victor Hugo lived from 1856 to 1870, as an exile from Napoleon III’s autocracy, at first forced, and later self-imposed. The exterior is conventional. The interior was remodelled by Hugo to his own designs, with the help of Guernsey craftsmen but no professional interior designer or architect.

theaterraumThe components of his designs are ordinary, heavy mid-Victorian stuff, of no great merit to our eyes. But he used them unconventionally. Bottle glass went into internal partitions; old carved wooden chests were broken up to construct strange secular altarpieces. Chinese figurines are framed in Renaissance woodwork. A corridor has a collection of china – extending to the ceiling.

Fireplace surround in a grand H

The first room pictured is got up as a Romantic theatre set for his children. The second has a tiled fireplace surround making his monogram. Image source

Michelangelo, fortifications Source

Michelangelo, fortifications Source

This led me to wonder about the nature of creativity. We tend to think of the Leonardo da Vincis of this world as exceptions, even within the population of the highly talented. It’s true that high achievement in more than one creative domain is very rare. But achievement in any field needs hard work and training as well as talent, and it’s very, very difficult to do the work in more than one domain. Lu, a professional actress, gave me a useful distinction between talent and vocation. Hugo had talents for both writing and design, but a vocation only for writing. You can have vocation without talent, like the luckless poet William McGonagall; and talent without vocation, like (in a modest way) me.

A bleg to my readers. How domain specific is creative talent, net of application?

My guess is: less than we think. But see here for a contrary view.

A trivial but pleasant example on my side. The novelist Anthony Trollope, then a Post Office official in the Channel Islands, introduced the letter box from France to the British Isles in 1852. A well-thought-out earlier effort by Renouard de Valayer in 17th-century Paris failed through vandalism; it took a change in civisme to become feasible. (What happened to letter boxes in the South Bronx in the 1970s?) The oldest example of Trollope’s is in St Peter Port, Guernsey’s capital.
letterbox, Union Street, Guernsey
The idea took off quickly, but the handsome octagonal design in cast iron proved expensive and later British pillar boxes, the iconic ones, were round or oval. The real innovation here was Rowland Hill’s postage stamp : an idea that, like the letter box or hypertext, falls into Basil Fawlty’s category of the Bleeding Obvious, but needed immense organisational skills to pull off.


  1. says


    This may be a tough question to answer definitively. My thought is, like yours, that it is less domain specific than one would think.

    For example, I have known instances where creative people were temporarily denied their usual creative outlet (say, theatre) for a couple of years and, out of the blue, suddenly took up gourmet cooking or another creative pursuit. The need for the creative outlet could not be denied and merely found another domain.

    Now that could argue that creativity is less domain specific (as I certainly believe), although it could merely be that those individuals were some of those rare multi-talented individuals, invoking their creativity one domain at a time.

  2. paul says


    There’s also a big different between talent and Talent. Given the resources, someone who is great at one thing can probably become pretty good at any number of other things, but then even people who aren’t great at one thing can become pretty good at a lot of things. Being great at one thing does, however, typically gives someone the resources (both monetary and psychological) to have a vision in some other area and carry it through with realtively minimal compromise.

    • James Wimberley says


      Any examples of your second category? Diaghilev perhaps? Though all his achievements were closely related, and he achieved wealth and fame through their combination.

  3. dave schutz says


    One of the other grad students in my department was from the Channel Islands, and one day I complimented him on the nice Jersey he was wearing. He looked at me and said, ‘Well, actually, it’s a Guernsey’

  4. Lu Mendonça says


    Lu? Qual Lu?
    Lembro ao Sr. que meu nome profissional é LU MENDONÇA.
    Agradeço a citação a minha pessoa.