The list of those who have taught themselves is long and distinguished. Their great strength is that they do not recognise conventional boundaries, that they live – as William Blake, one of their number, wrote – as if “nature has no outline but imagination has”.
John Martin, currently on show at Tate Britain in London, is another 19th-century genius who acknowledged no limits. A working-class Northumbrian, Martin began as a coach painter. But he saw no reason why lack of formal training should inhibit his ambition. Soon he was turning out vast apocalyptic canvases, reminiscent of the Chapman brothers in their ghoulish detail, that were intended partly to inspire, partly to instruct. The grandest were sent on tour with an accompanying pamphlet to educate the viewer in the painter’s intentions. Nor were his interests confined to art. His proposal for a sewerage system predated Bazalgette and influenced him 25 years later. Almost at the same time, a blacksmith’s son from south London was avidly reading the science books he was supposed to be learning to bind.
Michael Faraday overcame such drawbacks as an unfamiliarity with calculus to ask questions that led him to a revolutionary understanding of electromagnetism and electrochemistry. The unlettered youth became author of The Chemical History of a Candle, never since out of print. It would be absurd to argue that self-education is a necessary precondition to innovative thinking. But it doesn’t have to be an obstacle.