Child Prodigies

James Ferguson grew up in rural Scotland in the early 18th century. Like most families, the Fergusons could not support their children so sent them to work at an early age. James became a shepherd but spent his days making models of mills, spinning wheels and any other mechanisms he saw. At night he lay on his back in a field, gazing at the stars holding a string with beads at arms length to measure the relative positions of the stars. By candlelight, he turned these observations into star maps. His master mocked him at first, but when he realised what the boy was doing, urged him to continue, even taking on the boy’s share of work to allow him to make proper copies of his sketches. His work was shown to the local vicar, whose contracts led to a series of patrons who supported him with accommodation, access to books and more formal patronage

Ferguson became one of Britain’s most famous astronomers who made beautiful, accurate orreries, each one slightly better as building was also an act of learning for him.  He worked as a portrait painter,  toured as a science lecturer and was given a pension by George III and admitted to the Royal Society. When he died he was worth about £6,000. Henry Mayhew described him as the Peasant Boy Philosopher.

What strikes me about this story is not James’ achievements, though they are extraordinary, but the amount of encouragement he was provided which allowed him to rise up through society. He was a frail child, which makes him fit into the notion that children born in harsh winters tend to be the most robust.

I am intrigued by the notion of the child prodigy. Eighteenth century newspapers are littered with child performers: top of the list is Mozart, but there were singers, musicians, gymnasts, who supported their families. Sir Thomas Lawrence who succeeded Reynolds as President of the Royal Society made pastel portraits in his father’s inn. Alexander Pope was the first person to make a living from his writing, and was noted for his talent at an early age. Royal Surveyor Isaac Ware was a chimneysweep’s assistant spotted by a gent – perhaps Lord Burlington – sketching buildings, so was helped to change career. Thomas Chatterton pulled off an extraordinary literary fraud. Thomas Gainsborough bunked off school to sketch in nearby fields. Handel was organist at Halle Cathedral at the age of 18. Shelly, Turner, Keats and Millais also showed prodigious early talent. Once you start looking, it is hard to find great men who were not prodigies.

This was not about exploiting children; they were seen as wonders, as portents, that the family was blessed by their presence. The most famous of all prodigies was Christ, so encouraging such children was an act of benevolence.

Which makes me wonder why prodigies are now so rare, often seen as freaks or lonely outsiders. Sometimes pitied for having pushy parents. The crucial thing with all these children is they chose their own subjects. Some were diverted into other careers to survive, but kept returning to the field they fell in love with. They had time to focus, to find their own path towards excellence.

A teacher told me schools struggle to get kids up to minimum standards. They would probably not recognise a prodigy, and would not know what to do with them. Their best chance would be to win a scholarship to a public school where their skills could be nurtured properly.

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