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Putting the ‘E’ in creativity

What can we learn about being creative from a mini-Saxon castle and the Victorian Arts and Crafts Movement? 44’s Emily New embraces her inner history geek to find out…

On Sunday, at 2.45pm, I was standing on the roof of Broadway Tower, trying to ignore the icy winds and enjoy the 360° view across the Worcestershire countryside.

The tower is a 200-year-old, three-storey, mini-Saxon castle, complete with turrets, balconies and gargoyles. It was commissioned by the Earl of Coventry and designed by James Wyatt and Capability Brown in the 1790s.

It’s no secret at 44 that I’m a bit of a history geek. So, even though I heavily underestimated how freezing it would be up there, climbing the tower and discovering its story made for a great afternoon out.

The first thing I discovered was that the tower didn’t seem to have any real purpose. It was simply designed as an ornamental folly to sit at the top of a hill.

But, for a building that was just meant to stand majestically over the countryside and look dramatic, it ended up having a fascinating purpose – inspiring centuries of original thinkers and becoming a creative hub for those in the local community.

One such example involved an eccentric chap called Thomas Phillips who populated the tower with his great collection of books, which he often donated to local libraries for free. He moved his printing press there a few years later, in 1822, and welcomed writers and scholars to his tower as a refuge for creativity and learning.

Then, in the 1870s, Broadway Tower turned into a popular destination for William Morris and his group of fellow anti-industrial artists who championed creative thought and traditional craftsmanship.

‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,’ Morris famously wrote. 

So, inspired by the history of Broadway Tower, here are four ‘E’s to help get those creative juices flowing:

1. Environment is important

For Morris, a change of scenery was key to fostering a creative mindset. He and his influential group would often frequent the tower, using it as a countryside retreat to get away from the bustle of city life and to breathe new inspiration into their work.

Fast forward 150 years, and the importance of having an environment conducive to creative thinking still applies. With busy deadlines and other work pressures, it’s sometimes hard to think up a new idea or concept at your desk. I often do my best thinking on the train or in the car – and taking a quick walk or changing location can all help to spark new moments of inspiration.

2. Embrace the past

‘There’s no such thing as a new idea,’ wrote Mark Twain, ‘we simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope.’

Broadway Tower was built in 1799, but in a mock Saxon style, and the architects drew their influences from the buildings of the 11th and 12th centuries. Throw in some gothic gargoyles and medieval battlements and it’s a real mix of old and contemporary styles.

Back in the present, when searching around for something new, a good tactic to try could be revisiting previous work and finding inspiration from there – taking elements from older ideas and giving them a modern twist.

3. Everyday experiences matter

Another Broadway rumour was that Morris used to take his baths on the top of the tower. This allowed him to be closer to nature and admire the views – although he sometimes lost his soap to the wind – and it’s impossible to ignore the role that nature played in his iconic wallpaper designs.

With this in mind, which everyday experiences can we draw inspiration from today?  

Pinterest, films and podcasts can all be great ways to come across new styles or trends – however sometimes it’s those little moments (a quick conversation with someone, a flick through a magazine) that can end up sowing seeds of ideas that then develop.

4. Everybody can be creative

It was Morris and his fellow artists that founded the Arts and Crafts Guild – a society that still exists today to encourage creative interaction and the sharing and development of creative skills.

Moving back to the office environment, simple things like setting up group brainstorms or asking for a second opinion can start to foster an inclusive culture where everybody’s ideas are valued.  

When it comes to creativity, we’re not just talking about artists and designers. New ideas can be shared and approaches taken with language, technology, process – and even science.

So, while I started this blog by quoting artists and writers, I’ll end with one final tip from Albert Einstein: ‘creativity is contagious – pass it on!’  

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