James Henry Pullen: Inmate, Inventor, Genius

On Friday, I finally managed to visit Inmate, Inventor, Genius, the Watts Gallery’s exhibition showcasing the life and work of asylum artist James Henry Pullen (1835-1916). This was a fascinating exhibition which demonstrated the artist’s incredible creative talent and technical skill while sensitively contextualising his practice with his institutionalisation. Pullen created ‘extraordinary designs, gigantic articulated puppets, detailed drawings, fantastical kites and models of boats’ [1], and his ‘ingenious inventions’, the exhibition’s wall text tells viewers, offer ‘a window into the Victorian asylum, and the mind of an extraordinary inventor confined within it’.

Pullen’s life and work are extremely relevant to my research interests, having first come across his creations in Mike Jay’s This Way Madness Lies: The Asylum and Beyond. In Jay’s text, the artist is described thus: ‘During the sixty years he spent in Earlswood Asylum, Pullen produced a remarkable body of paintings, drawings and sculptures, including a series of fantastical model boats. He became known as the ‘genius of Earlswood Asylum’ [2].

The Redhill mental health hospital, formerly known as The Asylum for Idiots and The Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives, was established by the Reverend Andrew Reed and the psychiatrist Dr John Conolly in 1848. These two founders believed that ‘idiocy’, as a separate psychiatric category to ‘lunacy’, required a particular form of treatment. Dr John Langdon Down, the first Medical Superintendent at Earlswood, directed patients in what would today be called occupational therapy: making boots, bonnets, and baskets, which would be sold to benefit the asylum.

In the exhibition book, it is stated that the artist ‘was born at a time when the idea of using creative therapy in a medical setting was in its infancy and the Royal Earlswood Asylum was one of the first to use the news making therapy with its inmates’ [3].

Pullen’s creative leanings seem to have been fostered and encouraged in this environment, as demonstrated by the discussion of his models in the short film opening the Watts Gallery exhibition, and the introductory wall panel which states that the life of Pullen ‘coincides with the ‘asylum age’’.

Around 120 new asylums were founded or expanded in England and Wales between 1808 and 1900, and this era also saw vast changes in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders. Pullen’s mental health condition(s) were therefore treated and defined within these changing medical understandings of the era. ‘Idiocy’, a term used to describe the 13 year old Pullen during an early diagnosis, was a definition introduced in medical terminology from the 1840s, and was used to describe a number of learning disabilities.

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James Henry Pullen 

Today, Pullen’s disability remains unclear, but by 1874 he was called an ‘idiot savant’, which was a new diagnosis that had been introduced in 1869 and indicated a person with learning disabilities who had one extraordinary skill.

Visited by journalists who wrote of him as ‘the Mastercraftsman of Earlswood Asylum’ and a ‘Genius’, Pullen became a celebrity, known for his creative work.

Unable to speak until the age of seven and largely illiterate for his life, Pullen was fascinated with boat-building, having grown up a short walk from the boats at the newly constructed Regent’s Canal. Inspired by maritime Britain, he began to build model boats as a child, and continued to create innovative ships while in the asylum.

The artist created a model warship, the Princess Alexandra, which was was ‘launched’ in the pond outside Earlswood Asylum in 1862, and he also began a replica of the SS Great Eastern – however, it is his ‘fantastical’ boats that fascinate me the most.

These are creations which would be called Steampunk if they’d been built 150 years later; ships that wouldn’t look out of place in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Pullen’s first ‘fantastical’ boat, Dream Barge, is displayed at Inmate, Inventor, Genius: a piece informed by mythology and folklore and perhaps a design for a royal funeral, inspired by the 1861 death of Prince Albert.

The State Barge, completed in 1867, is here exhibited alongside Dream Barge, and was designed to be a vessel from which Queen Victoria could run her empire – perhaps an extension of Pullen’s interest in his era’s period of Imperial expansion and trade which was, as the exhibition reminds us, ‘underpinned by ambitious and monumental ship-building’.
Heaven and hell compete for power over the ship, as ivory angels pull it forwards and a Satanic figure drags it back. The lightening bolt on the top of the ship could suggest electric power, the wall text linking this feature with the 1866 laying of the first electric cable across the Atlantic.

Pullen engaged fully with the world around him – his workshop was strewn with mechanical drawings, newspaper extracts, and the latest scientific developments. The exhibition describes the artist as ‘an emblematic Victorian who engaged with the innovative spirit of his times. Though he was confined throughout his life, his creative imagination extended far beyond the walls of the asylum’.

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Pictorial Autobiography

The 14 foot tall puppet The Giant and the Pictorial Autobiography are also incredible works with fascinating backstories, both of which are showcased in the exhibition.

James Henry Pullen: Inmate, Inventor, Genius, is open until Sunday, October 28. Well worth a visit.

1. Anon. James Henry Pullen: Inmate – Inventor – Genius, https://www.wattsgallery.org.uk/whats-on/james-henry-pullen/. Web Accessed: September 16.

2. Jay, Mike, This Way Madness Lies: The Asylum and Beyond, (Thames & Hudson, UK: 2016), 142.

3. Alistair Burtenshaw, Foreward to James Henry Pullen: Inmate, Inventor, Genius, (Watts, UK: 2018), 1.

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