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The art of Victorian “Genius of Earlswood Asylum” James Henry Pullen

a side by side drawing shpwing a giant and his inside workings

(L) James Henry Pullen, Drawing of ‘The Giant’ (outside view) and (R) The Giant (inside view). Late 1860s or early 1870s, pencil on paper. Courtesy Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability

Watts Gallery explores the life and art of the Victorian Genius of Earlswood Asylum, James Henry Pullen

Dubbed ‘the genius of Earlswood Asylum’ by Victorian journalists, James Henry Pullen created fantastical artworks that escaped the confines of the asylums their creator was sadly incarcerated in continuously for nearly 70 years.

Pullen was born in London in 1835 and spent his childhood in Peckham, his later ‘celebrity’ included a degree of Royal patronage and the support of artists including Edwin Landseer. But despite being able to carve intricately detailed small ships out of firewood and draw pictures of them from an early age, his childhood inability to effectively articulate or speak saw him confined at the age of 12 in Essex Hall, Colchester, before being transferred at the age of 15 to the newly opened Royal Earlswood Asylum in Redhill, Surrey.

Pullen would spend the rest of his life here, classified, and studied by doctors, as an ‘idiot savant’, apparently a result of his inability to communicate with those around him. To this day, the nature of his disability (or even whether he had one) has never been fully established, but his works – poignant, accomplished and highly original – endure.

an old black and white photo of a man in a nautical uniform

James Henry Pullen photographed in his Admiral’s uniform, c.1880s. Photograph courtesy Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability.

a strange drawing of a submarine like craft

James Henry Pullen, Study after the State Barge, 1867, pencil and bodycolour on paper. Courtesy Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability

a wooden carving of a boat with a domed centre

James Henry Pullen, Queen Victoria’s State Barge, 1866-7, various woods, metal, string. Courtesy Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability

Today many of the treasures he created are in the care of The Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability at Normansfield, Teddington and this Watts Gallery exhibition brings together many of them – some of them newly restored – and draws on new research to shine a light on Pullen’s life and creative output. The exhibition also offers a new perspective on a largely forgotten artist of wit and inventiveness by examining the broader context in which Pullen was working – the world of nineteenth-century science, technology and psychiatry.

Pullen 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 new making therapy with its inmates.

Confined over nearly the course of his entire life, he became occupied in creating extraordinary designs, gigantic articulated puppets and a steady stream of detailed drawings, fantastical kites and models of boats.

Nautical themes were a particular favourite and staff at the Redwood Asylum once used the gift of an admiral’s uniform to placate Pullen when he became infatuated with a local woman who he decided he wanted to marry.

The Superintendent of the asylum, Dr. John Langdon Down (a man who transformed the care of people with learning disabilities and who first described and classified Down’s Syndrome) gave him significant leeway both in terms of managing his occasional violent outbursts and by providing for his creative outputs in the form of a specially converted studio-room – from which the creativity would endlessly flow.

Some of the most fascinating creations are the elaborate model ships, including the State Barge (1886-7) an intricate vessel in wood and ivory that Pullen apparently intended as a kind of travelling office for Queen Victoria. Despite a devil sitting on the prow, it is guided forward by ivory angels, who unfurl a gangplank for their royal guest.a drawing of a boat with a large structure on its deck                                                     James Henry Pullen, Design for a ‘Musical Boat’, 1869, pencil and bodycolour on paper.

an ivory carving of a flower with a red jewel insert

James Henry Pullen, Ivory Brooch, c.1870s, Ivory and red glass ‘jewel’. Courtesy Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability.

a carved wooden boat with a male figurehead

James Henry Pullen, Dream barge (The King’s Barge), Light wood, metal and string, c.1863. Courtesy Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability

The Rotary Barge (circa 1860 -1898) is an elaborate Heath Robinson-like construction which, having been in pieces for decades, has been newly restored and researched. It is one of several fantastical vessels that travelled beyond the confines of the asylum as their maker could not but were displayed at national and international exhibitions not as works of art, but as examples of the importance of ‘judicious training’ and discipline in treatment of the learning disabled.

“Pullen created a colossal Giant, a towering fully automated figure”

That said, the works not only made appearances in places like Crystal Palace, they were also acquired by Queen Victoria and Albert. Edward the Prince of Wales even sent Pullen pieces of ivory for him to carve into beautifully intricate artworks.

Pullen also created a colossal giant, a towering fully automated figure that was part puppet, part guardian, and in many ways an extension of himself.

Working on its evolution over several decades, Pullen was able to move the giant’s ears, tongue, eyes and eyelids. This unique invention would perform in Pullen’s workshop and take part in asylum processions. A modern reconstruction is on display throughout the exhibition.

“James Henry Pullen’s character shines through his doctors’ case notes, and he emerges as both an immensely skilled carver and model-maker and a fascinating character who had to spend his life negotiating the nineteenth-century asylum system,” says exhibition co-curator, Kirsten Tambling.

“This poses a difficult question to contemporary audiences: where do we draw the line between the ‘sane genius’ accepted by society and the ‘outsider’ who does not conform to its strict rules?”

a photo of a small tie pin shaped like a tobacco pipe made from ivory

James Henry Pullen, Ivory Tie-pin, c.1870s, Ivory and metal. Courtesy Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability

a cartoon like drawing showing various scenes inside asylums and other places

James Henry Pullen, Pictorial Autobiography, c.1878, Pencil on paper. Courtesy Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability.

Some of these questions and Pullen’s story are brought to life through his own Pictorial Autobiography, an intricate ‘comic strip’-style account of the artist’s life, telling his story from his own perspective, and through a specially commissioned new film about Pullen, directed by Gilly Booth of HiJack Films shown in the exhibition.

For Watts Gallery Director Alistair Burtenshaw, bringing the story of James Henry Pullen to life at Watts Gallery is not only an opportunity to “share the experiences and works of a gifted ‘outsider’ artist” with visitors, he also sees it as “a means of continuing to confront and engage with social history that embraces our founders’ principle of ‘Art For All’.

“Pullen and his artistic output defied categorisation and provide a timely reminder that creative genius can be found in unexpected places,” adds Burtenshaw, “just as it did when his art and his story captivated nineteenth-century audiences.”

George Frederic Watts OM RA (1817–1904) was widely considered to be the greatest painter of the Victorian age and the artist’s village that he and his wife Mary established at their country home in Surrey went on to become the Compton Potters’ Art Guild, a social enterprise founded by Mary that thrived in the village until the 1950s, providing training and employment for local people.

James Henry Pullen: Inmate – Inventor – Genius is at Watts Gallery – Artist’s Village from June 19 – October 28. 

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Watts Gallery — Artists' Village is a unique family day out in the Surrey Hills. Explore the newly opened Watts Studios then discover Victorian paintings and sculpture in the historic Watts Gallery before treating yourself to lunch or cream tea in The Tea Shop. Stroll to the nearby Grade-I listed…

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