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James Henry Pullen: Inmate – Inventor – Genius

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By Colin Hambrook

Stepping into the Watts Gallery and Artists’ Village in the village of Compton, near Guildford in Surrey is a step back in time where the democratic values of Victorian artists and crafts-people G F and Mary Watts hold sway today.

The State Barge by James Henry Pullen

At the core of the organisation’s vision is the will to use inspiring and innovative ways to transform lives through art, inside and beyond the galleries and studios of the Artists’ Village.

To that effect Watts have curated an exhibition celebrating the life and imagination of James Henry Pullen, artist extraordinaire and long stay resident at the Royal Earlswood Asylum (1850-1916) and collaborated with (Disability Arts In Surrey). As part of a season of learning through making at Watts, DAISY have invited groups across Surrey to create artwork in response to the fantastical creations of the inventor and craftsman on display in the gallery.

Dubbed a congenital idiot at the age of 13, Pullen spent 70 years in asylums, having been given a workshop at his disposal at Earlswood and employment within the institution as a carpenter.

The Dream Barge by James Henry Pullen

His passion was for boats – replicas of famous ships like The Great Eastern by Brunel; working models that mirrored the mechanics of the original – but also the most beautifully conceived works of imagination such as his State Barge and Dream Barge, intended as functional vessels with a royal purpose.

A contemporary of Jules Verne these craft bear some gothic comparison to the Nautilus or to an evocation of the world of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver on his travels to Lilliput or Brobdingnag.

The catalogue cites the figurehead of the Dream Barge as an image depicting fantastical fish-gods such as the Syrian ‘Oannes’ and the Babylonian ‘Dagon’, suggesting that the hybrid of elements could have been “a kind of memory of Charon, the ancient Greek ferryman said to carry the souls of the deceased to the underworld, “intended to “carry Queen Victoria to paradise.”

The exhibition charts Pullen’s rise to fame. He came to the attention of Prince Albert who saw some of the artists’ work when visiting the asylum in 1856. The exhibition takes in the kind of press Pullen received, dubbed a mad genius, the press cuttings from the day, elicit an enthusiast response from the journalists who visited him.

The overall impression the exhibition leaves is that Pullen was very much an enigma. The pictorial record of his life story is given much attention, offering a detailed autobiographical account, year by year, from early childhood. What is clear is that his problems within his family life as a child seemed to dictate the course of his life ever after.

Crafty in more ways than one, Pullen had a reputation for selling brooches and tiepins around the locality, matching his weekly Earlswood salary much to the chagrin of his warders. Stories about him abound – one of the most telling being that he once took a dislike to a member of the staff and built a guillotine-like contraption over his door, which luckily for the target, went off too late.

James Henry-Pullen, Pictorial Autobiography

The DAISY partners (StopGap Dance Company and Ochre Print Studios) and groups (The Grange, Art Matters, Artventure, Halow, Creative Response, Freewheelers, Orpheus, Surrey Choices and Link Able) making work in response to Pullen over the coming months have a wealth of material to work with, in conjunction with lead artist Russell Jakubowski.

Against a current background of considerable post-Brexit uncertainty, an installation of the new work called ‘Flotilla’ created by DAISY artists, which will feature model craft of a wide range of shapes, sizes, colour and complexity carrying the hopes and dreams of disabled people will sail across the Art Fund Prize Gallery at Woking Lightbox from 23 October 2018.

The four walls of the gallery will be adorned with a textile wall hanging designed and made by PrintAble artists from Ochre Print Studios. Alongside work created for Flotilla, Chris Pavia from Stopgap Dance Co will create an original piece of dance choreography, based upon Pullen’s famous giant puppet.

A performance of Pavia’s choreography will be performed at Watts Gallery in September as part of their Making festival, and then again at the opening of Flotilla at the Lightbox in October.

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