James Henry Pullen spent all his life after the age of 12 in asylums. In 1855, aged 20, he moved to the newly opened Asylum for Idiots at Hampton Wick in south-west London. The asylum – later to have the less offensive name of the Royal Earlswood Hospital – was run by a young doctor called John Langdon Down, after whom Down’s syndrome was named.
Langdon Down had a revolutionary attitude towards those under his care: he treated them as people. He banned punishment of the inmates, and taught them horse riding, gardening, crafts and elocution. He quickly recognised that the young Pullen, who was never able to speak a continuous sentence, was a gifted craftsman, and employed him to make furniture for the asylum.
Terminology changes; once seen as an “idiot savant”, Pullen would probably be diagnosed as severely autistic today. The small exhibition at the Watts Gallery near Guildford showcases some of his astonishingly imaginative work.
His greatest achievement, the 10ft-long replica of the SS Great Eastern, which took him six years to build, can be seen at the Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability on the site of the asylum where Pullen lived and worked.
The Pullen exhibition at the Watts Gallery focuses instead on smaller work, including ships of the imagination. The Dream Barge has wings for sails, and feathers along the sides, a crowned head in the bows and a snake as the tiller.
Even more fantastical is the State Barge, a model of a floating office from which Queen Victoria could rule the British Empire. Looking more like a flying saucer than a boat, it’s pulled forward by ivory angels, while a Satanic figure with a trident is at the rear, perhaps trying to hold it back.
A third model boat is the puzzling Rotary Barge, with its multiple masts and sails, which would cause it to go around in circles, and its odd paddle-like constructions below the surface. It’s recently been restored, and its conservator suggests it may have been a practical model demonstrating how to clear silt from inland waterways.
The exhibition also has a full-sized replica of one of Pullen’s strangest creations, a nearly 14ft-high giant which he would climb inside, manipulating levers to move the arms, the head, even the eyes, eyelids, ears and tongue; its mechanical larynx produced loud sounds. The intricate work shown in his boats reached a beautiful delicacy in the ivory brooches and tie-pins he made, selling them in local pubs in the evening.
Perhaps the most poignant testimony to Pullen’s life is his pictorial Autobiography. Forty small panels illustrating significant points in his life from the age of seven (when he was already making model boats) surround a much larger panel showing not his masterpiece, the Great Eastern, but the huge cradle he built to support it while he was building it.
For someone who could barely communicate in speech or writing, the Autobiography is a remarkable statement of Pullen’s greatest achievements and his most prized creations in his first 40 years.
Pullen lived and worked at Earlswood till 1916, outliving by 20 years the visionary doctor who ran the asylum with kindness.
James Henry Pullen: Inmate, Inventor, Genius is at the Watts Gallery, Guildford, until October 28
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.