Tuesday 19 June – Sunday 28 October
James Henry Pullen: Inmate – Inventor – Genius is the first exhibition to explore the life and imagination of James Henry Pullen (1835 – 1916), examining the creative escapism of an outsider artist who during his own lifetime attracted royal attention. Dubbed by Victorian journalists as ‘the genius of Earlswood Asylum’ Pullen saw his fantastical works escape the confines of the asylums, where he was incarcerated continuously for nearly 70 years, to travel to international exhibitions.
Bringing together newly restored works – and drawing on new research – this exhibition will shine a light on Pullen’s life and work to offer a new perspective on an artist of wit and inventiveness who has been largely forgotten. It will also examine the broader context in which Pullen was working – the world of nineteenth-century science, technology and psychiatry.
Born in London, Pullen was first 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. He 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. However, to this day, the nature of his disability (or even whether he had one) has never been fully established.
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, Pullen became occupied in creating extraordinary designs, gigantic articulated puppets, detailed drawings, fantastical kites and models of boats from a specially converted studio-room – escaping his cell through his art.
Focusing on Pullen’s creative escapism, and his complicated relationship with his doctors (to whom he provided a source both of fascination and frustration), this exhibition will display his intricate creations. Some of the most fascinating are elaborate model ships, including the State Barge (1886-7) an intricate vessel in wood and ivory that Pullen apparently intended for 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. 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. These fantastical vessels travelled beyond the confines of the asylum as their maker could not. However, they 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 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, and a modern reconstruction will be on display throughout the exhibition.
Pullen’s story will also be 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. The film will be shown within the exhibition and will share new insight into his fantastical creations.
Alistair Burtenshaw, Director of Watts Gallery Trust, said ‘In bringing the story of James Henry Pullen to life at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village we hope to share the experiences and works of a gifted ‘outsider’ artist with our visitors, and to continue 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, just as it did when his art and his story captivated nineteenth-century audiences’.
Kirsten Tambling, exhibition co-curator, said: ‘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. 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?’
This exhibition is part of a season about learning through making and social change, inspired by Watts Gallery’s founders, G F and Mary Watts.
Some items in the exhibition are generously on loan from the Surrey History Centre.