James Henry Pullen: The Dream Barge

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Posted 31st July 2018

James Henry Pullen: The Dream Barge

The 'Dream Barge' seems to have been the first of the 'fantastical' boats Pullen made: it appears in his Pictorial Autobiography dated to 1863. It is made to a comparatively simple design (at least compared to Pullen's other works), and is in a fairly traditional barge or gondola shape, reminiscent of barges like the so-called 'bucentaur', the official boat of the Venetian doge or the pleasure barges used by the British Royal Family in the eighteenth century.

The castellated structure on the deck—which looks a bit like a medieval castle—suggests that, like these earlier examples, this barge was intended for a distinguished guest, who would ride inside it. Given Pullen's known interest in the Royal Family, it seems likely that the guest he had in mind would have been Queen Victoria. She was known to have a particular interest in yachting and pleasure-boats, particularly during the early years of her reign.

However, we have another intriguing clue as to its possible function: one of Pullen's contemporaries described the 'Dream Barge' as a boat designed to carry the Queen to the Underworld. This morbid idea may not be as fanciful as it sounds. If the barge was created in 1863, this was just two years after a particularly terrible year for Victoria: her mother, the Duchess of Kent had died in March 1861, and in December of the same year, her husband, Prince Albert, succumbed to typhoid fever, plunging his widow into agonies of grief and self-imposed isolation that quickly earned her the nickname 'the Widow of Windsor'. Royal funerals would therefore have been on the minds of Pullen's contemporaries, and it might have been a natural next step for Pullen to turn his attention to a suitable funeral barge.

If this was the case, it is tempting to speculate that the figurehead at the front—a crowned, bearded figure—might be a kind of god of death (like Charon, the ancient Greek ferryman, who carried souls over the River Styx to the afterlife), or even a memory of the Prince Consort himself.

Either way, Pullen seems to have been quite pleased with this design, since his Autobiography reports that he made another, much larger, version in 1864. What happened to this second Dream Barge is a bit of a mystery. By 1864, Pullen was becoming known outside Earlswood Asylum, because of the fame of his scale model of the Princess Alexandra (completed in 1863), so it's possible the second Dream Barge was a gift, or a commission, and left the Hospital shortly after its completion. It's equally possible it survived in Pullen's workshop but got lost at some point after the collection was broken up, well after his death. In any case, either the original 1863 design, now on display as part of James Henry Pullen: Inmate, Inventor, Genius, or this larger version was put on exhibition in the main entrance of Earlswood Asylum for many years, as a testament to the skill of its creator.

Kirsten Tambling
Tavolozza Studio Museum Network Administrator

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