James Henry Pullen: Pictorial Autobiography (Part 2)

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Posted 23rd August 2018

Pictorial Autobiography

Living within the asylum, with reportedly limited speech, Pullen's life was constantly monitored and recorded by others. This 'pictorial' account of his career, created shortly after he completed the Great Eastern, provides a unique account of Pullen's own perspective on his life and achievements.

The narrative begins when Pullen is aged seven, and runs until 1878, when he was approaching middle age. It records significant life events, including his early childhood and entry into the Essex Hall and Earlswood asylums. The 'comic strip' format suggests the influence of contemporary illustrated journalism.

The Autobiography focuses on Pullen's productivity. It covers his carpentry, model-making and ingenious fantasy creations in equal measure. The central panel celebrates Pullen's most monumental creation. Rather than showing the Great Eastern itself, Pullen depicts the cradle on which he constructed it. Measuring ten feet long, this vast creation took six years to build.

Learn about panels 11-20 below.


Panel 11: 1852 (I) ('No 1. 1852')

Pullen, now aged seventeen, is working in the Earlswood workshop. This year was significant for him: he devotes three separate panels to it.



Panel 12: 1852 (II) ('No. 2')

Pullen presents John Wickes with a three-masted ship in thanks for the help provided in Panel 10.



Panel 13: 1852 (III) ('No 3.')

To practise his model-making skills, Pullen produced several versions of the same ship. He would do this again in the 1860s, with his 'fantasy boats' (see panels 26 - 28). These three boats illustrate the construction process from plain hull to finished vessel.



Panel 14: 1853

Pullen discovers that he can steam wood to shape it. This was a standard technique in shipbuilding, but one he worked out independently - a sign of his innovative approach to design.



Panel 15: 1854

Working on a much larger scale, Pullen constructs a ship over six feet long.



Panel 16: 1855-56

Pullen is now working as a carpenter at Earlswood, for a salary of three shillings a week. Here he appears in the carpentry workshop. The brick walls of his early years give way to planks of wood. From now on, the Autobiography focuses on Pullen's creations, rather than his life.



Panel 17: 1857

Pullen begins a man-of-war (a type of warship), later named the Princess Alexandra. Finished in 1862, it was fitted with 42 brass cannon and over 200 working pulleys. This room, with its distinctive open window, is the setting for several subsequent panels and probably represents Pullen's new private workshop.



Panel 18: 1858

Pullen shapes and fits sheets of canvas to create the rigging and sails for the Princess Alexandra. Alongside the panel for 1853, which shows Pullen developing a curved hull, this panel demonstrates Pullen's wide range of technical skills.



Panel 19: 1859

The Princess Alexandra's upper deck is completed.



Panel 20: 1860-61

Leaning underneath the vessel, Pullen attaches the Princess Alexandra's hull. The model is suspended from the ceiling by an arrangement of pulleys. Pullen's uncomfortable posture illustrates the enormity of this part of the process, which took two years to complete. Pullen would later use an arrangement of pulleys to create the ideal workbench in his studio.


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