James Henry Pullen: Pictorial Autobiography (Part 3)

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Posted 28th September 2018

Pictorial Autobiography

Part 3

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 21-30 below.

Panel 21: 1862 ('1862. VERY POORLY.')

The Princess Alexandra is complete. Pullen's annotation, 'VERY POORLY', may suggest he was unwell in this year. It could indicate the artist's exhaustion at the end of this enormous task.

Panel 22: 1863

The Princess Alexandra was formally 'launched' at the Earlswood summer fête in 1863. It was named in celebration of the wedding of Edward, Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra of Denmark. This panel illustrates the trolley Pullen created to move the ship. The Autobiography does not distinguish between these kinds of 'mechanical', technical constructions and Pullen's more imaginative work.

Panel 23: 1864 ('1864. SHIP BOX.')

Pullen created this 11 x 10 ft 'SHIP BOX' to transport his creations. The Princess Alexandra was exhibited, with the Dream Barge and Pullen's model of a building on the Earlswood estate (see Panel 29), at the Paris Exposition of 1867.

Panel 24: 1864 ('No. 7 SHIP. 1864.')

Pullen constructs a fleet of vessels.

Panel 25: 1865. ('No. 11 SHIP. 1865.')

The completed fleet is laid out as if for inspection. An empty chair stands where Pullen previously sat.

Panel 26: 1863

We revert to 1863. In this year Pullen began a series of 'fantasy boats', beginning with the Dream Barge. The completed model is displayed nearby.

Panel 27: 1863

This is the only remaining trace of a six-oared boat Pullen apparently made to a Chinese-inspired design. During the 1850s and 60s, the Illustrated London News, one of England's most widely-read magazines, published a series of stories on 'Eastern Lands' including Thailand and China.

Panel 28: 1864

Pullen makes a second, larger, version of his earlier State Barge, perhaps as a commission: its current location is unknown.

Panel 29: 1865

The fantasy boats are interrupted for a panel illustrating a model of one of the buildings on the Earlswood estate. This was one of several works by Pullen to be sent to the Paris Exposition of 1867.

Panel 30: 1866-7 ('1866. 1867')

The Dream Barge, on display in this exhibition, is Pullen's final 'fantasy boat'. It took a whole year to complete - longer than previous works in the series.It must have been completed by the early part of 1867, in order to travel to the Paris Exposition in April that year.

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