James Henry Pullen: Pictorial Autobiography

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Posted 9th 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 the first 10 of Pullen's autobiographical panels below.

Panel 1: 1841-2

Pullen is in the family home in Balls Pond Road, Islington, rigging a box-like ship. Despite being 6 or 7, he has not yet been breeched (put into trousers), evidence of his slow development. His mother sits next to him. Though they do not interact, the threads of her knitting echo those on the rigging of Pullen's ship.

Panel 2: 1843

Still unbreeched, Pullen sails another, larger ship with his father. Any suggestion of parental warmth appears rather muted, the two figures linked only by their activity.

Panel 3: 1844

The nine-year-old Pullen spies on a passer-by carrying a boat. His physical isolation reflects his broader separation from his peers. Though he should have been in school, no school would take him.

Panel 4: 1845

Pullen escapes over the garden wall, in search of a pond to sail another boat. His father chases after him.

Panel 5: 1846 ('1846. LONDON.')

Now eleven, Pullen is taken to London. This bridge is probably John Rennie's 'new' London Bridge, built 1824-1831 and quickly established as among the city's most busy thoroughfares. The letter P over the second arch on the left identifies Pullen's vantage point on the bridge.

Panel 6: 1847 ('1847. HALL')

Pullen arrives at Essex Hall; he was formally admitted in April 1848. Ignoring the two women behind him, he focuses on a painting of a ship. The woman in an outdoor bonnet and jacket may be his mother, speaking to a woman on the institution's staff.

Panel 7: 1848

His doctors reported him 'anxious to learn', but Pullen made poor academic progress at Essex Hall. The woman in the corner may be the school teacher Sarah Pearce, who helped Pullen after school. However, he is not working on schoolwork, but on a drawing of a ship. Sarah Pearce's clothing and sewing recall Pullen's mother in the panel next to this one.

Panel 8: 1849 ('MAN. 1849. PULLEN.')

The captions apparently represent words Pullen had learnt to spell and / or say in his fourteenth year: 'Man' and his name, 'Pullen'. In 1849, Sarah Pearce's husband Thomas, took Pullen to visit the harbour at Walton-on-the-Naze. The size of the ships he saw here is suggested by the appearance of their masts over the top of the wall. Pullen apparently saw both traditional masted vessels and steamers.

Panel 9: 1850

On leaving Essex Hall, Pullen looks back at the creations he was forced to leave behind. His model of a frigate was displayed at Essex Hall for many years after his departure. The open door at the far right is matched by a door at the far left of the subsequent panel.

Panel 10: 1851

Pullen weeps at a desk in a room much larger and emptier than the homely schoolroom at Essex Hall. He is comforted by the schoolmaster, John Wickes, a figure who, like Sarah Pearce, was apparently kind during these difficult years of formal education.

See Pullen's Pictorial Autobiography in James Henry Pullen: Inmate - Inventor - Genius, on display until Sunday 28 October.

Image: James Henry Pullen, Pictorial Autobiography, c.1878, Pencil on paper, Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability

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