James Henry Pullen: Rotary Barge

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Posted 22nd May 2018

James Henry Pullen: Rotary Barge

Earlier in the year, the Watts Gallery Curatorial team paid a visit to the studio of model-maker and conservator Henry Milner to see how work on Pullen's 'Rotary Barge' was coming along ahead of our upcoming exhibition on James Henry Pullen.

James Henry Pullen was a minor celebrity in his day, carving intricate and often fantastical model ships from his customised studio at the Earlswood Asylum 'for Idiots' in Redhill, where he spent nearly 70 years of his life.

Many of his ships, together with works on paper and smaller models, are now at the Langdon Down Centre, Teddington, one of the main lenders to our show. Among them is the 'Rotary Barge', a strange construction from the 1860s or 70s which, when we first saw it, was little more than a flat bit of wood, the intricate sails and rigging having long ago fallen apart.

It clearly caused a lot of confusion among Pullen's contemporaries. Some newspapers referred to it as a 'five lifeboat vessel', while others thought it was a model of a boat that 'could never capsize'. Its distinctive feature is the strange four-masted design, with matching paddles underneath. It also has a rudder at both ends, which doesn't initially make much sense - surely this boat would just go round in circles?

Henry Milner, himself a model-maker, has been working on reconstructing the barge, based on nineteenth-century photographs together with the evidence he's been able to uncover from the model itself about how it was constructed and what it might have been for. The Langdon Down Centre still had several of the partially destroyed masts and sails, so he's been using Pullen's original materials where possible; the process has brought him closer to Pullen's practice than any archival document, and it's been a bit of a conversation across the centuries.

For example, when trying to figure out which set of mast and sails go where, he discovered that Pullen had helpfully marked up the model with niches: four niches on the spindle means he needs to find the mast with four niches on it; the mast with two niches matches up to the spindle with two niches, and so on.

One theory Henry has come up with while working on it is that perhaps this was supposed to be some kind of dredging vessel, intended to shift silt and mud from the riverbed, and tugged along by another boat ahead of it. This would make sense of the strange lack of forward momentum, but it's just one theory. You can see the finished model, and our final thoughts on the 'rotary barge', here at Watts Gallery – Artists' Village from 19 June.

Kirsten Tambling
Tavolozza Studio Museum Network Administrator