'A Mad Genius': Perceptions of Pullen during his lifetime

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Posted 2nd October 2018

'A Mad Genius'

Perceptions of Pullen during his lifetime

Kirsten Tambling, Tavolozza Studio Museum Network Administrator

When James Henry Pullen moved to Earlswood Asylum in 1850, he entered an institution with a carefully planned marketing and promotional strategy. As a result, he was often mentioned in the local press. How he was discussed reflects his changing status over the nearly 70 years he spent behind the asylum walls.

One of Earlswood's key events was the annual summer fête, open to all comers, and an important opportunity to showcase the institution to potential donors and patrons. It was always widely covered by local newspapers, and Pullen often pops up as a source of additional colour in journalists' accounts—though often with frustratingly little detail.

For example, in 1863, the North London News described the launch of Pullen's Princess Alexandra without mentioning the name of its maker at all—though it did report that the man-of-war was carried in 'procession' to the Asylum pond to the strains of “Rule Britannia". Pullen drew a picture of a similar launch for his Great Eastern some years later.

When Pullen is, at last, first mentioned by name, he seems to be confused with his brother, William Arthur Pullen, also a sporadic resident at Earslwood. Described by a journalist in the 1860s as 'the poor man', 'W. H. Pullen' is said to 'affor[d]' through his ships 'a remarkable illustration of the extent to which the dormant faculties of the mind may be brought into exercise by kind and judicious treatment'. This was a common refrain during these early years: reporting on Pullen was a way of reporting on the 'idiot asylum' itself, its strategies and successes.

It is only with the creation of the Great Eastern in the 1870s that Pullen begins to secure some local fame on his own account. In 1876, the London Daily News describe him as 'one of the oldest and best known of the inmates, J.H. Pullen', and report that he was holding court in the dining room, where he 'cheerily and volubly' explains his model to all comers. This chimes with an engraving published in The Quiver for 1864, which shows 'the idiot shipbuilder' displaying the Princess Alexandra to visitors.

By the 1880s, Pullen is described as a 'familiar character' at the summer fête, and is clearly capitalising on his increasing fame: he offers visitors 'specimens of his ivory carving—brooches, &c—at by no means nominal prices', and journalists also comment on the display of his boats in the Hospital's entrance hall.

However, they are also now invited to visit him in his private studio, with the result that, in 1895, we get the first contemporary reference to Pullen's extraordinary Giant, from a local journalist who went on the studio tour. The Giant's absence from any earlier reports suggests doctors may have confined it to the studio almost from the moment it was made—this fourteen foot Giant would have presented the public with a very different picture of the Hospital from the one represented by Pullen's ships, symbols of Victorian engineering and rationality.

From this point onwards, Pullen is not just a 'familiar character', but the subject of dedicated articles: in 1898, Annesley Kenealy (a former nurse, journalist and advocate for women's rights) wrote up an entire feature on 'The Master Craftsman of Earlswood Asylum'. Her article is the source for many of the stories about Pullen that circulate at the end of the nineteenth century. Though she spends more time with Pullen than had previous journalists, she continues in her predecessors' patronising tone: Pullen is 'pathetically interesting', obsessively cleaning the Great Eastern ('his idol ship') and his Giant is the product of a 'lonely and Frankenstein spirit'.

Many of her facts are incorrect (for example, she says that he grew up in Portsmouth, and consistently refers to him as 'H. J. Pullen'), so it is difficult to know how much to trust those facts we can't corroborate.

However, Kenealy's article does provide an intriguing insight into how late Victorian society thought about Pullen's case: from being an illustration of the effects of 'judicious treatment' of the learning disabled at the beginning of his career, he has become a kind of 'mad genius', a Romantic visionary working in seclusion, away from the world. In 1903, the Manchester Couriter encapsulated this new mood: 'Mr Pullen, artist and inventor, who has made over two thousand articles on his mid-air bench,' it wrote, 'is as mad as the hatter in Wonderland'.