Object of the Month: Pullen's State Barge

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Posted 15th September 2018

Object of the Month: James Henry Pullen's State Barge

An office for Queen Victoria

The 'State Barge' is the largest of the 'fantasy boats' James Henry Pullen created whilst confined at the Royal Earlswood Asylum 'for Idiots' in Redhill.

Many journalists, doctors and visitors to Earlswood tried to describe it, and they all came up with different explanations.

Some said it was a depiction of the universe, other (more poetic) writers, a 'chariot of the soul'. The most striking description offered was that it was a kind of floating office for Queen Victoria, a dedicated space from which she could run the British Empire.

Several of Pullen's projects had a royal connection: the first major ship he built was named the Princess Alexandra in honour of the new Princess of Wales, and his Great Eastern only had two sets of cabins: the royal suites, and the steerage. He had, in fact, met Albert, Prince Consort as a teenager, because the Royal Family were active patrons of the Asylum.

The 'floating office' theory is supported by the view through the windows of the central circular structure. Inside is a green baize-coloured table, surrounded by meeting chairs, as well as a collection of documents carved in ivory.

The passengers are guarded (or perhaps threatened) by five carved figures in ivory who surmount the ship. Four angels are at the prow, and a devil with a forked tongue, carrying a pitchfork, is at the stern, from which position he seems to be threatening to pull the boat in the opposite direction.

The boat itself is positioned between these two forces, which perhaps represent good and evil, competing impulses that humankind must always keep in balance.

Though the boat is apparently pulled forward by the angels, further forward momentum is provided by the oars in the middle, which can be moved by turning a cog in the base. Energy is also suggested by the lightning bolts emerging from the top of the central structure, and the coiled cable, both apparently electric sources of power.

These combined sources of energy fit with the allegorical motif of the angels and devil. However, they were also a feature of Victorian boats: Brunel's Great Eastern, the basis for a replica Pullen made in the 1870s, was powered both by sails and steam. 1866, the year Pullen began the State Barge, was the same year Brunel's ship laid the first Atlantic cable between the British Isles and North America – a coincidence that may explain the State Barge's allusions to electrical energy.

Kirsten Tambling