Pullen: Exhibitions in the Nineteenth Century

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Posted 3rd July 2018

Pullen: Exhibitions in the Nineteenth Century

During his lifetime, Pullen's work was often seen by visitors to Earlswood Asylum, in Redhill. Here, his most spectacular boats were displayed in the entrance hall, as an illustration of the hospital's effectiveness in 'training' its patients.

However, his boats also travelled beyond the asylum walls, at a time when 'world's fairs' and international exhibitions of science and technology had become particularly popular.

The Paris Exhibition 1867

In April 1867, Earlswood's Medical Superintendent, Dr John Langdon Down, organised for a selection of works by Earlswood patients to be sent to Paris's 'Exposition Universelle'.

The Paris Exhibition followed on the heels of similar initiatives, like the London Great Exhibition of 1851, and aimed to showcase the best in art and design across Europe, and call attention to Second Empire France as a scientific and creative hub.

The works Langdon Down chose to send included Pullen's Princess Alexandra, a large-scale model of a man-of-war (a warship equipped with canons) and a model Pullen had only recently completed, the fantastical State Barge, begun in 1866.

Pullen's miniature replicas of buildings from the Earlswood estate were also on display, but they were probably intended to give visitors an idea of the Asylum building, rather than Pullen's talent.

Despite the intricacy of all these works, Pullen--like the other Earlswood patients whose pieces were shown--was not credited as the artist who made them. His name does not appear in any of the official catalogues. The closest we get to a credit for him is the reference to a display of 'Drawings, boots and shoes, tailoring, needlework, models, basket-work, &c' sent by 'The National Asylum for Idiots, Earlswood, Red Hill, Surrey'.

This list presumably also includes examples of the boots and bonnets that patients at Earlswood were taught to make, in an early example of what we might now call 'occupational therapy'.

In Paris, Pullen's work was very much a showcase for this new, 'enlightened' treatment of the learning disabled, and the asylums where it was taking place.

The South Kensington Fisheries Exhibition, 1883

By the 1880s, Pullen was one of the 'oldest and best-known of the inmates' at Earlswood, largely thanks to his intricate scale model of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's SS Great Eastern, the major project that followed on the heels of the Princess Alexandra.

In 1883, the Great Eastern was sent to the International Fisheries Exhibition at South Kensington- at the time of opening, the largest special event in the world.

The Fisheries reflected a general Victorian interest in the sea, at a time when scientific thought was expanding in this area. It was intended as a showcase for the latest technology in fishing and shipping, it also included examples of model boat-making—including work by the Princess Alexandra's namesake herself: Alexandra of Denmark, wife of Edward Prince of Wales, known for her love of bric-a-brac and miniatures.

Since Brunel's Great Eastern had been a major engineering feat—the largest ship ever built at the time of its launch in 1858, and then the first ship to successfully lay an Atlantic Cable between the British Isles and North America—Pullen's replica would have fit in well here.

However, since his name continued to be absent from the official catalogue, it is impossible to say whether it was exhibited as an artwork, as an illustration of Brunel's own project, or as yet another example of the Asylum's skill in 'training' those it cared for.

Kirsten Tambling
Tavolozza Studio Museum Network Administrator