Vital Xposure's Revival of Pullen’s Giant

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Posted 18th October 2018

Vital Xposure's Revival of Pullen's Giant

Julie McNamara

Vital Xposure is a disability-led touring theatre company based at Hackney Empire, London. They are renowned for their work with talented artists whose voices have been marginalised or denied entirely. Over the past few years they have been working with Access All Areas, a company of learning disabled actors and artists who are breaking into the mainstream with extraordinary stories to tell.

In June 2015, Julie McNamara, Artistic Director of Vital Xposure, was commissioned by RCMG (the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries) as part of Exceptional and Extraordinary: Unruly Bodies and Minds in the Medical Museum. This project, initiated by Richard Sandell and Jocelyn Dodd, sent four artists from national disability arts networks to investigate the collections, both concealed and on public display, inside the stores and cabinets of eight medical museums. Each artist was given the provocation: 'Why are some lives more highly valued than others?'

Julie McNamara's work is driven by a search for social justice and for platforms for disavowed voices. Of all of the stories she's uncovered in her research, the story of James Henry Pullen seized both her imagination and her profound sense of injustice. For here was a man lost inside a system that incarcerated human beings, or at the very least secreted them away from the heart of our communities, to become the subjects of medical investigations for the benefit of science. Pullen spent close to 70 years inside asylums, diagnosed as an idiot, later being recognised as an idiot savant and known both locally and in the Royal House as The Genius of Earlswood Asylum.

What if we put Love first?

Julie McNamara admits: "Of all the extraordinary objects I came across in those museum collections, I fell in love with Pullen's Giant. He's quite magnificent, ready for battle on behalf of Queen Victoria or taking on the asylum authorities of his day. I'd suggest he was ready for both. Never mind his splendid moustache, his uniform with Fez and sash, he is something else, with his marching arms in full swing, his flapping ears, his fully moving eyelids and a head that can swivel 360 degrees.

So we simply had to rebuild him. And that proved quite a feat as he had designed that puppet so that he could manipulate it entirely alone, with a system of pullies, pedals and ropes. It took some doing to create our first replica. Puppet builder, Tony Mason was scratching his head looking at the array of pullies, ropes and strings. Pullen had created a track at the base of the neck with over a hundred ball bearings he had fashioned himself to enable the head to turn in a complete circle. The eyes had tiny tear ducts with string fed through to the lids to ensure full movement. Once we had created a replica as faithful as possible to Pullen's original creation, we cast a team of actors with learning disabilities to bring him to life. And what a joy that was to witness - an exuberant revival at Liberty Festival in Olympic Park in 2017!"*

Much has been written in the medical records available to us about Pullen's mood swings, his eccentricities and his rages that interrupted the smooth running of asylum life. However, very little is documented of Pullen's conversation, or of how he represented himself, other than a dismissive comment in the notes about his only intelligible word being 'Muvver' [Mother]. And yet we have the most poignant of evidence, almost eclipsed amongst the collection of carvings on display at Langdon Down Museum; Pullen's short poem to his grandfather, once concealed in the mouth of an exquisitely carved moon (now on display as part of James Henry Pullen: Inmate – Inventor – Genius here at Watts Gallery – Artists' Vilage), one eye decorated with ebony and ivory, the other showing a detailed watercolour by Pullen of Earlswood asylum itself:

Oh this moon in cloudy smoky rain
See moon cry want grandfather
Shine the moon and keep cloud away
Bright the eye to see Earlswood Asylum
(Pullen, 1850. Langdon Down collection)

The poem offers us the only self-penned evidence of Pullen's inner world and reveals quite a different person to the one represented in his medical records and archives collected from Earlswood Asylum.

Pullen was already creating intricate carvings in ivory when he entered asylum life. He was in the habit of selling his wares at the local taverns, where it seems he plied quite a trade. He might not have been a great scholar, but here was a man with huge imagination that far surpassed his tutors inside the asylum.

We can only surmise what life was like inside Earlswood Asylum, with its strict protocols containing and controlling its 400 inhabitants. We do know that Pullen was allowed small freedoms in exchange for his extraordinary carvings. He was permitted to take his meals with the staff and was escorted on several occasions to a local tavern where 'he became enamoured of a woman from the local town' who worked as a barmaid. It is recorded that he requested permission to marry her. Any lunatics, idiots or feeble-minded people coming under the Idiocy and Mental Deficiency legislation of the time were prevented from marrying; Pullen was of course refused permission. The staff procured an Admiral's uniform to mollify Pullen, who was informed that Queen Victoria had intervened and requested his services at the head of her fleet, but that Admirals were not allowed to marry. He was offered the uniform if 'he should forget his request to marry'. He wore the uniform almost daily for the remaining years of his life. There are no records of what became of the woman concerned.

This aspect of Pullen's life seized the imaginations of our cast at Vital Xposure. We wondered together at the idea of choosing a shiny uniform instead of life outside the relative comforts of the place he had come to know as home. We wondered about how a life with a 'wife' might seem to someone who had run their own workshop for so long, albeit inside the walls of an asylum:

'Maybe it was too much to get married?' said Adam.
'Yeah, because she's used to running the bar. She might be expensive', said Eden.
'What if he had shiny buttons on his uniform and married the barmaid and then they ran off anyway?' Eden thought.
'What if she was just his friend and she wanted him to escape?' Emma suggested.
'What if he just breaks free and leads all the people outside, through the gates of the asylum?' said Adam.

And so gradually we built the story of Pullen's break for freedom - which fit snugly into the Liberty Festival event and the ensuing Hackney Carnival where we all took to the streets to celebrate. We were joined by crowds of bystanders lining Mare Street near Hackney Town Hall, where dancers from Access All Areas led a flash mob partying for all their worth ahead of a magnificent giant belching smoke and screaming for 'Freedom!' I rather think Pullen would have approved. It states in Pullen's records that he thought of The Giant as his 'guardian'. Descriptions of Pullen's activities with The Giant suggest that he sought refuge inside it, most notably on summer fete days when visitors were invited into the grounds to watch the lunatics make lively. He would climb inside the puppet through a door at the rear and roar at the gathering crowds through two horns or cornets he had fashioned himself, like early versions of a megaphone. Apparently he delighted in frightening the local children with the full head swivel - it brings to mind the terror of the most startling scene in the 1973 film, The Exorcist!.

Very sadly our first replica was destroyed in a container fire along with ten years of our theatre sets, costumes and props. We spent the first few months post-fire taking time out to think, fundraise, dream and finally we emerged determined to rebuild.

This summer at Watts Gallery – Artists' Village you are meeting our second replica - Pullen's Giant III, who continues where we left off almost a year ago, entertaining the adoring throngs and educating the masses about the creative imaginations and unique possibilities of artists with learning disabilities.

*Thanks to funding from Liberty Festival with support from GDIF and Emergancy Exit Arts.