A little over a year ago a fire destroyed our storage unit and all its contents. Ten years of our work along with our replica of Pullen’s Giant puppet went up in flames. But like the Pheonix we’ve risen from the ashes to rebuild yet another magnificent puppet and continue the journey.
Following a creative development week in June 2018, Pullen’s Giant III hit the road for Surrey where he spent a long summer. He’s been happily ensconced at the beautiful Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village for the ‘James Henry Pullen: Inmate – Inventor – Genius’ exhibition, where Pullen’s Giant came to life on 27th October as part of their Museums at Night programme. Audiences were thrilled and over 150 people of all ages were delighted to get up close and personal with our extraordinary giant puppet!
Watch a short video below showing Pullen animated. Many thanks to the amazing staff at Watts Gallery for this footage:
Thank you to Vital Xposure and Julie McNamara for animating Pullen’s Giant for us today as part of #MuseumsAtNight. We are open tonight until 8pm – #WattsLate – #Imaginarium.
Posted by Watts Gallery – Artists' Village on Saturday, 27 October 2018
The story of James Henry Pullen has stirred Vital Xposure’s hearts and minds. Pullen was a brilliantly skilled creative artist who spent close to 70 years at the Earlswood Asylum, positioned as an ‘idiot’ in an era when society did not accept people with learning disabilities. By building the replica of Pullen’s Giant, we paid homage to James Henry Pullen and attempted to give him a voice, marching across Stratford’s Olympic Park to the joyous screams for Freedom and Equality for all!
Read our Artistic Director’s, Julie McNamara, heart-warming words about Pullen:
“Of all the extraordinary objects I came across in the museum collections I investigated, 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.
I felt we simply had to rebuild him. And that proved quite a feat as Pullen had designed that puppet so that he only he could operate it, or manipulate it, 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 intricately designed system inside. 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 set out to 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 in 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. As an adult 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; so 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.
With the help of our cast we gradually built the story of Pullen’s break for freedom – which fit snugly into the Liberty Festival event in 2017 and on to the ensuing Hackney Carnival where his Giant 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 and protector’. Descriptions of Pullen’s activities suggest that he sought refuge inside his Giant, 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, have the nurses roll him out across the manicured lawns and roar at the gathering crowds through two horns or cornets he had fashioned, like early versions of a megaphone. Apparently he delighted in frightening the local children with the full 360 degree head swivel – it brings to mind my own terror of the most startling scene in the 1973 film, The Exorcist!.”
We would like to thank Emergency Exit Arts associate Tony Mason for building both of our beloved puppets in 2017 and 2018, Without Walls for their financial and creative support and City Bridge Trust for supporting this work.
There is more to read and watch about the first time our adored Pullen was liberated in 2017. Simply click here.