James Henry Pullen was described in his day as the Genius of Earlswood as he was a highly talented artist, craftsman and model maker who flourished whilst being looked after at the Royal Earlswood Asylum for Idiots.
James became known as an ‘idiot savant’ meaning he had a learning disability but was extremely gifted in a particular way. The Earslwood Asylum later questioned this diagnosis and it was later determined that he was deaf and suffered from a severe communication disorder. James had trouble speaking, reading and writing, but was numerate.
James was born in 1835 in Dalston, London and at the age of 12 was given a place at Essex Hall in Colchester where he was schooled and learnt to spell his first word, ‘man’. Here his talent as an artist was recognised and James remembers staying after school with schoolmistress Sarah Pearce to practice painting.
James recorded his life story in a series of illustrations known as ‘Pullen’s Events’. This gives a rare glimpse into the thoughts and memories of one of the patients at Earlswood. This artwork together with many of his extraordinary models can be seen at the Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability in Teddington.
In 1850 all the Essex Hall residents were transferred to the newly built Earlswood Asylum at Redhill in Surrey. Here James continued to develop his creative skills and following training in woodwork began to create models of ships which he had long been fascinated with. His talent was recognized and he was appointed as a carpenter by the hospital and was given a special workroom and exhibition room. He was treated as a member of staff.
His most famous model was of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s famous iron sailing steam ship the SS Great Eastern. It took him over three years to build, after preparing many careful drawings and plans and was finished in 1872. He made his own tools and equipment when necessary, to enable him to make every part of the model himself. He devised a system of pulleys to lift the whole of the upper deck, to display the interior. It was exhibited at the Crystal Palace exhibition.
In 1865 James submitted a model of West Lodge at Earlswood to an international exhibition held in Paris which won an award. In May 1868 James fell off the high platform in his workshop and broke his right leg. Unable to carve anything he turned to painting again. From the age of 40 James stopped creating models and instead devoted his energy to making furniture including beds for Earlswood. He died there in 1916 aged 81 and his obituary was published in the Daily Telegraph.
Surrey History Centre hold many records relating to James Pullen in the large surviving archive of Earlswood Hospital.
His models can now be viewed at the Langdon Down Museum
Records in Surrey History Centre’s Collections