November 07, 2003

James Henry Pullen

Yesterday’s post at the reliably excellent things magazine weblog discussed an on-line project about the Cane Hill Asylum in Surrey. This prompted me to remember that there had been an asylum not far from Redhill, the Surrey town where I lived for most of ’99 and ’00, and I wondered, momentarily, if this were the same asylum. After a few minutes’ rifling through some dusty boxes in my memory I concluded that it was not, when I recalled the name of the place, Royal Earlswood: originally an ‘Idiot Asylum’, it is now a luxury apartment complex.

I had heard it said that Earlswood Asylum had become ‘Royal’ because one of Queen Victoria’s feeble-minded relatives had been confined there. I could find no confirmation of that claim, but did discover that there was one inmate of the asylum who attained a certain celebrity. His name was James Henry Pullen, who earned a reputation as an idiot-savant thanks to his fantastically elaborate carvings and meticulously-built models.

'The State Barge', a model by James Henry Pullen.
This amazing model has been described as the Mystic Representation of the World as a Ship, and was built by Pullen in 1866. He created a half-hemisphere globe, with a central sun through which could be seen the Queen’s cabin with table, writing materials, despatch boxes and ‘other requisites for use and ornamentation’. It is decorated outside by the moon, stars, a rainbow, clouds and flashes of lightning and a comet for a rudder - Freda Knight.
'Dream Boat', a model by James Henry Pullen.

Pullen made highly-detailed models of real ships, too, including his masterpiece, a model of Brunel’s The Great Eastern that took him three years to construct. Pullen also made some striking works in other media, including a pictorial record of what he considered the major events of his life…

Pullen's representation of the main events of his life.

…and a collage made from hundreds of cigar bands, many of which were likely given to him by Edward, Prince of Wales, whom Pullen apparently referred to as‘friend Wales.’

Pullen's cigar band collage.

I was dismayed to learn that I must have passed right by some of these objects many times without ever sparing them a glance, as part of the collection of the Royal Earlswood Museum has, since the hospital’s closure, been on display in ‘The Belfry’ shopping centre in Redhill, a characterless place that I walked through hundreds of times, never once suspecting that there were fascinating treasures close at hand.

Posted by misteraitch at November 7, 2003 08:27 AM | TrackBack

Absolutely amazing stuff! Where did those images of Pullen's models come from? His work reminds me obliquely of A.G. Rizzoli, if only for it's obsessiveness.

Posted by: MrBaliHai on November 8, 2003 10:25 PM

"Where did those images...come from?"

Ah, never mind. Found the sidebar.

Posted by: MrBaliHai on November 8, 2003 10:29 PM

Dear Readers,

I am embarking on a documentary about this man and am working closely with Mrs Freda Knight of the Earlswood Society, writing the script and planning the content of the programme. I wil post details here on when it's finished and where and when it will be shown.


Posted by: Kenny Evans on November 20, 2003 03:19 PM

are you still working on the doc about Pullen? I am interested in producing one on the Earlswood Asylum, but would not want any crossover!
Rachel Holmes

Posted by: rachel holmes on April 1, 2004 05:23 PM

Please keep us posted of any documentary of the Royal Earlswood; I have an interest as both my late parents were on the staff, Ken Young and Olive Young-Naylor.

Posted by: Diana Elliott on October 28, 2004 02:49 PM

Any news on the documentary about John Henry Pullen?

Posted by: Peter Lindley on December 20, 2005 02:37 PM

I would love to be kept informed of developments on this documentary and would also like more details of the Earlswood Society. I lived in Earlsbrook Road, right near the hospital, from 1963 to 1979. I now live in Perth, Western Australia. Can be emailed at

Posted by: DavidShaw on January 13, 2006 03:57 PM
Comments are now closed