Arts feature

The ‘idiot’ artists whose surreal visions flourished in Victorian asylums

7 July 2018

9:00 AM

7 July 2018

9:00 AM

In G.F. Watts’s former sculpture studio in the Surrey village of Compton, a monstrous presence has interposed itself between the dusty plaster models of ‘Alfred, Lord Tennyson’ and ‘Physical Energy’. Standing 14ft tall, the brightly painted soldier with fez and sabre is a replica of a colossal puppet made by James Henry Pullen (1835–1916) while an inmate of the Royal Earlswood Asylum for Idiots in Redhill. So terrifying was Pullen’s ‘Giant’ to the local children that it was confined to quarters after causing a rout at a Guy Fawkes procession. Its maker was inside, operating a system of pulleys and levers that batted the eyelids, waggled the ears, rattled the sabre and, through a mechanical larynx, emitted amplified shrieks.

Born in the Ball’s Pond Road, Islington, Pullen entered his first asylum, Essex Hall in Colchester, at the age of 12. An early report describes him as ‘unsociable, passionate, self-willed, and… nearly deaf and dumb’, but despite being unable to string a sentence together he showed a remarkable aptitude for making model boats. At 15 he was transferred to Earlswood, an enlightened institution under the direction of Dr John Langdon Down (the identifier of Down’s syndrome) designed to care for a new class of patient diagnosed as ‘idiots’ rather than ‘lunatics’. A doctor’s report soon notes that Pullen has made great progress in drawing and carpentry, and ‘from the history given me lately it appears that he possessed from an early period considerable intelligence’, adding in brackets: ‘Is he an idiot?’ After the French psychiatrist Édouard Séguin coined the term ‘idiot savant’, Pullen went to the top of the idiot class.

‘Moral management’ was the keynote of Victorian psychotherapy, with the emphasis on productive use of a patient’s time. Pullen was set to work as a hospital carpenter, for which he was paid 3s a week and given his own workshop, but as time went on there were complaints that instead of making hospital furniture he was increasingly absorbed in his own projects. His most ambitious was a 10ft replica of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Eastern — which unfortunately capsized during its official launch in the Earlswood hospital pond at the 1872 summer fête — but his most brilliant creations were his fantasy craft. The Watts Gallery exhibition boasts two fabulous examples: ‘The State Barge’ (1866–7), conceived as a floating office for Queen Victoria with carved ivory angels at the prow manning the gangplank and a devil with a trident guarding the stern, and ‘The Dream Barge’ (c.1862), designed in the wake of Prince Albert’s death to waft the widowed Queen to the afterlife on flapping wooden wings. No common Charon’s ferry for Her Britannic Majesty.


Whatever was wrong with Pullen, he knew the value of money. From the 1880s he began carving elaborate ivory tiepins and brooches to hawk around the local pubs. He’d buy a scotch in each, sell a carving for between 2s 6d and 3s 6d and easily make more than his weekly wages. His doctors were shocked at the prices he charged, but he knew his market; as articles on ‘The Genius of Earlswood Asylum’ appeared in the press he began accepting outside commissions. What surprises us today about Pullen’s story is the encouragement he received from the hospital authorities, but Victorian private asylums relied on patrons and a star patient was a valuable asset. His ‘State Barge’ was shown in the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle, though it was to advertise the success of Earlswood’s training methods rather than the genius of its maker, who remained anonymous.

With the professional artist Richard Dadd, the subject of an earlier exhibition at Watts Gallery in 2015, the case was rather different. Unlike the ‘idiot’ Pullen, Dadd was banged up in Bethlem Royal Hospital as a ‘criminal lunatic’ after murdering his father in 1843 in the belief that he was a demonic imposter. But as with Pullen, institutionalisation gave him the freedom and professional support to follow his artistic fancy: from a rather conventional Victorian watercolourist, Bedlam turned Dadd into a genius. His masterpiece ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke’ (1855–64), now in the Tate, was painted for the hospital steward George Henry Haydon, while the resident physician Dr Charles Hood acquired more than 30 of his works.

Elsewhere in Britain, other psychiatric pioneers were experimenting with art therapy. The reforming superintendent of the new Crichton Royal Hospital in Dumfries, Dr William Browne, was one of the first collectors of patients’ work. He encouraged his protégé William Bartholomew to take up engraving and in the 1840s commissioned him to make a series of pen and ink drawings, now in Edinburgh University Library, classifying his fellow patients by physiognomy: a portrait of a man with a Neanderthal frown is captioned ‘Imbecility’, while a vacant-looking woman in a paisley shawl is labelled ‘Mania of Vanity’. Meanwhile the growing respectability of spiritualism — Watts was himself a member of the Society for Psychical Research — sparked curiosity about the artistic promptings of the unconscious. During his exile on Jersey in the 1850s, Victor Hugo whiled away the lonely evenings by table-turning, producing inky abstractions and proto-Rorschach blots inspired by conversations with Aristophanes, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Molière and Galileo (not necessarily in that order).

Spiritualism was a comfort in an age when sudden bereavement was still a part of life, and it produced some surprising women artists. One was the middle-class spinster Georgiana Houghton, whose extraordinary pre-psychedelic watercolours shown at the Courtauld Gallery in 2016 were painted under guidance from spirits (including Titian, Tintoretto and seven archangels) after the loss of a sister; another was the East Ender Madge Gill who, after losing a son to the 1918 flu epidemic and suffering a stillbirth, embarked on a series of whimsical mediumistic drawings now celebrated as classics of outsider art.

By the 1920s, when the German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn published his influential book The Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1922), illustrated with examples from his 5,000-strong collection of works by inmates of German asylums, enlightened doctors had stopped regarding their patients’ work as a diagnostic tool and begun, like Prinzhorn, to value their ability to draw from ‘the depths of their interior life, their visions, their ideas, and the phantasmagoria of their secret intuitions’. It was the work of such pioneers that persuaded the surrealists that you didn’t have to be mad to make art, but it helped. Pullen’s winking ‘Moon’ (1900), with its open glass eye reflecting a view of Earlswood Asylum, is pure surrealism. Was he an idiot? ‘You decide,’ it winks.

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