Tuesday, 4 September 2012

James Henry Pullen.

For the last couple of years Drama St Mary's has been using the Langdon Down Theatre as an overspill rehearsal venue. It's just down the road from Strawberry Hill, near to Hampton Wick Station and for many of us is a quiet, undisturbed space, where work can be really developed away from the hustle and bustle of the main campus.

The Theatre itself has a remarkable history. It was founded by John Langdon Down, an inspirational Victorian doctor, whose pioneering work with his patients led to the publication of 'Observations on an Ethnic Classification of Idiots' and the naming of Down's Syndrome as a particular medical condition.

For Langdon Down the term idiot was not in the least derogatory. He used it fully aware of it's original Greek meaning - 'the lonely one.'

Rather tan seeking to subjugate his patients the good doctor championed a programme of expressive arts as a way of enabling them to live active, joyful and fulfilled lives going as far as building the beautiful theatre, where we now work to mount plays and entertainments. He was, without doubt, a pioneer of Applied Theatre.

This evening we went to a talk at the theatre on the life of James Henry Pullen, one of Langdon Down's most remarkable and creative patients. Who despite never mastering the skills needed to read and write, and being a very poor verbal communicator, became a great inventor and craftsman. Much of his work is on display in the small theatre underneath the main space.

From his early childhood Pullen was excited by ships and after he'd been encouraged to take up woodwork as a hobby began to create wonderful models, firstly perfect copies of the great man-of-wars such as The Princess Alexandra and then an exact miniature replica of Brunel's Great Eastern, which was exhibited at The Great Exhibition of 1851.

From here he began to take a more imaginative approach creating a fantasy crafts, designed to be Queen Victoria's personal transport to paradise.

The care and attention to detail Pullen demonstrated in accomplishing his work meant that he often found even the slightest disturbance unbearable and so, with this in mind, he built a mechanical giant puppet, with a hollow body to allow a small person to stand inside and operate levers connected to the blinking eyelids, a tongue that can stick out, waggly ears, flaying arms and a menacing roar. He hoped it would discourage visitors, but in truth it just provoked further curiosity. Sometimes it's important to be the lonely one.


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