Saturday 19 March 2011

Richard Dadd

            A few weeks ago I was at the Tate Britain, looking at paintings (which is pretty much what you do at an art museum), when I stumbled across a work by Richard Dadd. I was mildly intrigued at first, mainly because his name is Richard (duh!) and because I could imagine my brother making the inane crack, “What a dad,” on seeing the surname. I became really interested, though, when the information card (technically called an “extended object label,” according to a friend who does museum studies) mentioned that Richard Dadd had mental problems, murdered his dadd (hehe), and spent a good portion of his life at Bethlem Hospital, better known as Bedlam. I knew I had to look Richard Dadd up.
            Dadd was born in Kent on 1 August 1817. He was the fourth of seven children, and a couple of his siblings also developed mental problems. He began drawing around age 13, and, when Dadd was 18, the family moved to London, where his father’s work (carver and bronze worker) gave Richard access to some artists, who might have tutored him (he apparently showed knowledge of the techniques of miniature painting, which he probably did not pick up by simply drawing in Kent). When he was 20, he was accepted to the Royal Academy. While in attendance, he became friends with several other Victorians painters such as John Phillip and Augustus Egg, among others. Dadd was quite successful at the Royal Academy, winning medals for drawing and painting and exhibiting some early paintings. He was also noted for his kindness and good humor; he had a sweet disposition. In 1842 he executed woodcut illustrations for Samuel Carter Hall's Book of British Ballads and painted scenes for the interior of a lord’s house in Grosvenor Square. Clearly, Dadd was on the path of success.
            In was, however, in 1842 that it all began to fall apart. Dadd accompanied Sir Thomas Phillips on a tour of Europe and the Middle East. Dadd was fine throughout their visits to Italy and Turkey, but began to suffer from mental illness in Egypt. For several months, Phillips explained Dadd’s odd behavior as exhaustion or sunstroke, but it became increasingly difficult to make that explanation believable. In early 1843 in Italy, Dadd became violent towards Phillips and said he felt an urge to attack the pope during one of the pontiff’s public appearances in Rome. By the time the group reached Paris, Dadd’s psychosis had become so acute that he returned to London in late May.
            Dadd’s later discussions of his life and mental state revealed he believed he was called on by Osiris to do battle with the devil. Tricky thing was, the devil could assume any shape he liked and was everywhere. Although Dadd’s father assured the public that Richard was fine, he had a doctor examine the painter, who was declared to be of unsound mind.
            Nevertheless, Dadd’s father accompanied his son on a trip to Kent in late August 1843. It seems this was supposed to be a sort of get-well trip, for Dadd had apparently promised to talk to his father about his mental state. Instead of talking, though, Richard murdered his father by attacking him with a knife and razor.
            Richard immediately fled to Calais in France, where, despite being detained on account of his bloodstained clothes, he was later freed.  (Whose bright idea was that?) By that time, though, a search was on for Dadd because a brother of his rightly suspected that Richard had killed their father. After trying to cut the throat of another traveler, Richard was taken into custody in Paris and sent to an asylum. He admitted he had murdered his father (well, actually he admitted he had murdered the devil in disguise), and he even had a hit list; his father had been at the top of this list.
            Dadd was not returned to England until late July 1844. He pled guilty and was sentenced to the criminal lunatic department of Bedlam. He stayed there until late July 1864, when he was removed to Broadmoor, a new, improved state asylum. Here he remained until his January 1886 death from tuberculosis. Despite continuing to suffer from delusions, Dadd remained intellectually active throughout his life, reading Latin satires and playing the violin.
            Dadd actually did his most famous paintings while at Bedlam. This includes The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, the painting I saw at the Tate Britain. This painting is incredibly, almost obsessively, detailed. It seemed more like a fantastical photograph than something a person had painted by hand.
            Dadd was clearly a gifted painter. I won’t go into details because I am not an art critic or an art historian. His work is pretty darn cool, which is good enough for me.
            One website (linked below) mentions that some scholars claim Dadd was suffering from bipolar disorder. I think it sounds more like he was suffering from (paranoid) schizophrenia, which tends to hit in the twenties (thereby fitting Dadd’s timeline) and causes its sufferers to hear voices (such as Osiris). However, I’m neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist, so don’t take my word for it.
            So there you have the rather tragic and fascinating tale of Richard Dadd. It is probably a testimony of his desire to paint that he was able to do his greatest work while in a nineteenth-century mental hospital. Conditions were less than ideal in those places.

Want to know more about Dadd? There’s a Wikipedia entry (, but I found the following to be a much better website. I got most of my information there (and from the glorious Oxford DNB).

Also, follow this link to see the eight works by Dadd housed at the Tate Britain.

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