The English artist Richard Dadd is best known for his drawings and paintings of fairies, elves, and hobgoblins. Most of his supernatural scenes are drawn in such an enigmatic fashion that critics are still puzzling over them today. The painter could never explain what he was doing because he had went mad at a young age and spent most of his life in a lunatic asylum where he died lonely and misunderstood.
Richard Dadd was born in Chatham, Kent, in 1817. He started to draw at school where his aptitude for art was so promising his father decided that he would become a painter. When he was seventeen, the family moved to London, and at nineteen he was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools where he completed his training as an artist. Dadd was regarded as one of the most promising young artists of his generation. He was popular with his fellow students and well liked for his intelligence, gentleness and his cheerful good nature. However, Dadd wasn’t happy with the teaching curriculum which was noted for its old-fashioned conservatism. He formed a group of younger painters who had alternative views on how art should be rendered, and why there had to be room for something other than that approved by their older colleagues.
Dadd’s group were known as ‘’The Clique’’, who rejected the classical style of contemporary History Painting in favour of the more down to earth one of genre. This type of painting generally depicts not so much a subject as everyday life and its surroundings. The most important thing about it is that it should not represent idealized life – as History painting does. Furthermore, the Clique did not agree that art should only be discussed among artists and so-called experts. They insisted that ordinary members of the public should be invited to evaluate their works also. They felt that only then could an artist get an all round view on his work. All of the group’s members went on to become successful painters after they broke up in 1843 when Dadd became insane and was incarcerated for murdering his father.
The artist’s first success as a painter came in 1841 when two of his works were highly praised by the critics. They were Titania Sleeping, and its companion piece Puck. Titania is the Queen of the Fairies in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Puck is the Fairy King’s mischievous servant. This was the first of Dadd’s fairy paintings for which he would become best known. The Victorians were obsessed with fairy lore, and much of the art of this period reflects this. Part of the reason was a desire to rediscover their folkloric past while another was an emergent spiritualist movement which wanted to believe and communicate with the paranormal world. Shortly after this success, Dadd was commissioned to paint over a 100 panels for the London town-house of the 4th Baron Foley. The painter chose his own subjects from the poet Byron’s Faustian drama of Manfred, which is set in Switzerland, and also that of the Italian Renaissance poet Torquato Bernardo whose epic Jerusalem Delivered, tells of the recapture of that city in 1099, by the Christian knights of the First Crusade. The pity here is that all of the panels have since disappeared, and we have no real way of judging their artistic merit.
Dadd’s work attracted the patronage of Sir Thomas Phillips, who hired him as his draughtsman for a tour of classical sites in Europe, Syria and Egypt in the Middle East. The artist seemed to enjoy the trip and drew and sketched everything of note or curiosity as they travelled through these countries. The artist seemed to enjoy himself and wrote various letters home detailing his wonderful experiences. It was near the end of this sketching tour that Dadd nearly died while crossing the burning wastes of the Engaddi desert near Jerusalem. The party he was with got lost and ran out of water and, after suffering incredible hardships, they were rescued in the nick of time. The experience made Dadd so ill that he never recovered. Instead, he began to undergo a dramatic personality change.
His increasingly erratic behaviour on the last leg of the journey to Egypt was put down at first to sunstroke. However, while travelling along the Nile, he became delusional and started acting strangely, claiming that he had been possessed by the spirit of Osiris the ancient Egyptian god of Life and Death. As his behaviour became increasingly violent Dadd’s claims were humoured until he could be brought back to England where it was thought that he would soon recover. However, the change of place and climate did nothing for his hallucinations which persisted to the point where he began to believe that everyone was against him and that he was being persecuted by demons from hell.
An examination by the leading doctors of the time, found that Dadd was of unsound mind and that he would probably stay that way for the rest of his life. If he’d been poor, then normally he would have been locked away in some horrible institution for the mentally insane. However, his family were well off and they undertook to look after him or rather, they let him look after himself by renting him a house in the quiet little village of Cobham in Kent. They felt that, by living in a peaceful environment, this might help in the painter’s recuperation. Unfortunately, this was a forlorn hope because, as his paranoia grew worse, Dadd became a recluse and refused to eat or drink normally, living for months on nothing but eggs and bottles of Guinness.
In his unsound state of mind Dadd became convinced that his father was the devil in disguise and that Osiris had commanded that he and a number of others had to die. Driven on by his sick delusions, Dadd asked his father to meet him at an inn in Cobham. After a meal they went for a walk in the grounds of Cobham Park where the artist suddenly slashed his father’s throat with a razor before stabbing him to death with a knife. He then dismembered the body before taking the boat train to France. Dadd knew that he had done something wrong but, as he later told the staff of Bedlam mental hospital, he wasn’t exactly sure who or what it was that he’d killed. Howsoever, only two days after arriving on the Continent, Dadd tried to murder a complete stranger in a carriage before he was apprehended by the French police, and identified as the man responsible for the killing in Cobham.
Dadd was certified as mad and sent to a succession of French asylums before he was extradited to England in 1844. He never stood trial for the murder of his father, but was found criminally insane when he came to plead. He was sentenced to spend the rest of his days in the lunatic wing at Bedlam asylum. It was only after he had been first taken into custody by the French police that some explanation came as to Dadd’s motive for his acts. He had been carrying a written list of names topped with the words ‘those who must die’. His father’s name was first on the list.
The place where Dadd was meant to be locked up forever, Bedlam, has become infamous for its callous and brutal treatment of the insane. For instance, during the 18th century, it was ‘fashionable’ for the gentry and the curious to visit the prison and make fun of the inmates. For one penny they were allowed to poke the unfortunate prisoners with sticks to get a laugh at the hysterical reactions of the mentally ill. Conditions there were dreadful with overcrowding, no sanitary arrangements or medical aid. If you were unlucky enough to be poor, then you simply starved to death. Any ‘care’ ordered by the court, amounted to little more than restraint where potentially violent or dangerous prisoners were chained and manacled to the walls and the floors.
To put this place into perspective, in 1814 alone, there was 96,000 visitors to Bedlam – at a time when mental illness was thought to be caused buy moral weakness – not as today by physical, psychological or genetic factors. People believed then that madness led to moral insanity and so it was of no account to make fun of those who were already destined for Hell. This is the kind of treatment you could expect if you were poor however, Dadd’s family had money, which meant that he could pay for better treatment. Besides, time had changed some of these horrible practices and he was allowed to carry on with the only thing that kept him quiet and occupied which was drawing and painting works of art in his lonely prison cell.
When Dadd was first admitted to Bedlam, case notes on his behaviour say that he was considered as a violent and dangerous patient who would sometimes lash out at people around him without provocation. He would then apologize and explain that he couldn’t help himself for certain spirits sometimes possessed his body and caused him to act in the way he did – weather he wanted to or not. At other times, Dadd would binge eat until he vomited and otherwise behave in a very odd fashion. The only time he seemed at peace was when he was working at his easel. Part of this liberty was engineered by one of the doctors, Charles Hood, a reformer who sought to make Bedlam a refuge and not a punishment for its inmates. Dadd was also allowed to do this by the steward of the prison, George Haydon, who agreed with Hood’s sentiments. Although the painter was allowed some of his own sketchbooks to take ideas from, his best inspiration came from his imagination and a strong visual memory which never left him. During the 1850’s he produced a large number of water-colour figure compositions and also a series of 33 moralistic paintings entitled Sketches to Illustrate the Passions. These included individual drawings of Grief or Sorrow, Love, and Jealousy, as well as Agony, Raving Madness, and Murder. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to know what was going through his head at this time.
Like most of his works, these are small, sharp and clear drawings with finely controlled washes of low-key colour and bold strokes of shadow. The figures that appear in these works all have a dreamy, unfocused stare where they seem to be looking far away into a timeless beyond. Dadd’s most painstaking works are his small landscapes and shipping scenes, and his occasional fanciful subjects which are all smaller than a postcard in size. He painted these works with the tip of a very fine brush, using a technique that he perfected himself. One of these drawings shows the harbour of Port Stragglin, which is overlooked by a steep and towering castle perched on top of a rock. Dadd named this A General View of Port Stragglin with the Rock and Castle of Seclusion. Obviously, this is a comment on his imprisonment, exclusion from society, and his desire to escape from his terrible predicament.
Dadd is best known for the 2 fairy paintings he completed in the asylum. The first is Contradictions: Oberon and Titania, followed by The Fairy Fellers Master Stroke. Both of them are so intricately woven together, and contain such a mass of detail, that they look like tapestry patterns. In ‘Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairy folk are surrounded by countless tiny creatures who dart in and out of the shrubbery in a glade in the woods. Some of the figures are human while others are more grotesque in form. The second fairy piece, which took Dadd 9 years to paint, shows a man chopping wood in a shady dell. He is unaware that fantasy has mingled with reality for while he only sees the job in hand the hollow is alive with fairies, elves, and hobgoblins who play around him and who he cannot see.
Many people were (and still are) puzzled as to the meaning of much of Dadd’s work. Being ill, he wasn’t in the best of positions for trying to explain the context of much of this type of work. He did try by writing a bizarre poem where each of the characters appearing in the picture where given a name and a purpose for being there. This ode took its inspiration from Shakespeare and English folklore, and I think it was Dadd’s way of saying that the unique composition of his fairy labours was not the product of a madman, but the work of an artist who was unfortunately sick. Maybe he hoped that his paintings would go some way in redeeming himself in society, and perhaps lead to some alleviation of his present incarceration – but this was never to be. Most of Dadd’s other output in the hospital covers portraits, landscapes and shipping scenes. His portraits are generally characterized by a trance-like stillness where the subjects seem to be staring into the distance, as if looking for some sort of a far away haven. Maybe this was an effect of the drugs that Dadd was been given, or perhaps this was a true reflection of his state of mind.
By 1864, Dadd had spent more than 20 years in the overcrowded and noisy Bedlam. The doctors decided that he should now be moved to a new, more spacious and quieter asylum at Broadmoor, just outside of London. Dadd settled in to his new accommodation and started to paint once more. He was interviewed there on a number of occasions by the chief medical officer Dr. William Orange. His notes include the painter’s delusions on the subject of chess where he believed that the pieces had a life of their own where they could be friendly or unfriendly to the player. Dadd also talked about his father’s murder where he described the scene and what he did afterwards. When his father was lying on his back bleeding to death, the painter had lifted his arms and shouted ‘’Go & tell the great god Osiris that I have done the deed which is to set him free.’’ Dadd also mentioned that he had tried to kill the unfortunate passenger in France because he’d noticed that two stars in the constellation of the Great Bear were moving closing together. Therefore, he felt that he had to find another sacrifice for the ancient gods.
Even although he had killed his father Dadd’s family understood that he was mentally ill and never stopped supporting him through sending him money, letters and gifts. The painter remained at Broadmoor for the rest of his life, being seen by only a handful of visitors until he died in 1886 from a severe lung infection. In total, he had spent 43 years of his adult life in these 2 mental hospitals. Although his doctors couldn’t understand his illness, today’s medical experts think that he had some form of paranoid schizophrenia. He seems to have been genetically predisposed to mental illness for his sister and his two brothers were similarly afflicted.
Dadd always had admirers in his own day, even if his work contained a number of non logical elements and visual ambiguities which must have seemed to many people as positive proof of the painter’s insanity. The recognized fact of his lunacy tended to distort public perception of his work then – as it still does today. This is why his work has never been celebrated and is only rarely exhibited. There’s no doubt that Dadd was crazy but I think it’s sad that someone as gifted as him should have his talents ‘demonized’ because of his illness. His work has also been misconstrued and still remains unappreciated for what it truly is – a picture of a timeless world where fantasy and reality peacefully exist side by side.
Well, that’s it from me folks, thanks for listening in again, and I’ll say goodbye until the next time. Goodbye now.