The dangerous mind of Richard Dadd

Richard Dadd painted some dazzling visions abroad but found peace within the walls of Broadmoor.

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The Art of Bedlam: Richard Dadd
Watts Gallery, Guildford

On 28 August 1843 the painter Richard Dadd and his father, Robert, took an evening stroll through the park surrounding Cobham Hall in Kent. When they reached a circle of elm trees the 26-year-old painter suddenly attacked his father, punching him in the head and slashing his neck with a razor before stabbing him in the chest with a five-inch rigger’s knife. When his father, who struggled, was finally dead Dadd tidied up the body and fled to Dover, where he boarded a boat for France. Travelling south from Paris by coach, he then attacked a fellow passenger, inflicting four deep razor wounds before he was overpowered and taken into custody.

When interviewed, Dadd claimed that he had been acting under instructions from the Egyptian sun god Osiris and also that he himself was “the son and envoy of God, sent to exterminate the men most possessed with the demon”. On his return to England, amid huge press interest, he was declared a “criminal lunatic” and committed to the Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem – better known as Bethlem or, more pejoratively, Bedlam. Dadd remained there until 1864 (the year, coincidentally, that John Clare died at Northampton General Lunatic Asylum) when he was transferred to Broadmoor. And there he spent the rest of his life, dying more than 20 years later, in 1886.

Bacchanalian Scene (1862)

What made this grisly case of patricide all the more sensational was that Dadd, born in 1817, was one of the most promising painters of his generation. He had trained at the Royal Academy Schools, exhibited widely and gained a degree of fame for his fairy paintings – mostly of Shakespearean scenes – that curious 19th-century genre that was driven by new-money collectors from the industrial Midlands and north of England.

In 1842 he was employed by a wealthy traveller, Sir Thomas Phillips, to accompany him on a trip to Italy, Greece and the Holy Land and to make drawings and watercolours for his patron’s use. It was in the later stages of this tour that the first signs of erratic and aggressive behaviour began to manifest themselves and Dadd returned early, his symptoms dismissed as sunstroke. The sights of the Orient, however, were to be a staple – sublimated and reimagined – of the work he produced during the succeeding years of incarceration.

Dadd is the subject of a wonderful small exhibition at the eccentric and handsomely revamped Watts Gallery, near Guildford, in Surrey. Although there are only about 25 works on show (including one of the Tate’s prize possessions, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, c.1855-64) every picture is fascinating, both in its own right and as the product of a severely disordered mind. It is impossible not to read Dadd’s mania into them, but there are enough links with the works of other painters – such as William Blake, Henry Fuseli, the German Nazarenes and Théodore Géricault – to suggest that although these are the pictures of a madman they are not, or at least not all of them are, necessarily mad pictures.

Hatred (1853)

The Halt in the Desert (c.1845), for one, is a beautiful nocturnal scene, lit by moonlight and firelight, of the Phillips/Dadd expedition settling down for the night on the edge of the Dead Sea. The watercolour, which came to light in 1986 on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, is a piece of immensely detailed orientalism reconstructed from memory, imagination and the painter’s notebooks. While it has a visionary hue it is no stranger than William Holman Hunt’s Holy Land pictures from a decade or so later, such as The Scapegoat. Like all Dadd’s work, it is defined by its miniaturist technique: he was a painter of microscopic refinement.

A similar instance is his View of the Island of Rhodes (c.1845), in which he shows a dry and barren landscape in sun-bleached tones, where the textures of grass and rocks are conjured up in pinpricks of watercolour. It is as if Edward Lear had taken a magnifying glass to one of his own views of Greece. What is unsettling, though, is a two-millimetre-high figure of a turbaned man standing on a clifftop and surveying the scene.

Where Dadd’s other-worldliness slips into something more disturbing is in the series of pictures from the 1850s depicting the passions. In a chilling self-reference, Hatred shows Richard, Duke of ­Gloucester standing over the body of Henry VI, a bloody sword in his hand; Agony, a chained and raving figure, has Dadd’s own eyes. If in his landscapes, portraits and Shakespearean fantasies he was partly remembering a world others could recognise, in these he has turned inwards.

It was a blessing, therefore, that his internal struggles calmed and a Broadmoor report of 1866 could note that Dadd ­“occupies much of his time in painting. Makes no complaints and seems pretty contented.” He was a simple painter again; the studio of this extraordinary artist may have been an asylum but it was a studio nevertheless.

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2