Portrait of Sir Thomas Phillips in Turkish Dress, 1842/3. Watercolour on paper, 17.4 x 25.3 cm. LDBTH 774. © Bethlem Art and History Collections Trust. Photograph reproduced by permission of the Bethlem Art and History Collections Trust.

A Poet Among Painters

10th June 2011

They called him ‘Mad Dadd’ – a deranged artist who committed patricide, destroying a promising
career and spending the rest of his life institutionalised. The man who painted fairies is now the
subject of an exhibition at Twickenham’s Orleans House Gallery.
Jack Watkins visits…

Only one known photo of Richard Dadd survives. Taken during his incarceration in Bethlem Hospital, it shows him with his paint brushes in his hand, sitting at an easel bearing the canvas of one of his finest fairy paintings, Oberon and Titania. His hair is long and unwashed, his thick beard flecked with grey, and he appears a decade older than the 40 year-old man he would have been at the time of the sitting. He is not looking at the camera lens, but gazes off into the distance. The over-exposure of the image conveys a slightly wild-eyed impression, as if he is lost in observation of some spirit scene being played out in the corner of the room, invisible to ordinary mortals.

The photograph can be seen in the new exhibition at the Orleans House Gallery, near the banks of the River Thames at Twickenham, which brings together several of Dadd’s paintings, drawings and personal items, and features his masterpiece, The Fairy Feller’s Master-stroke. It also traces the outline of his life story, which must be one of the saddest in the history of British painting.

Born in 1817 to a father with excellent connections in the London art world, Dadd was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools when he was 19, and quickly gained a reputation as one of its most regular and diligent students. He was part of a group with such contemporaries as William Powell Frith and Augustus Egg who formed a sketch club known as The Clique. Everyone, it seems, thought he was destined for great things. Winning several medals, he was described by one Academician as ‘foremost of the rising young men of his age’. Years later Frith would recall him as ‘a man of genius that would assuredly have placed him in the first rank of painters.’

What is plain is that he was an excellent draughtsman. Look, for example, at his series of watercolours, known as the Sketches to Illustrate the Passions, on show at Orleans House. Executed in Bethlem in the mid 1850s, they contain much fine drawing along with the power to convey both character and situation.

You can imagine Dadd as a first-rate illustrator of childrens’ books. The solid technique that he had equipped himself with in his early years would stand him in good stead once he became cut off from first-hand sources of inspiration. When his mind was clear enough, at least, he always had – like a technically sound batsman who’d misplaced his timing – that orthodoxy to fall back upon.

His penchant, however, seems always to have been for fantasy, and so good were his early paintings of fairies that he was known as the ‘poet among painters’. At this time, he was well-liked, and even-tempered, ‘the reverse of flighty or excitable’. But things took an ominous turn in 1842 after Dadd was chosen as a travelling companion of the wealthy Sir Thomas Phillips on a tour throughout southern Europe and the Middle East.

The exhibition contains two paintings made by Dadd of Phillips en route. They show, as was the habit of the time, a rich British gentleman dressed up in eastern costume, with exotic backgrounds very carefully rendered. Dadd so filled his sketchbook on this trip with drawings of Mediterranean landscapes, vegetation and Middle Eastern figures that it would still be a source for his work some forty years later. It was in Palestine, though, that the artist first suffered the episodes that indicated declining mental stability. Horribly aware of what was happening to him, Dadd seems to have been able to hide the worst of his condition from his travelling companion, and his behaviour was put down to sunstroke or sensory overload.

By the time he returned to London, it was plain that this attractive, gentle soul was a changed man. He began confiding to his friends that he was on a mission to rid the world of the Devil. His father refuted the doctor’s diagnosis (‘madness’), refused to believe that his son was no longer responsible for his actions, and agreed to meet him at Cobham Park, in Kent, a favourite boyhood spot for sketching, where Dadd Jnr – who had decided his father was, in fact, the devil – had promised to unburden his mind.

After dining at an inn, the pair went out for an evening stroll, and nothing further was heard of them until the next morning when Dadd Snr’s body was found in a hollow near the road. He had been brutally stabbed to death by his son, who was eventually apprehended at Fontainebleau, France, en route to murder the Emperor of Austria. Brought back to England, he was transferred to the lunatic asylum at Bethlem Hospital (which now houses the Imperial War Museum) in 1844. He would be institutionalised for the rest of his life.

‘Bedlam’, as Bethlem Hospital had been known in the previous century, was no longer the inhumane place that it had once been, but it remained a prison-like existence. Dadd found himself sharing chambers with men who’d spent a lifetime in criminal activity before being driven insane by the appalling conditions of convict gaols of the time. Encouraged by his physicians, though, Dadd worked on amidst his fellow patients. He still suffered delusions, but was less subject to the violent impulses that had led him to commit gruesome murder.

That he remained capable of producing remarkable work can be seen in two of the Orleans House paintings. Sketch of an Idea for Crazy Jane – probably using a fellow patient as a model for Jane – depicts a women driven mad by a lover’s desertion. She wears a crown of reeds and flowers, while her masculine limbs and deranged pose contrast disconcertingly with the maid’s costume. Her desolation is accentuated by the background of a ruined castle, ravens circling overhead.

The Fairy Feller’s Master-stroke defies explanation. Critics have remarked on the strange self-containment of Dadd’s fantasy paintings, as if the fairies and sprites exist in their own intimate world. Here grasses form a kind of rough lattice across the canvas, through which you look to observe a rich tapestry of small figures beneath. Having only previously seen the work in a book, it is a surprise to note the vividness of Dadd’s palette and the textural quality of the finish. Soon after its completion in 1864, Dadd was transferred to Broadmoor where he wrote a poem explaining the figures, ending with the teasing remark that you can believe all of this or not as you choose, since it explains nothing.

He lived on, still painting and drawing, for 20 years until he died of consumption in 1886. His sister provided the epitaph: ‘I am truly thankful to know him at rest, it is less grief to me; than it was to think of him in the changed condition in which he has lived for many past years, his life has been to me a living death’.

Only one privilege did that hard life grant him: the chance to pursue his own artistic vision, rather than to cater for patron or peer-group approval, or for commercial fashion. Few artists have been granted that luxury.

Richard Dadd is at the Orleans House Gallery until 2 October. Admission Free.
More details: www.richmond.gov.uk/orleans_house_gallery

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