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Friday, 1 October 2010

Richard Dadd

The average person on the street will probably know very little about Richard Dadd. In fact, plenty of people with an interest in Victoriana will be unaware of him, but for me he is one of those characters like Dickens, Bazalgette, Wilde, Brunel and Queen Victoria, who is almost the personified summation of the mid to second half of the nineteenth century.
Dadd was an artist in an age where art was hugely popular and important. Art adorned the walls of every home in the middle and upper classes. Galleries popped up all over the country, notably the Tate in 1887, previously named the National Gallery of British Art before Henry Tate, the sugar company owner and collector of art, funded a renovation to house important works, including his own personal collection. For a vast period of the nineteenth century, it was the only form of visual documentation and representation people had.
Art was, and still is to some degree, something that moved with fashion. The Pre-Raphaelite movement of the 1850’s was somewhat of an art revolution, and was to the art world as punk was to the music world a hundred and twenty years later in 1977. The pre-Raphaelites painted beautiful paintings, but they were unpopular with certain sections of society for their lack of moral message.

The Victorians, for the most part, liked their art to have this “moral message”, now, I must state here that Victorian art is in no way my forte, so I’m not going to go into any more detail in case I get something wrong, other than to give a quick example of this. 

The painting on the right is the only one that comes immediately to mind, and is by the painter Augustus Egg:

The painting, which is one of a trio, is a swipe at fallen women. This is the first of the three, and as the paintings progress, her situation gets worse, until, in the final painting, she sits homeless under a railway arch having lost everything. In this one, the husband sits crestfallen at the table. His unfaithful wife lays prostrate upon the ground in apology (or remorse at being found out by the intercepted love letter on the floor). But, the subtle clues in the painting depict this beautifully, and are just what the Victorians were looking for.
Also on the floor is half of an apple - the fruit of temptation and the children are playing with cards (the mother was a poor one, and allowed her children to gamble) but the house of cards they have made is tumbling (mirroring the family, which is crumbling due to her actions) the children also stack their cards on a book by Balzac, who wrote racy adulterous novels.

Those interested in Victorian art and its culture should do their best to get hold of the Jeremy Paxman BBC documentary series “The Victorians – Britain through the paintings of the age” where he goes into far more detail about this, and many other paintings. The series is available on DVD, best look on Amazon – I bought it from HMV and it was £20.

Back to my original point after a small detour - Richard Dadd. The second reason I find him such an age-defining figure is that he suffered from mental illness – that is to say, he was “mad” and became a patient at the notorious Bethlem hospital, or “Bedlam” as it was known.

By this time, Bedlam had changed a lot since the days where it was a dungeon of lunatics chained to the walls as depicted by Hogarth in the last scene of “The Rake’s Progress”. In the previous century the hospital was for all intents and purposes a human zoo, to which the middle and upper classes would visit and be amused by the antics of the mentally ill patients, in his excellent book “Curiosities of London”, John Timbs gives us a brief description of Bedlam:

Bethlem became one of "the sights of London;" and such was the mischief occasioned by this brutal and degrading practice, that, to prevent disturbances, the porter was annually sworn a constable, and attended with other servants to keep order. So late as 1814, the rooms resembled dog-kennels; the female patients chained by one arm or leg to the wall, were coveted by a blanket-gown only, the feet being naked ; and they lay upon straw. The male patients were chained, handcuffed, or locked to the avail; and chains were universally substituted for the strait-waistcoat. One Norris, stated to be refractory, was chained by a strong iron ring, riveted round his neck, his arms pinioned by an iron bar, and his waist similarly secured, so that he could only advance twelve inches from the wall, the length of his chain; and thus he had been "encaged and chained more than twelve years;"”

In Dadd’s time though, the hospital had gone through much reform and change, and is described by John Timbs in the same book:

Few sights can be more interesting than the present condition of the interior of Bethlem. The scrupulous cleanliness of the house, the decent attire of the patients, and the unexpectedly small number of those under restraint, (sometimes not one person throughout the building), lead the visitors, not unnaturally, to conclude that the management of lunatics has here attained perfection; while the quiet and decent demeanour of inmates might almost make him doubt that he is really in a madhouse.”

Bedlam still took visitors who, upon writing to the governor could stroll around the asylum, although, quite what pleasure could be garnered I am unsure, but it seems some quarters of Victorian society were still interested such things.

So, Dadd was an artist, which was popular in these times, and he was also incarcerated in the oldest and most famous lunatic asylum in the country, but why was he there?

In the summer of 1842, he went on a tour of Europe and the middle east with Sir Thomas Phillips where he was to take drawings of the expedition. After an exhaustive and extensive tour in places such as Constantinople and Egypt, Dadd began to suffer with what was apparently bad sunstroke and prolonged headaches. The expedition continued through Africa and back into mainland Europe, where Dadd suddenly became paranoid, delusional and violent, culminating in an attempt to attack the Pope in Italy.
Eventually it became clear that Dadd was not being troubled by sunstroke, and a year after the expedition had begun, Sir Thomas Phillips sent the artist back to London where he was examined and adjudged to be non compos mentis – not of sound mind.

Despite this diagnosis, Dadd was neither treated nor incarcerated. His mental state became worse and he began to exhibit behaviour that we would consider symptomatic of conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disease. He believed that other-worldly entities had entrusted him with doing battle with the devil, and that the devil was a shape-shifter and would try to befriend him.

His father, who was, for obvious reasons concerned by the mental health of his son, took Dadd to Cobham to rest and relax, and hopefully allow his mind to calm of its own accord. During a walk through the country Dadd violently attacked and killed his father with a knife and a razor, before immediately taking a ship to Calais.

In France he was arrested for trying to cut someone’s throat, and confessed to the murder of his father. When searched by the police during his arrest, a “death list” entitled “people who must die” was found on his person, the first name on the list: His father. Dadd was returned to England and pleaded guilty to murder, but due to his mental instability he was committed to Bethlem asylum rather than one of London’s gaols.

In Bethlem, he was allowed all the tools he required to continue painting, and during his stay produced some of his best work, such as “The Fair Feller's Master Stroke”, “Oberon and Titania” “Portrait of a Young Man” and “Contradiction”.

On an episode of The Antiques Roadshow in 1987, a gentleman brought onto the programme this painting that had been sitting in his attic for many years. The antique expert on the show revealed it to be a long-lost Dadd watercolour entitled “The Artist’s Halt in the Desert” which depicted a scene from the expedition with Sir Thomas Phillips with the traveling party resting by the Dead Sea. Dadd painted it whilst incarcerated, entirely from memory. The painting was bought by the British Museum for £100,000, and is still there.

In 1863 Dadd was transferred from Bethlem to Broadmoor where he continued painting until his death in 1886 Due to an apparent lung disease.

As I said at the very start of this article, Dadd is one of the figures that, in my mind, springs immediately to mind when I think of the people of the Victorian period.

He was an artistic genius in an important period for art, he was “mad” in an era of huge scientific and medical strides forward that was fascinated by madness to the point that ladies and gentleman would pay to stroll around an asylum, and he was a tragic figure in a time when tragedy was abound, whether it be examples of unrivalled poverty and conditions of the slums, homelessness, the shadow of the workhouse or the characters in the novels of Dickens.

For those who are interested in Victorian murderers but want to read about someone with a bit more depth, someone a bit more fascinating and human than the same old tired Jack the Ripper “casebooks” then I can recommend a bit of reading on Richard Dadd, one of the Victorian era’s most gifted and yet tragic figures.


  1. Thanks for that very interesting read. I'd never heard of Richard Dadd but I'm certainly intrigued now.

  2. Thanks for reading, and congratulations for being the very first person to comment on this infant blog of mine!

    For more information on Dadd you may consider the book "The World of Richard Dadd" by Michael Mott - although this is not exclusively about Dadd, as it is also an autobiographical work by the author.

    Alternatively, for a slightly different take, try "Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness" by Carole Silver, which contains a fair bit about Dadd due to his pioneering work painting fairies.

    Other than that, I can't think of much more reference material, as I said, he has not come up on many people's radar.

    If you haven't looked at his art, have a look. They would make great Pink Floyd album covers!

  3. I was surprised to realise CharmedLassie was the first to comment on your blog. I have been checking it everyday since I discovered it last week. It's great! Victorian England is of great interest to me since I read and transcribed my greatgrandfather's journal of his time as a Mormon missionary in London and environs from 1880 to 1882. I learned much from his journal and in trying to place it in context. Not sure I have it all correct, but I've made a blog of it at:

    I would have emailed this link to you, but saw no email contact listed on your blog.

    Cheers and keep up the fascinating posts.

  4. Glad you're enjoying the blog! If there's anything I can help with regarding Victorian London for your blog then let me know - alternatively you may find Lee Jackson's website beneficial, its the most comprehensive site on Victorian London on the web, he's also a nice guy and will probably be willing to help, or point you in the right direction.

  5. Yes, Lee Jackson helped me a great deal! He was able to correct many of my mistakes within minutes of my asking for help. My interest now is is finding mention of Mormons in Victorian England. Several tens of thousands of Brits left the British Isles for Utah during Victoria's reign, including my ancestors at times from 1850s through 1880s. From what little I have found, they and the missionaries who taught them were highly unpopular. Never more so than in the early 1900s. No doubt because of the practice of polygamy at the time.

    Anyway, thank you so much for your informative blog. I like it very much.