The insane genius of Richard Dadd

Picture of Dadd taken between 1854/1858 working on his famous 'Contradiction: Oberon and Titania'

Picture of Dadd taken between 1854/1858 working on his famous ‘Contradiction: Oberon and Titania’

Born in Chatham, Kent, to a chemist in August 1817 or 1818, Richard Dadd was the fourth of between seven and nine children (sources vary). Details of his childhood are scant however it has been noted that he showed an adeptness for sketching and art from an early age, and was seen by those who knew him as a quiet gentle boy.

Following his education at Kings School Rochester, at the age of 17, the family moved to London and at 20 years old, Richard was accepted into the Royal Academy of Arts. Towards the end of the 1830s, Dadd along with some of his contemporaries, including Frith, Egg and O’Neil, founded ‘The Clique’, a group where artists could meet with their work and have it critiqued by none-artists for the sake of genuine validity. The Clique were avid followers of genre painting as highlighted by such leading artists as Hogarth and Wilkie, and generally rejected the high-art encouraged by academia, on the principle that it was ‘backwards facing’. Ironically the founder members of the group were all to be successfully trained within the academy.

It was following the founding of this group in 1842, and after achieving a level of success with his early illustration works, that Richard Dadd was chosen by former Mayor of Newport, Sir Thomas Philips to accompany him on an extended journey through Europe to the Middle East, ending in Egypt, before returning. It was whilst they were reaching the terminal point of their trip crossing through Syria into Jerusalem then on to Egypt via Jordan, an arduous period of their journey which took nearly a month to complete, that Dadd began to display signs of a change in temperament. He became morose and belligerent, and his demeanour rapidly descended into fits of violence and delusions.
At first it was thought that Dadd was suffering from sunstroke, but as the illness progressed despite treatment, and his mental condition deteriorated further, it became apparent that there was a much more sinister cause. Dadd appeared to be convinced he was possessed by the God Osiris and as the party passed through Italy, Dadd saw the Pope. It was here that he was said to have experienced for the first time, the desire to kill. When the party reached Paris, arrangements were quickly made to return him home for treatment. When he arrived back in England, his father refused to have Richard incarcerated in an asylum, despite recommendations by a doctor, preferring instead to take him home to rest and recuperate as the doctor advised Richard should be held in restraints. It was a fatal decision.

Richard Dadd as a young man, roughly around the time of his trip/breakdown

Richard Dadd as a young man, roughly around the time of his trip/breakdown

Shortly after arriving home, to Cobham, Richard took his father out to Lunch, and then for a walk in Cobham Park. It was here that Richard slashed his father to death with a cut-throat razor before fleeing to France. Whilst making his escape, Dadd attempted to murder a tourist, on his way to Paris. He was unsuccessful, and overpowered, before police arrested him. Whilst in custody in France, he admitted to killing his father, claiming that his father was Satan in disguise. He was placed temporarily in Clermont asylum before being sent home to England, where he was pronounced too insane to stand trial and promptly locked away in the lunatic ward of the Bethlem hospital, which was at that point housed in what is now the Imperial War Museum, London.

Following a verdict of criminal insanity in 1844, Dadd spent a period of around 20 years, in Bethlem, before transferring in 1864 to the newly build Broadmoor facility in Berkshire. During his incarceration at both establishments, Dadd was allowed to continue his art, as it appeared to be the only way to keep him calm, and lucid. Any attempt at conversation led to a rapid descent into insane rage, where he would often leap up and strike out violently, only to excuse himself and beg forgiveness afterwards. He took only one sketchbook of his pre-illness work with him, and over the next 42 years of his ‘imprisonment’ produced many examples of his finest work, painting mostly from imagination and memory. He was a leading fore-runner in the methodology known as miniaturist art, one of his particular favourite subjects being fairies. He spent hours working in minute detail with the tip of a very fine brush achieving awe-inspiring masterpieces of tiny detail as well as more mainstream pieces.

When left to paint, Dadd remained a tranquil inmate, although his delusions never wavered nor regressed for the rest of his life. His family sent him money on regular occasions which he used to buy materials for his work. Broadmoor archives still contain the documents and receipts for his art supplies and monies, carefully signed in his neat steady hand. In 1885, during the summer Richard’s physical health deteriorated, he was removed to the infirmary where he remained until January of 1886, when he died of tuberculosis.

Richard Dadd’s name and notoriety all but faded from the public eye over the next 100 years, although his masterpieces, created during the lifetime of his incarceration remained the focus of stunned appreciation in artistic circles, where he was remembered as ‘The fairy fellow’ after several of his more noted pieces. In the 1980’s the art world was stunned when a member of the public appeared on an edition of BBC’s Antiques Roadshow with a painting of a desert oasis scene which had been pushed up against their attic hatch for several years.
An excited Art expert on the show quickly consulted his reference books and confirmed the painting to be a lost work of Dadd’s entitled ‘The halt in the desert’ which he had painted from memory in 1845, shortly after he entered Bethlem, of his time on the expedition in the days before his descent into madness. Dadd features in the painting, on the far right of the group. The painting has a feature of fun within it as the moon appears to be speared on a pike. The painting was later sold at auction, the purchaser, The British Museum, paid £100,000 for the masterpiece.

More recent investigation into Dadd’s life, sparked by the renewed interest following the find, has revealed that insanity was common within his family, possibly hereditary, a modern diagnosis of a form of paranoid schizophrenia is widely accepted as Dadd’s affliction. Two of his siblings were also known to be affected similarly and a third had a private attendant to care for them, for unspecified reasons. Dadd remains to this day a stark reminder as in his contemporary, Vincent van Gogh that genius does not always walk hand in hand with sanity and on occasion insanity is unable to mask genius.

Phoebe