He was a brilliant artist, but it's a fine line between genius and madness, and sadly Richard Dadd tipped into insanity…and murder!
Young and gifted, artist Richard Dadd looked set to be one of the great Victorian artists, with a glittering career ahead of him. But then his life took a dark and unexpected turn…
Dadd was born in Chatham, Kent, in 1817 – one of seven children – and was raised by his father, a chemist, after his mother died. As a child, it was clear he had artistic talent and before he was even in his 20s, he became a key member of the Clique, ambitious young artists who’d become stars of the Victorian art world.
Called by the gods
But Richard Dadd’s life began to unravel when, aged 25, the young man took a tour through the Middle East. On the last part of the 10-month trip, while travelling back through Rome and Naples, Dadd started to behave in an increasingly strange manner.
Insisting he was acting under the influence of the Egyptian god Osiris, he began talking obsessively about religion, he claimed he was being watched, thought the Pope was out to get him… His worried companions thought his ramblings were caused by an acute case of sunstroke, but it was to be the start of delusional episodes and psychotic behaviour – Dadd soon became convinced his own father was the Devil – and it would lead to murder.
Death in the park
Back home with his family in Cobham, his delusions became worse. On 29 August 1843, he lured his father Robert to a park in Kent, tried to slit his throat with a razor, then killed him by stabbing him in the chest with a knife.
He fled by boat to France, in such a confused and demented state that he later said he was on his way to assassinate the Austrian Emperor Frederick. Dadd was arrested after attacking a French passenger with a razor, and brought back to England.
After his arrest, Richard Dadd was given the catch-all label of ‘insane’ by doctors and sent to London’s Bethlem Hospital, better known as Bedlam and then, later on, to Broadmoor. He would never be a free man again.
Away with the fairies
But, far from being a nightmare, in Bethlem Dadd was given painting materials and a proper workspace. And what he painted gives a glimpse into his troubled mind.
In Bethlem, he created many of his best-known masterpieces, impressive works of fairies and supernatural subjects, including his famous The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke. Also dating from this time are 33 watercolours, entitled Grief or Sorrow, Love and Jealousy, as well as Agony – Raving Madness and Murder.
However, while Dadd was still able to paint – and encouraged to – doctors’ reports say that he remained incoherent and deluded. It seems probable that he was suffering from bipolar disorder.
Dadd’s doctors wrote that – ‘For some years after his admission, he was considered a violent and dangerous patient, for he would jump up and strike a violent blow without any aggravation, and then beg pardon for the deed’.
Towards the end of his life, Dadd no longer had violent episodes, but was still delusional and prematurely aged by his days as a prisoner. He was quiet, and painted less due to his failing health.
Sadly for Dadd, the majority of his life was spent in asylums, first in Bethlem Hospital, and later Broadmoor. The talented but troubled man who created such dreamlike, surreal and intense images, died from lung disease in the high-security psychiatric hospital in 1886, aged 69. His works are now exhibited in leading art galleries, including the Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
In the family?
Three of Richard Dadd’s siblings apparently suffered with poor mental health, too. Dadd’s brother George was admitted to Bethlem when Richard was fleeing after killing their father. His sister Maria married in 1844, but was having mental health issues by 1853, and in an asylum by 1859. Another brother was said to have a ‘private attendant’ for unknown reasons.