‘He was considered a violent and dangerous patient (…) After he killed his father, his rooms were searched and a portfolio was found containing likenesses of many of his friends all with their throats cut.’
So artist Richard Dadd’s condition was described in his Casenotes from Bethlem, a psychiatric hospital, in 1854.
I went to the Watts Gallery in Compton in Surrey to see the latest Richard Dadd exhibition to learn more about the artist and to put his work into context.
Richard Dadd was born in Kent in 1817. He trained at the Royal Academy in London where he flourished, becoming the centre of a lively group of art students and he was recognised as one of the greatest talents of his generation.
Towards the end of a tour of the Middle East in 1843, Dadd began to suffer from the mental illness that soon led him to kill his father, believing he had been instructed to do so.
Dadd spent his remaining years at Bethlem Hospital in London (1844-64) and then at Broadmoor Hospital near Reading where he died in 1886.
Despite his illness, Dadd continued to create beautiful and original works, often referring back to his Eastern travels and to Shakespeare plays.
Bethlem Hospital was founded in London in 1247 and by around 1400 it was recognised as a refuge for those suffering mental illness. Over the centuries its name contracted to simply ‘Bedlam’.
Bethlem has occupied four sites over its very long history – the first two sites were in the City of London. The third site, where Dadd lived for twenty years, was in Lambeth where an imposing building was opened in 1815. When the hospital moved to its fourth and current site near Croydon in 1930, the central block of the Lambeth building became the Imperial War Museum. The wards in which Dadd had lived and worked were demolished.
Dadd was one of a specific category of asylum patients called a ‘Criminal Lunatic’, that is, someone considered too dangerous to be allowed their freedom on account of a mental illness.
When Broadmoor was built in the 1860s as a dedicated asylum for men and women, Dadd was transferred to live there. During his more than twenty years at Broadmoor – located in a rural rather than urban setting – Dadd became a trusted patient and was allowed more liberty than at Bethlem.
He continued to paint his minute landscapes and Eastern memories, but in his later work there is also a new tone of melancholy. Dadd died from tuberculosis in January 1886 and was buried at Broadmoor.
This is Richard Dadd’s most famous painting and he spent 9 years working on it.
A man raises an axe with which to split a nut to make a new carriage for Mab, the Queen of the Fairies. The tiny Mab herself waits with her retinue along the elongated brim of the hat worn by the bearded figure in white in the centre of the painting. This painting has inspired Surrealists and many writers and musicians, including Freddie Mercury and the First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon, who was one of its former owners.
This portrait (above) has often been thought to show Dr William Charles Hood (1824-70) who was appointed Physician-Superintendent of Bethlem Hospital in 1852 while he was still in his twenties. The setting is completely invented, as there was no such pleasure garden at Bethlem. Hood took a particular interest in Richard Dadd, describing his condition in casenotes (quoted above) and he acquired many of Dadd’s works.
It’s an absolutely fascinating exhibition. I thoroughly recommend a visit.
The Richard Dadd exhibition is on until 1st November 2015. Information and opening times can be found on the Watts Gallery website.