I found this story in the BBC’s recent article here. The article opens with:
“Promising artist Richard Dadd murdered his father in the summer of 1843. Detained as a “criminal lunatic“, he continued to paint during his incarceration. He is now remembered as one of the Victorian era’s most accomplished artists.”
Well. That is a hell of an introduction for someone I’ve (sadly) never heard of before.
The article goes into more depth about his art (a major retrospective of Dadd’s art is being held at The Museum of the Mind in London), but I want to focus on the biographical elements of this story.
Richard Dadd showed promise as an artist from a young age and his work was even displayed at the Royal Academy by the time he was in his early twenties.
In about 1842, Sir Thomas Phillips, a Welsh lawyer and politician, asked Dadd if he would accompany him on a grand tour of Europe and the Middle East and document the trip through artwork. Here is a painting Dadd did of Phillips, being Orientalist as shit:
While the trip was deeply inspiring for Dadd, he was forced to return to England somewhat sooner than anticipated. He and Phillips spent a part of their journey in Syria, where conditions were rough and exhausting. Eventually they made it to Egypt and traveled up the Nile by boat. It was at this point that Dadd began to suffer from severe mood swings and personality changes, making him delusional and violent. His condition was originally thought to be the result of severe sunstroke, so Phillips went, “Quick! Get this lad to a place where there is no sun! Ever!” So back Dadd went to England.
Dadd went to his childhood home with his father to recuperate. As they went out for a walk one day, Dadd stabbed and killed him and then fled to France. His reasoning was twofold: firstly, that he, Dadd, was under the influence of the Egyptian god Osiris (some sources say that Dadd believed he was the son of Osiris), and secondly that his father was Satan in disguise.
The irreverent headline practically writes itself: “Dick Dadd kills dick dad“.
On his way to France, Dadd attempted to kill another traveler with a razor, but he was stopped and arrested. He was sent back to England where he confessed to murdering his father and was committed to Bedlam hospital, and later to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. For those of you who don’t know about the state of Victorian mental asylums . . . well, let’s just say they weren’t the most enlightened or caring of places. So it’s rather surprising that Dadd was treated by a team of three doctors who encouraged him to keep painting.
It was during his time in the hospital (he was there until his death more than 40 years later) that most of his masterpieces were created, including his most-known work, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke:
Art therapy, y’all: it’s real.
I don’t know much about art, but according to Wikipedia, his paintings are remarkable because they “are executed with a miniaturist’s eye for detail which belie the fact that they are products of imagination and memory“.
Further, Dadd expressed some of the conditions of his imprisonment in rather soulful and heartbreaking ways in his art:
It is likely that Dadd had a form of paranoid schizophrenia, and it is very likely that it was hereditary, as two of his siblings had mental health issues, while a third sibling had a “private attendant” for undisclosed reasons.
According to Victoria Northwood, who’s the director of the museum, copyright Bethlem Museum of the Mind, “It is important to note that there was no dramatic change to the appearance of Richard Dadd’s work once he became unwell“. His behavior changed in horrible, harmful ways, but his artistic style remained the same.