Art of Psychiatry Society

Richard Dadd: The artist and the asylum
February 18, 2012, 10:17 am
Filed under: Art, Books

Richard Dadd (1 August 1817 – 7 January 1886) was an English painter of the Victorian era.  Following a long tour of the Middle East in the early 1840s he succumbed to a schizophrenia-type illness, following which he murdered his father and fled to France where he attacked another traveller.  After his return to England he spent over forty years in the Bethlem and Broadmoor, during which period most of the works for which he is best known were created.

Dadd’s painting The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke is featured on the cover of a recent British Journal of Psychiatry.  Nicholas Tromans, a Senior Lecturer at London’s Kingston University, is widely published on the subject of 19th century art and is author of Richard Dadd: the Artist and the Asylum.  He came to talk to us about Dadd’s life and mental illness:

AoP: As a young man, how did Dadd go about establishing himself as a painter in London?

NT:  It seems that Richard owed a great deal to his father, who had been a high-street chemist in Kent but who, when Richard was a teenager, took over a gilding business in central London which must have had many professional artists among its clients. Dadd’s own beginnings as a professional artist were really entirely conventional. He became a student at the Royal Academy (virtually next door to his father’s shop) and made studies after the sculptures at the British Museum. He appears to have been extraordinarily self-confident, and was soon sending his pictures to exhibitions in London and in places like Birmingham and Manchester. He managed to attract the patronage of both London aristocrats and the self-made men of the industrial cities – as well as the support of some influential critics. By the time he left for his tour of the East in 1842 he was one of the risng stars of the London art scene.

AoP: What do we know about how and why he killed his father?

NT: Towards the end of his tour of the Mediterranean, in the Spring of 1843, Richard began to suffer from delusions – that there were people trying to harm him, perhaps that he could see the devil in human forms. Many of those who had known him were worried by his unusual behaviour after his return to London, and his father consulted a psychiatrist at St Luke’s – Alexander Sutherland – who recommended hospitalisation. Possibly in response to this suggestion, Richard carefully planned a knife attack on his father, which succeeded in killing him. Richard was soon afterwards arrested and eventually sent to Bethlem Hospital in Lambeth. Later Dadd explained that the killing had been required of him by the Ancient Egyptian god of the dead, Osiris, and that although Richard approved of the destruction of the imposter who claimed to be his father, he was in effect only an instrument in the hands of the deity. It was a fantastic delusion, but one in keeping with Richard’s larger set of beliefs about the continuing truth and relevance of the philosophies of ancient cultures.

AoP: What do we know about how he was as a patient?

With regard to his time at Bethlem (1844-64) – not a lot. There are really only two entries in his casenotes, and the first of these dates from as late as 1854. This entry describes how violent Dadd was considered when first admitted, and how he would suddenly strike another patient without provocation (and then immediately apologise). The formal designation of ‘dangerous’ was applied to Dadd even during the last years of his time at Bethlem. I infer from the lack of detail in the notes, however, that he was by and large not an especially troublesome patient – not one who required strategies to manage. That he painted ambitious pictures for the two senior managers of Bethlem – paintings which he worked on for years – suggests some kind of relationship between patient and staff, although certainly not an uncomplicatedly collaborative one.

AoP: Why was he transferred to Broadmoor?

Dadd was admitted to Bethlem as a Criminal Lunatic – someone too unwell to be punished for a crime, or (from the 1840s) one too unwell to stand trial at all. This meant being placed in a special wing of the hospital in very cramped, minimally furnished, high-security conditions. It was obvious to the authorities that something needed to be done with this novel legal category of prisoner/patient, and a dedicated new hospital was made possible by an Act of Parliament in the early 1860s. This was to be Broadmoor near Reading, to which Dadd was transferred along with his fellow male Criminal Lunatics, in 1864, and where he died and is buried. There were those – among them the Superintendent of Bethlem – who feared that gathering together these cases out in the countryside would produce “a bastile of lunacy”, feared and resented by the public. These critics were to be proved at least partly right, but for Dadd the change brought improvements. By any common-sense criteria of well-being, his life got better: he was able to see more, to move about more; he took an interest in cricket and chess; and the range of media in which he himself worked expanded.

AoP: How has Dadd’s legacy been regarded after his death?

Dadd’s meticulous watercolours never entirely went off the radar of the art market. Collectors were able to buy them as they left Bethlem and Broadmoor by one route or another. The V&A and the British Museum both acquired watercolours by Dadd while he was still living at Broadmoor. But after his death there were really only a series of false starts when it came to retrieving his biography and reconstructing his oeuvre. Various people had a go, but there was just too little to go on. Things changed only in the 1960s when the Fairy Feller arrived at the Tate and when Bethlem acquired a dynamic and imaginative archivist who was in a position to become Dadd’s first proper biographer. This all coincided of course with the passionate debates generated by the so-called anti-psychiatry movement, and Dadd – in the guise of heroic ‘survivor’ of the Victorian asylum – seemed suddenly of acute cultural significance. Interest in him has calmed down since. As I say in the preface to my own book on Dadd, I have not tried to resurrect him as a hero of any kind: I have tried to understand him as a wonderful artist – one of the most exciting of the Victorian age in my opinion – who happened to spend his career in unusual circumstances.

AoP: Despite his situation, Dadd’s pictures seem untouched by the content of his delusion and he never addressed asylum life in paint.  Can you reflect on this?”

Well, “sane” Victorian artists rarely painted the streets on which they lived, or pictures which sought to sum up their philosophies of history. They were typically more interested in the same kinds of things on which Dadd remained fixed, that is, the topography of exotic places filtered through the memory, portraits, and illustrations to literature. Dadd had never been a Realist — on the contrary he was from the start of his career a painter of poetic imagination. And in any case, one reason for spending so much time thinking back, visually, over his time abroad in the early 1840s must surely have been a need to escape from the very limited environment in which he had to live.

AoP: And where can interested people see Dadd’s stuff?  

NT: Not a lot of oil paintings in public collections (the watercolours can only be shown periodically of course because of their vulnerability to light).

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery have Dadd’s wonderful portrait of Dr. Alexander Morison:

Tate Britain Dadd collection

And just last year, the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston acquired the early fairy subject Puck which had been in a Preston collection in the nineteenth century

The best place to head is however Bethlem Hospital itself where a substantial number of Dadd’s works can be seen in a context which helps make sense of them.

A small collection of Richard Dadd’s paintings is being exhibited Feb – April 2012 in the Bethlem Hospital museum – details.


Richard Dadd: The artist and the asylum on

This clip of a Richard Dadd painting being discovered on Antiques Roadshow is worth a watch (starts at 4:24)

Tate channel: Richard Dadd the artist and the asylum


Richard Dadd: Masterpieces of the asylum Independent 2011

Richard Dadd: Madness and Beauty Telegraph 2008

Review of Artist and the asylum:
Guardian A S Byatt September 2011
Telegraph Nicholas Shakespeare July 2011



1 Comment so far
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Just read, blog about Richard Dadd, an artist I have been interested in for several years, (for obvious reasons really), I will have to get a copy of “The Artist and the Asylum”, I personly have spent many years in institutions, where art can be a lot of thinks to a person !
I offer this link, again, I think for obvious reasons !
Given the subject of this site, I hope of some interest,

Comment by paul

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