It’s often said that there’s a fine dividing line between genius and madness, especially in the arts – and no one is a better example of this than Richard Dadd.
Born in 1817, Dadd began to suffer from mental illness in his twenties. He stabbed his father to death in 1843, believing he had been instructed to do so, and was committed to Bethlem Hospital in Lambeth, London, in 1844. Bethlem, originally Bethlehem, became Bedlam.
In 1864 he was transferred to the newly opened Broadmoor hospital for the criminally insane, where he remained until his death in 1886. And in both institutions Richard Dadd painted – astonishingly complex, beautiful, imaginative paintings illustrating fantastical characters and scenes from Shakespeare.
The Art of Bedlam exhibition at the Watts Gallery near Guildford is small, but includes two of Dadd’s most famous paintings, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke and Contradiction: Oberon and Titania.
Dadd worked on the first, which has inspired creative artists from the poet Siegfried Sassoon to the Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, for nine years. Its central scene is of a man raising an axe to split open a hazelnut, from which to make a new carriage for Mab, queen of the fairies.
Contradiction illustrates a disagreement between the king and queen of the fairies, which causes upset to swirl through the fairy world. Both works are simply amazing in their wealth of tiny detail. The gallery has thoughtfully provided video-scan enlargements of both paintings, but it would be worth taking a magnifying glass.
Other highlights include a baby Puck sitting on what might be a mushroom or a chalice, surrounded by naked dancers in a fairy ring. This is an early painting, showing that Dadd’s fascination with fairies began when he was young. This is an early painting, showing that Dadd’s fascination with fairies began when he was young.
Very different in style, Halt in the Desert is a scene from Dadd’s travels in the East before his incarceration. Beautifully moody, it shows a group of travellers sitting around a campfire at night, on the shore of the Dead Sea, under a wonderfully real sky.
Dadd is known almost exclusively for his fairy paintings, but he was also a fine portrait artist, both of conventional and unconventional figures. The exhibition includes seven of 32 watercolours he did of Sketches to Illustrate the Passions, illustrating negative or harmful emotions or characteristics that might lead someone to become unhappy or mentally ill.
They include Hatred, Agony – Raving Madness, Insignificance or Self-Contempt and Grief or Sorrow.
The painting Patriotism shows two soldiers poring over a map covered in tiny writing – again, a magnifying glass would be useful. One of the places on the map is labelled “Lunatic Asylum called Lostwithal” – a place Dadd knew well. And from that asylum came works of wonder.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (17/7/15). Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!