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Of all the prominent English artists who came to international attention during the reign of Queen Victoria, Richard Dadd was definitely is in a class by himself. Still, it was the brutal murder he committed that really made him memorable.
Born in 1817, as the fourth of seven children, Dadd showed early promise as an artist and began sketching at an early age. After his family moved to London, he entered the Royal Academy of Arts at the age of twenty. Along with other artists with whom he studied, Dadd formed an important group that became known as the Clique although he remained the foremost artist among them. Their meetings throughout the 1830s and into the 1840s inspired a new style of painting that rejected academic high art and favoured more personal art that they felt should be judged by the public rather than academics.
Given Dadd's developing prominence in the art world, it was only natural that he was chosen to go with his patron, Sir Thomas Phillips, as a draftsman on a planned expedition through Greece, Turkey and Egypt. The expedition that began in 1842 was seen as an excellent opportunity for Dadd to expand his artistic horizons. Absolutely nobody could have foreseen the profound change that would come on him over the course of the journey. There were gruelling hardships along the way but the alteration in Dadd's personality as they traveled up the Nile by boat caught everyone by surprise. He became increasingly violent towards the other expedition members and developed delusions that he was under the influence of the Egyptian god, Osiris.
Dadd left his patron and returned to England in 1843 but he did not show notable improvement. His writings during this time suggested that he was hearing voices calling on him to do battle with the Devil in various forms. A prominent alienist (psychiatrist) assessed him at the request of his family and declared Dadd to be "non compos mentis" but he was not hospitalized. It remains unclear why Dadd began to fixate on his father as being the Devil in disguise but, on August 28 of that year, while they were both traveling to Cobham, Kent, he murdered and dismembered his father with a knife and razor and then fled the country. At his brother's suggestion, police searched Dadd's rooms in London where they found sketches of other friends and acquaintances, each with a slashed throat.
After unsuccessfully attempting to kill another tourist with a razor, Richard was arrested by French police and confessed to killing his father. When he was searched, a list of names was found of people who "must die" including his father. Upon being returned to England, he was found guilty and committed to Bethlem Royal Hospital (more commonly known as Bedlam). The actual diagnosis is open to question with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder being the most likely candidates (some of his other siblings also developed psychiatric problems).
Dadd would spend the rest of his life as a psychiatric patient but, ironically, it was during his time in hospital that he produced his most famous artwork. Although the idea of art therapy was still unknown, he was given access to paints and canvasses and produced a series of paintings that were individual and unique. He became known as a artist of "fairy lore", although he chose numerous themes for his paintings (all from memory, he had no models). His most famous painting, The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke, was commissioned by the head steward at Bethlem and took nine years to complete. It still hangs in the Tate Gallery and needs to be displayed with special lighting to show the full three-dimensional quality of the painting.
In 1864, Dadd was moved to Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital where he spent the rest of his life. Until his death from lung disease in 1886, he painted regularly with only infrequent visitors to interrupt him. News of the "mad painter" and his paintings generated considerable interest and there were numerous showings of his artwork during his lifetime.
Even after his death in 1886, Richard Dadd continued to attract a cult following and his work has been the subject of countless showings and retrospectives. His works are also on display at galleries around the world. Visitors to Bethlem Royal Hospital where Dadd spent most of his life can still see many of his works there. The Bethlem Gallery continues to maintain one of the most extensive collections of art on the theme of mental illness and includes works by Dadd and numerous other historical and contemporary artists. Check out their online gallery and plan a visit if your're ever in that part of Great Britain It's an ongoing monument to human creativity and a fitting memorial for a truly great artist.
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