‘Go’ said he, ‘and tell the great god Osiris that I have done the deed which is to set him free’
The nightmarish events of Richard Dadd’s life overshadow any formal reading of his work – his most famous painting was completed in Bethlem psychiatric hospital (Bedlam) in 1864, twenty years after his incarceration.
The younger Richard was educated at the Royal Academy in London town. There he led a radical group known as the Clique, who rejected the Academy’s classical ideals – favouring a new art judged by the people.
The Clique produced work on planned subjects and had non-artists critique the results. Their avant spirit continued after the dissolution of the group when many of the artists scorned the Pre-Raphaelites, branding them primitivist and backward-looking.
‘….On my return from travel, I was roused to a consideration of subjects which I had previously never dreamed of’
It was towards the end of Dadd’s epic grand tour of Europe and the Middle East that his delusions began. On the Nile in the winter of 1842 he proclaimed his alliance with Osiris. His erratic behaviour and increased religious fervour was attributed to sunstroke.
He murdered his father near a Kent chalk pit the following year. Dadd later recalled the murder like a perfectly staged scene – but the reality was a messy, protracted affair involving knife and razor.
The painter was arrested in France with a list of people ‘who must die’ on his person. He later claimed to be en route to assassinate Ferdinand I, Emperor of Austria. Sketches of friends and associates with their throats slashed were discovered in his London rooms, the kitchen revealed a yellow diet of eggs and ale.
After a decade in Bedlam (where he shared a doctor with JMW Turner’s mother), the warden commissioned Dadd to paint a fashionable ‘fairy painting’. It took the artist nine years to not finish.
The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke is a Victorian masterpiece – less than two feet tall, the work is heavily layered with paint and crowded with Boschian figures.
Time is frozen at the moment before the masterstroke. The Feller is tasked with halving a hazelnut to build a new carriage for Queen Maab.
Shakespeare’s Titiana and Oberion are present but the rest of the ensemble stem from Dadd’s fevered imagination.
He dubbed the figure with the wide-brimmed hat the Patriarch. The Patriarch appears to have some kind of influence over the Feller, so may well evoke old Osiris rather than Dadd senior.
The bald squatting individual is likely to be a self-portrait, as the artist aged prematurely and grew a flowing white beard. The work reveals itself over multiple viewings – suggestion of a face is apparent at the centre with the two distorted heads as the eyes.
Paranoid Schizophrenia afflicted Dadd and three of his siblings, although mercury poisoning may have been a contributing factor. His image of the influential psychiatrist Sir Alexander Morison (the landscape was painted from a photograph) mirrors his earlier Portrait of a Young Man. Dadd continued to paint in relative isolation in Broadmoor criminal lunatic asylum, where he died from a disease of the lungs in 1886.
Portrait of a Young Man, 1853, Courtesy Tate, Bequeathed by Ian L. Phillips 1984, accessioned 1992.
The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, 1855-64, Courtesy Tate, Presented by Siegfried Sassoon in memory of his friend and fellow officer Julian Dadd, a great-nephew of the artists, and of his two brothers who gave their lives in the First World War 1963.
Sir Alexander Morison, 1852, Courtesy National Gallery of Scotland.
-Timothy J. Holland