This is the last oil painting produced by Richard Dadd. It is an unusual work for the artist being neither a work of fantasy nor a direct transcription of nature. The picture shows a group of musicians standing in a landscape among classical ruins, and the
architectural details were probably based on memories and sketches made by the artist in 1842 on a trip to Greece and the Middle East with his patron, Sir Thomas Phillips. It was on the return from this journey that Dadd became disturbed with delusions of evil spirits and, in August 1843, murdered his father. For this he was imprisoned as a criminal lunatic, spending the rest of his life at Bethlem and later Broadmoor Hospitals.
The open landscape in Wandering Musicians is an unusual feature in the paintings Dadd made after his imprisonment and was probably based on open views seen from the back of the terrace at Broadmoor. The figures of the musicians with their blank gazes may also have been based on studies of inmates, while the instruments were probably observed from objects owned by Dadd who was known to be a keen musician. It has been suggested that the theme of the picture derives from one of the Idylls of the pastoral poet Theocritus whose name appears alongside those of Bion, Moschus and Tyrtaeus on the broken frieze in the foreground (Allderidge, p. 136). Dadd’s friend and fellow inmate W.C. Minor (a key contributor to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary) owned a copy of Theocritus’s poems in English, so it is likely that Dadd had access to this text. Theocritus’s Seventh Idyll specifically describes a shepherd on the island of Kos, which Dadd passed near to on his travels of 1842, and it is possible that he sympathised with the poet’s longing for the peace and simplicity of the Arcadian countryside.
Dadd rarely used oil paint after 1862 and the pale tonality is rare in this medium.
There also exists a watercolour version of the painting entitled Italian Rustic Musicians (1878, private collection). This is likely to be a copy by Dadd of the oil as the watercolour stops short before the bottom of the paper, and the signature and the date are written on the blank margin below the image. Dadd’s normal practice was to fill the whole sheet to the edges, and write the inscription on the picture itself. In this case there does not seem to be any particular reason for cutting off the painting, unless that was where the copying stopped.
Patricia Allderidge, The Late Richard Dadd 1817-1886, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1974.
Sally Burgess and Peter Nahum, Medieval to Modern, catalogue, Peter Nahum at the Leicester Galleries, 2003, pp 28-29.