Last week I took you on a filmic tour of the Watercolour show. This week we continue our artists’ and writers’ responses to specific works in the exhibition.
Co-editor of frieze magazine and author of a novel inspired by the life of Richard Dadd, Jennifer Higgie writes about Dadd’s enigmatic work The Child’s Problem 1857. What problem? Surely the title isn’t simply an allusion to a position on the chessboard considered easy enough to have been set by a child?
The clues are as faint as old blood. There’s something ominous in this comfortable room - and not just in the boy’s dreadful eyes, or the possibility that, with his hand hovering over a chess piece, he is cheating. A knife lies at the centre of the watercolour - it’s painted, we must remember, by an artist who stabbed his father to death. (Is this the child’s problem?) There are three women here: an old one, asleep, while a younger one, trapped in stone, floats above her like a spectre. On the wall is a picture of a naked woman, her arms raised in supplication, which was used as a poster for the anti-slavery movement.
It is reproduced here by an artist who was incarcerated for a crime for which he refused to accept guilt. (If the god Osiris tells you to do something, surely, Dadd reasoned, you must obey him.) Another kind of freedom is hinted at in the picture of the ship in full sail on the wall; it’s on its way to adventures now denied to an artist whose childhood was spent among the shipbuilders of Chatham and whose final, tragic adventure was precipitated by a long voyage. What is the child’s problem? Something is decidedly wrong; his eyes stare wildly, yet the women who surround him look away.
Jennifer Higgie is co-editor of frieze magazine and author of Bedlam, a novel inspired by a year in the life of Richard Dadd, published by Sternberg Press.