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.

Richard Dadd, 'The Child's Problem' 1857

Richard Dadd
The Child's Problem 1857
Watercolour and drawing on paper
support: 171 x 254 mm
Presented by Dr R.C. Neville 1954

View the main page for this artwork

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.

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Richard Dadd at Orleans House Gallery

This exhibition explores the life and work of one of the most fascinating Victorian visionaries - Richard Dadd (1817-1886).

Works from the Bethlem Art and History Collections Trust, West London Mental Health NHS Trust and private collections are brought together to chart Dadd's early career, travels to Europe and the Middle East, mental illness and work created while at Bethlem and Broadmoor Hospitals.

Dr. Nicholas Tormans author of Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum published this July states:

"Richard Dadd was one of the great Victorian painters, but spent his career in psychiatric hospitals, or as they were then known, lunatic asylums. An artist of extraordinary imagination from a young age, he was a specialist in fairy subjects before a tour of the Middle East triggered the onset of a mental illness that led him to kill his father. At Bethlem Hospital and then at Broadmoor, Dadd continued to work as an artist, creating haunting images combining bold imaginative leaps with the most delicate of miniaturist's techniques. His art today presents both a beautiful mystery and a fascinating case study in the history of psychiatry.”

To complement the exhibition, young people with disabilities who attend the Orleans House Gallery's regular Octagon group have worked with artist Ashley Davies to create a collaborative work inspired by Dadd's famous fairy paintings. This project has been generously supported by the Double O Charity.

Exhibition runs from 28 May - 2 October 2011
Orleans House Gallery, Riverside, Twickenham, TWE1 3DJ

Free admission
Gallery open Tuesdays- Saturdays 1.00-5.30pm, Sundays 2.00-5,30pm
Tel: 020 8831 6000
Email: artsinfo@richmond.gov.uk
Website: www.richmond.gov.uk/arts