Tate Etc

Away with the fairies Richard Dadd

The Victorian artist is best known for two things: murdering his father, and painting The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke while incarcerated in Bethlem Hospital. However, less is known about his later years spent in Broadmoor, where he continued to paint extraordinary, imaginative pictures, as the author of a new book on Dadd reveals

Richard Dadd was a Victorian painter, but he somehow seems to belong more to the 1960s and 1970s than to the nineteenth century. A victim of a schizophrenic-type illness, he killed his father in 1843 and spent the rest of his life in lunatic asylums – first at the charitable Bethlem Hospital in Lambeth (now the Imperial War Museum) and then as one of the first patients at the new Broadmoor State Criminal Lunatic Asylum outside the village of Crowthorne, near Wokingham, to the west of London.

Dadd was little remembered after his death in 1886 until the British asylum system foundered in the 1960s, when figures as diverse as Enoch Powell, then Minister for Health, and the anti-psychiatry guru R.D. Laing declared war on what was now perceived as an abusive Victorian institution. He began to appear as a kind of counter-cultural ancestor, a heroic talent whose imagination was never eclipsed by his decades of enforced seclusion. Articles with painfully punning titles appeared around 1970 in the New Statesman (“Turn me on, Dadd”) and the notorious Oz magazine (“The Daddy of Them All”), and the painter seemed ripe for adoption by a radical generation of art historians looking for something edgy with which to counter the sickly sweet Pre-Raphaelitism then again becoming fashionable.

But Dadd as an art historical figure found himself just as constrained by the asylum as he had been during his lifetime, for it was only through the archives of Bethlem and Broadmoor that his story would ever be fully told, and those hospitals were of course in the habit of being very sensitive in their management of the medical records of very sick and vulnerable people. Eventually, in 1974, Tate succeeded in mounting a full-scale Dadd exhibition, thanks to the efforts of Bethlem’s archivist Patricia Allderidge. Her carefully researched catalogue remains the major landmark in the study of the artist, although its sober, documentary approach seemed to put the lid on the possibility of arranging an intellectual marriage between Dadd and the French philosophers of madness – Michel Foucault, whose rewriting of the history of asylum had been one of the foundational texts of the anti-psychiatry movement, and Deleuze and Guattari, in whose Capitalism and Schizophrenia “the schizo” was poetically imagined as a free spirit liberated from the tyrannies of both society and the self. Arguably, ever since the 1970s, the study of Dadd has been stuck in a stalemate between theory and the archive.

A new opportunity to unlock this position has recently been provided by the transferral of the Broadmoor archive from the hospital to the Berkshire Record Office, where much of it can now be consulted by the public. The material relating to Dadd reveals a different relationship between the patient and his doctors at Broadmoor in comparison with the artist’s experience at Bethlem.

At Bethlem, there seems to have been an intense interest in Dadd on the part of at least a couple of the physicians, Alexander Morison and Charles Hood, who both acquired substantial collections of his work. Dadd was, however, persistently designated as “dangerous”, and no indication was given that the artist was likely to improve in his mental condition, which involved delusions centring on the unchanging truth of the myths and legends of the ancient world (he had seen the killing of his supposed father as a sacrifice to the Egyptian god Osiris).

At Broadmoor, Dadd’s management was more relaxed. In an institution where murderous attacks on the staff were an occupational hazard, he was perceived as relatively placid and trustworthy. He was commissioned to decorate the stage in the recreation hall, he painted images on objects around the asylum such as fire buckets, and he was even allowed knives with which to practise carpentry (it seems he carved some of his own picture frames). In the twentieth century Broadmoor replaced Bethlem (Bedlam) as the mythic focus for Britain’s dark fantasies of madness. But for Dadd, at least, it allowed the opportunity to spend the last two decades of his life in a comparatively peaceful state, reflecting at leisure upon his own past and the place of his own times in the larger, essentially unchanging, course of history.

When he was transferred to Broadmoor from Bethlem in 1864, Dadd had just finished what is now his most famous painting, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke 1855–64. Among the first things he did at Broadmoor, perhaps to ensure continuity in his work, was to make a watercolour replica of the picture and to write out, in a sort of verse, an explanation (he called it an “Elimination”) of its complex subject matter. And then he more or less entirely left behind his earlier fairy iconography. Instead, his focus was typically on the landscapes he had travelled through in 1842–3, when he had accompanied a gentleman tourist on a fast-paced journey around Europe and the eastern Mediterranean.

He also looked back, it seems, to his boyhood, when as a pupil at grammar school in Rochester he would have been drilled in the classics. In the Broadmoor archive are the records of some of the purchases Dadd was able to make via the asylum staff. These included Greek, Latin and religious texts – he was perhaps the only Victorian painter who we can say for certain studied the Qur’an. Something of schoolboy memories is also suggested by his other major category of purchase: very large quantities of sweets. When we recall that among Dadd’s neighbours in his block was the etymologist William Minor, busy excavating obscure early usages of rare words to be transmitted to the editors of the first Oxford English Dictionary, his environment risks appearing to the imagination more like the swotty corner of a sixth-form common room than a secure hospital.

Dadd’s last surviving major painting, Wandering Musicians c.1878, shows a classical landscape in which a young family have paused, as if to have their picture taken, within the ruins of a temple. Into the stone blocks in the foreground are carved the names of four early Greek poets: Theocritus, Bion, Moschus and Tyrtaeus. The first three were bucolic poets of rustic myth. The presence of Tyrtaeus, composer of austere Spartan military verse, must be explained by Dadd having a copy of the 1853 book in which the work of all four poets was translated by James Banks, headmaster of Ludlow Grammar School.

The man in the painting looks something like a self-portrait, although who his imagined companions are is hard to say. Entirely static within the ruins of ancient culture, they appear to pose with resignation for their portraits. There’s a gentle sadness about the image, far away from the extravagant imagination of The Fairy Feller. When Dadd painted that picture he was still  considered “dangerous”. But when he died at Broadmoor a few years after completing Wandering Musicians, his condition was noted as having been “melancholia, with delusions”.