Richard Dadd: Masterpieces of the asylum

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Richard Dadd's art flourished during his years incarcerated in bleak Victorian institutions for the murder of his father. Arifa Akbar reports

The artist Richard Dadd seemed destined for greatness when he took a life-changing tour across the Middle-East at the age of 25: he had been admitted to the Royal Academy at the precocious age of 20 and was a leading light of The Clique, a Victorian circle of ambitious young painters.

So when he started behaving erratically in the last leg of the 10-month trip, his increasingly bizarre behaviour and the outlandish assertion that he was acting under the influence of the Egyptian god Osiris was dismissed as an acute case of sunstroke.

We now know it was the start of delusional episodes and psychotic behaviour that culminated in murder on 29 August 1843, when he lured his father, Robert Dadd, to a park in Kent, and stabbed him to death. He fled by boat to France, in such a confused and manic state that he later said he was on his way to assassinate Ferdinand I, Emperor of Austria.

He was arrested after attacking a French passenger with a razor and brought back to England. It was this troubled night, on 30 August 1843, that was to be his last as a free man. He spent the rest of his years incarcerated, until his death in 1886. Yet he was to become a great and influential painter while held in Britain's notorious psychiatric prison, Bethlem (commonly referred to by its nickname of Bedlam), and later being transferred to the newly built Broadmoor in 1864.

Dadd's life is now being revisited with a book, a play and an exhibition. Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum, by Nicholas Tromans, examines his hospital case notes, recently released and hitherto unpublished. The notes record his relationship with his psychiatrists (some which bordered on friendship), the role these doctors played in his artistic life and the changing nature of his psychiatric condition. It is the first comprehensive, illustrated biography since the Tate Gallery's 1974 exhibition catalogue and it looks at the life of an artist who was painting surrealist imagery and alternative worlds, including dream figures, fairy creatures and demons.

And tonight at London's Finborough theatre, Steve Hennessy's play The Demon Box will dramatise Dadd's life-changing trip to Egypt, where his delusions became grander and more baroque, the murderof his father and his artistic life in prison. This contemporary reassessment – which positions Dadd as a significant artist in the cannon – runs counter to the sentiments of the Academy during his lifetime.

Popular regard for his art then was largely eclipsed by his "madness" in an age when schizophrenia had not been identified and before strides made within psychiatry to de-stigmatise mental illness. More than a century after his death, he is acknowledged as an important British artist whose work hangs in the British Museum and the V&A.

Dadd's subject matter did not fit tidily into an art movement, neither in his day nor in the decades after his death: often featuring fantastical, quasi-human creatures from fairyland, it was dismissed as arcane or escapist. It was only in the 1960s when the academy began its reappraisal that he was acknowledged as a surprisingly contemporary and inspirational painter. Artists paid homage, the writerAngela Carter drew out his work's eroticism in a radio play, Come Unto These Yellow Sands, featuring skimpily dressed fairies, and the rock band Queen wrote a song, The Fairy Feller, based on his most famous painting.

Tromans says Dadd's prison case notes reveal that his jailers became his only audience and acted as patrons, encouraging him to continue producing artworks. Such was their trust in him that he was allowed to handle knives at Broadmoor, despite his violent history, and given his own studio. In his final years there, he was commissioned to decorate stage scenery and murals for the entertainment hall.

Dadd was born in Chatham, Kent, in 1817one of seven children, and was raised by his chemist father after his mother died. Dadd's talent for art was clear as a child and before he was even in his twenties, he became a key member of the Clique, artists who would later become the stars of Victorian genre painting, including William Powell Frith and John Phillips.

His tour across Europe, Egypt and the Arab countries west of Iraq, aligned him to an Orientalist movement. It was towards the end of this trip, when he was travelling through Rome and Naples, that his colleague noticed personality changes. He began talking about religion with an outspoken fervour, turning against Christianity and claiming he was being watched by someone attempting to injure his health. His reason for killing his father would be based on this fascination with religion and he would tell his doctors that he was instructed to kill by ancient deities.

His Bethlem case notes record that he gorged himself until he vomited and then returned to the meal; and "for some years after his admission, he was considered a violent and dangerous patient, for he would jump up and strike a violent blow without any aggravation, and then beg pardon for the deed". Today, medical experts might recognise Dadd's illness as a textbook case of schizophrenia – only identified in the 20th century – and he was given the obscure and generalised label of"insanity" by doctors.

Yet despite his condition, he continued to paint with vigour. It was in Bethlem that many of his masterpieces were created, including the celebrated The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke, which he worked on between 1855 and 1864, just before being moved to Broadmoor. Also dating from the 1850s are the 33 emotive watercolour drawings entitled Grief or Sorrow, Love and Jealousy, as well as Agony-Raving Madness and Murder.

Thirty years after he killed his father, Dadd, now moved to Broadmoor, spoke to his physician about the murder in a mood that was unregretful, describing the scene with a baroque theatricality, as if the death had been perfectly executed even though it was known from his original confession it was a messy, prolonged business – he had attempted to slit his father's throat and when that had not killed him, stabbed him in the chest.

His doctor noted: "He said he was impelled to kill his father ('If he was his father', he said) by a feeling that some such sacrifice was demanded by the gods and spirits above. He said that they were walking side by side in Cobham Park when Richard suddenly sprang upon his father and stabbed him in the left side. When his father fell, Dadd thus apostrophised the starry bodies, 'Go,' said he, 'and tell the great god Osiris that I have done the deed which is to set him free'."

What his doctor also noted with some surprise was that Dadd's artworks were expertly executed and bore no reflection of "insanity". Dadd did not make art explicitly about his illness norreflect his asylum homes in his subject matter. Mr Tromans writes: "This should not really surprise us, as Dadd did not consider himself to be ill, and in any case we know that Dadd believed picture-making, like all human activity, to be at least partly directed by spirits."

The psychiatric link between art and madness had been identified by Victorian doctors before Dadd's admission to Bethlem (in fact, JMW Turner's mother had been admitted there before Dadd and they shared the same doctor). Yet this separation of identities between Dadd the "raving madman" and Dadd the artist left the medics confounded. It also left them impressed, particularly one – Charles Hood – who became an avid collector, coming to own at least 33 of Dadd's works.

Case notes from Broadmoor show that he produced not only great canvases but also made art for the prison walls and surroundings: he painted royal arms on the prison's fire buckets, designed Christmas decorations and, in 1872, began an ambitious project to decorate the prison's stage in the central hall which was used for entertainment.

He was given the block nearest the hall's stage as a makeshift studio and designed and painted a drop-curtain (for which a preparatory sketch survives at the V&A) as well as decorative paintings for the front of the low stage and other mural decorations.

Towards the end of his life, Dadd's notes show that his violent interludes had all but ebbed away, though his delusional episodes remained. Developing an interest in woodwork – he began decorating chairs for Wellington College, the boys' private school next to Broadmoor, and he was given a knife to use for carving.

In the 1870s, Dadd read religious texts avidly including the Koran and the Talmud and was encouraged to work on creating his last two masterpieces about the classic story of Atlanta. By now, he had prematurely aged with little exercise and poor nutrition. He grew a flowing white beard that made him appear far older than his years. He was quiet and uncomplai ning yet undoubtedly tortured, having slowed down in his artistic output through failing health, and consorting very little with the other patients, or only with the most "weak-minded". Dadd's was a small, sad, isolated life, spent in the confines of prison cells. Yet within this drab, punitive environment, he was able to harness a magnificent, other-worldly imagination that lives on in his canvases today.

'The Demon Box' will be staged at the Finborough Theatre, London SW10 (020 7244 7439) to 1 October. 'Richard Dadd: the Artist and the Asylum' by Nicholas Tromans is published by Tate Publishing. An exhibition of Richard Dadd's work from the Bethlem Royal Hospital Collection runs at the Orleans House Gallery, Twickenham (020 8831 6000) to 2 October

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