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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Richard Dadd

Come Unto These Yellow Sands, 1842, Richard Dadd
Portrait of the Artist, 1841, Richard Dadd
Quite a number of us over the age of sixty wouldn't be alive today without the "miracles" of modern medical advancements made just within our own lifetimes. I have a tiny metal stint in my heart that keeps a vital artery open and, along with a whole fistful of pills, keeps me alive and well and living to tell about it. Nowhere have the miracles of modern medicine been more "miraculous" than in the area of mental health. Have you ever heard of "bedlam?" The term comes from the abbreviated name of Bethlem Royal Hospital in London, the first medical facility in the world to seriously treat mental illness as something more scientific than "demon possession." Though founded as early as 1330, it wasn't until the 19th century that the institution became a virtual synonym for uproarious insanity. That was about the time the British artist and illustrator, Richard Dadd spent the final forty-two years of his life living and painting behind its locked gates.

Titania Sleeping, 1841, Richard Dadd--before insanity ensued.
Richard Dadd was born in 1817, two years before the queen, for whom was named the era in which he lived, worked, and struggled with congenital madness. He was born in Chatham, Kent, the son of a chemist. Young Richard was something of a child prodigy, admitted to the Royal Academy at the age of twenty and receiving a medal for drawing just three years later. He was the leading talent in a group of four artists including William Powell Frith, Augustus Egg, and Henry O'Neil calling themselves "The Clique." He painted the supernatural with infinite, almost surreal detail, which made him a favorite as an illustrator for the literary works that were quite popular at the time. His Come Unto These Yellow Sands (top), from 1842, is based upon a scene from Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Sir Thomas Phillips in Eastern Costume, Reclining, 1842, Richard Dadd
The exceptional talent with watercolors brought Dadd to the attention of the former mayor of Newport, Sir Thomas Phillips, who was planning an extensive tourist jaunt through Europe and around the Mediterranean. Richard Dadd would be his "camera." The group started in southern and eastern Europe moving down to Venice and Athens, then made its way through Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and finally Egypt. Richard Dadd "took" pictures, painting his watercolor images during whatever moments he was not on the back of a camel, the principal mode of transportation at the time. As any hired artist would do on such a trip, the Dadd painted quite a number of images of Sir Thomas (above), often in Arabic dress, enjoying the "luxuries" of the Middle East.

Caravan Halted by the Sea Shore, 1842, Richard Dadd
--typical of his illustrations for Sir Thomas Phillips' grand tour.
Such a "grand tour," even today, would be something of an exhausting experience. In 1842, it was little short of devastating, especially for a working artist. Dadd began acting strangely while on a boat trip down the Nile. At first his patron chalked it up to heat stroke (a reasonable possibility, in sunny Egypt). As the group made it to Rome, Dadd was suffering paranoid delusion of being commanded by the Egyptian sun god, Osiris, to do battle with the devil. In Rome he was beset by the uncontrollable urge to attack the Pope. No longer able to blame Dadd's behavior on the sun (or its god), Phillips accompanied him to Paris where he was handed over to family and friends, who took him back to England and a period of "rest and recuperation." Today, Richard Dadd would have been diagnosed as manic depressive or bipolar. Two of the artist's brothers displayed similar, though less severe, tendencies.

Study of Eastern Heads and Figures, 1842, Richard Dadd
Fairy_Feller's Masterstroke, 1855-64
Richard Dadd.
Later, in the spring of 1843, convinced his father was the devil, Richard Dadd stabbed and killed him, then fled to France where, en route, he attempted to kill a fellow tourist with a razor. Apprehended by French authorities, Dadd was sent back to England where he was incarcerated in the criminal department of Bethlem Psychiatric Hospital for the next twenty years before being moved to a newer facility (Broadmoor) in 1863. Though he remained locked away under psychiatric care for the rest of his life, Richard Dadd continued to paint, his art considered by his doctors to be therapeutic. Indeed, works from this period are now considered by critics to be among his best, including his most well-known masterpiece The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke (left), painted between the years 1855 and 1864. The work now hangs in London's Tate Gallery. During this same period, he also created Contradiction, Oberon and Titania (below), as well as numerous portraits of his doctors and fellow inmates (bottom). He died at Broadmoor in 1886 at the age of sixty-five.

Contradiction, Oberon and Titania, 1854-58, Richard Dadd

Crazy Jane (detail), 1885, Richard Dadd, painted shortly before his death.


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