Sympathy for the Artist -
Richard Dadd (words)
Richard Neal
Images discussed can be viewed here

The case of the mid-to-late nineteenth century painter Richard Dadd, currently exhibited at the Watts Gallery in Surrey, England, is so freighted with loaded particulars, biographical and painterly, that one may lose sight of what is ultimately important. It is the easiest of matters to spend time on what are really secondary questions, which are deliberately thrown up in this show. At what point does mental disorder intrude on how we view the artist and his work? How can the role of artist compete with that of criminal, patient, madman? How, and actually why, is work made from within perceived mental, perhaps spiritual, and certainly institutional incarceration, and what does this have to say about our view of such institutions?

But this is all to be distracted from Dadd’s painting, which, far from requiring any special sensational or scandalous framing to justify interest, is supreme, one of the great achievements in English, or any other, art. So, first, the work.

The masterpiece – without which, it is fair to say, my preceding claim could not be quite so bold – is The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke. It’s an astonishing picture, one of extremes in form and content, which makes radical virtues out of means that, in lesser hands, can be superfluous at best, detrimental at worst. The painting is more than a little difficult to describe, so teeming is it on every level. Analogously to his life and his work, the fairies may get in the way of seeing the picture’s real qualities. The formal skeleton shall come in this case perversely first, then. 

Our, the viewer’s, position is not quite the contemplative perspective of the traditional Western gaze, the painting is too vertically stacked, too frontal, and the space too strange. A ream of figures rise up the image, paying no attention to perspectival scale, some (considerably) smaller than others. There is no foreshortening to coincide with a foreground, indeed foreground and background are not fully relevant terms. Tone and hue refuse to recess into aerial perspective as well, and, though there is a strong, bright light source casting clear shadow, it is even and flat. Anything that could be expected to recede, such as the rocks upper left, sits right on the surface of the painting, both pictorially and literally, with the paint almost moulded. There is no mystery in the light in terms of shadowy depth, and the obscuring half-light of many a fantastical work is fervently eschewed. The finely balanced hues, on the contrary, seem to emit an even light, something entirely lost when not viewing the original.

But mystery does enter into the image. Not mysticism as such, but the utter difficulty of seeing all the components and figures individually, and the impossibility of perceiving everything as a whole. This is down to the sheer, absurd and overwhelming welter of detail. One must be careful where one places one’s praise: detail in itself is valueless, but it performs a function here, a systematic one. You have to focus in to such minute levels that you so very quickly and constantly lose track of the whole, reminiscent of what Oyvind Fahlstrom found in Indian art. Honing in on a microscopic face emerging from the thicket, then panning back out again, and frequently you have lost your bearings. 

The homogeneity of colour and butting up of innumerable elements makes the job of distinguishing components difficult, and it is all too easy to miss and misread innumerable elements.  Beards melt into faces, cloaks and skirts. The undergrowth bubbles forward everywhere. The picture revolves around Queen Mab, in a red dress above left of the hat of the bearded figure in the centre. She is considerably smaller than my smallest fingernail.

It presents us with a full world, in full view, in complete, defined, full-lit but shallow space. The nature of how it presents its reality leads inevitably to tortuous, but unavoidable paradox – it is both ungraspable and highly, immensely, real. I cannot think of any picture that suffers so much in reproduction as this – the perceptual effects simply are not rendered. And the picture is small, far smaller than the scale at which I view any detail of it on screen.

The scene is overlain with tendrils of grasses, which stress the frame, decorate, unify the picture and psychologically obfuscate the scene beneath further. This unity is furthered by a lack, or perhaps a multitude, of clear focal points – the central character blends in so well tonally that you almost miss him, the eye drawn to myriad other diversions. In the upper half, daisies merrily punctuate the surface, below are nuts and kernels. It is all-over.

This figure is, of course, the fairy feller himself. The axe he wields is not painted in, primed canvas and a little siena underpainting is what you actually see. The same goes for much of the ground in the lower section – the painting was painted over nine years, and work was stopped when the artist relocated to a new residence and studio.

The feller’s axe is set to fall on a hazelnut, from which a carriage is to be hewn for Queen Mab, watching proceedings from the brim of the hat with her retinue. As does everybody else, a pair of “wenches” (Dadd’s term), an old squinting satyr squatting perilously close to beneath their skirts, two feather-hatted men described by Dadd, in a long expository poem, as the sort you would, or would not, want around town as the pubs close. Near the top, enjoying the spectacle (as Dadd again says himself) are Oberon and Titania, the only figures wrought from outside the artist’s mind. The mood seems to me one of mirth and curiosity masking indifference and potential malevolence. Alienation, behind the grass, and some voyeurism, sanctioned or not, are key. Some faces seem to be caricatures from a satire we cannot understand, unless it be a dream of our whole life – but this is going too far into interpretation, which the image certainly begs but surely never resolves.

The Shakespearean King and Queen, those manipulators of mechanicals, give one key. At the end of the A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck announces:


If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream

The painting was made in Bethlem Hospital (which is the origin of the term Bedlam) between 1855-64. He was in the ward for the criminally insane. At the end of this time, he was moved to Broadmoor, where he was to die, and which is still in use today. He had been resident since 1844. Apparently no record was made of his case within the hospital until 1855, when the new superintendant physician, W. Charles Hood, put down the following notes, which are put front and centre in the Watts gallery show:

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 aggression, and then beg pardon for the deed. This arose from some vague idea that filled his mind and still does so to a certain extent that certain spirits have the power of possessing a man’s body and compelling him to adopt a particular course whether he will or no. […] He is very eccentric and glories that he is not influenced by motives that other men pride themselves in possessing – thus he pays no sort of attention to decency in his acts or words, if he feels the least inclination to be otherwise, he is perfectly a sensual being, thorough animal, he will gorge himself with food till he actually vomits, and then again return to the meal. 

With all these disgusting points in his conduct he can be a very sensible and agreeable companion and shew in conversation, a mind once well educated and thoroughly informed in all the particulars of his profession in which he still shines and would it is thought have pre-eminently excelled had circumstances not opposed. […] He killed his father in Cobham Park without any discoverable reason, and escaped to France with the intention of killing the Emperor of Austria, but whilst on a Diligence the temptation came on him strongly to commence operations on a fellow passenger and he attacked him with a knife or razor and seriously wounded him but was prevented actually destroying life. […]

For this latter, he was first imprisoned for 12 months in France. There, the physician Eugène-Joseph Woillez made the following observation at the psychiatric hospital at Clermont de l’Oise, about 35 miles north of Paris:

This young man was a monomaniac exalted by hallucinations and illusions of the most dangerous type. All those who surrounded him were black devils who had to be put to death. His unfortunate father, like the traveller in the carriage, was also a devil whom he had to kill, as he told me several times. I myself was Jesus Christ to him, not that he respected me any the more for it.

His illusions took on an extraordinary degree of activity when he had spent several hours in a sort of ecstasy, staring directly at the sun, which happened to him frequently. The act of parricide in this case was not at all one of those spontaneous, instinctive and irresistible bouts of monomania which one is compelled to admit in certain cases, but the consequence of reason perverted by the most manifest type of raving imagination, depriving Dadd of all moral freedom.

William Schupbach[1] notes that, in France:

Dadd was staring at the sun because he regarded it as an incarnation of Osiris, a deity he had become involved with while attending Phillipps in Egypt. He still believed that he was subject to the arbitrary whim of Osiris thirty years later in Broadmoor.

He had been in Egypt on an 11-month grand tour, and his troubles are said to have started, or started to become visible, on the return trip.

It needs to be stressed that Dadd was well-trained and already a successfully practising artist before this turn of events. Any notion of “outsider art”, a problematic term at any rate, does not fit, certainly not here – this is not untrained work, outside the culture, it has merely been made by someone placed beyond civil society. Undoubtedly there is great distance between his way of viewing the world and ours, but as artists, there is no clear line to be drawn between him and us. He was continually commissioned by Hood and other staff to make work, but his vocation is evidently greater; no-one asks for a nine-year painting.

There are many responses possible to all this information. I wonder if it is not simply gossip – not that it is not true, but as irrelevant as what clothes the artist wore, whether he was rich or poor. Hood’s speculation on whether Dadd would have pre-eminently excelled is redundant, for that is what he did inside the hospital. 



It would be fatuous to say circumstances benefitted him, but his plight can only be seen as inevitable – there is no possible separation between the good and bad things in his mind, his actions, his fate. The work stands on its own.

Other works include a scene of his entourage resting at night in the desert in the holy land – the (artist’s) rest on the flight from, or to, Egypt. He made Sketches of the Passions to illustrate what may send a man mad. Patriotism was a topic, scattered as minutely with rough-hewn satirical place names as the Fairy Feller is with its motifs. Plains of Dissipation. Great Panic Bay. This Island of Implication. Bastardy – A Small Fishing Village. Two generals, fools, pore over the details as we do. The temptation to get lost in detail, not to see the wood for the leaves, and to fetishise the exquisite paintwork and fantasy beyond any true comprehension, was well understood by the artist. In Sketch for a Curiosity Shop, connoisseurs delight in viewing a Dadd up close with binoculars.

Another passion Sketch, Hatred, portrays Richard Duke of Gloucester, who became King Richard III, having just put a sword through, and killed, Henry VI in the Tower of London in May 1471. Some critics view this as a meditation on his own parricide, to me what impresses is rather the dispassion with which murder is rendered; though, with the fat drops peeling from the sword, a note of cold-blooded relish is hinted at. 

Nothing really compares to the Fairy Feller, but nothing lets it down. We see an artist in full control, with a clear, detached vision of both his world and ours. Things, strangeness itself, are rendered with transparency, the fantastical is realised, not romanticised. In the extreme degree to which this is done, the vividness of the dream is convincing in a way that makes the dream paintings of the twentieth century appear the unconvincing shams they are, and foreshadows other later innovations such as from Pollock and the push-pull of cubist space in the process.

Turning away from the world to the dream of the fairy feller, eschewing the vanity of others, whether he will or no, distance, with great psychological and moral weight, is achieved.