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Artist in Focus I - Richard Dadd

Richard Dadd At His Easel 1850S A
Richard Dadd at his easel, 1850s

Over the next few weeks we will be looking in detail at some of the more well-known artists from our collections, starting with Richard Dadd .

Richard Dadd was born on 1 August 1817 at Chatham in Kent, where his father was a chemist. He began drawing when he was about 13, and after the family had moved to London, he entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1837. He began exhibiting his work in the same year, and soon began to make a reputation with delicate and imaginative scenes from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and other fairy subjects. He was considered to be one of the most promising young artists of his generation, and was also known for his gentleness and good nature.

At the age of 25 he was employed to travel with Sir Thomas Phillips through Europe and the Middle East, and make drawings of the places they visited. Towards the end of the 10 month journey he developed symptoms of severe mental disturbance, and was suffering from paranoid delusions by the time he reached home. He believed that he was persecuted by devils, and that he received messages from the Egyptian god Osiris. On 28 August 1843 he stabbed his father to death in Cobham Park, near Rochester in Kent, believing him to be the devil in disguise.

Dadd fled to France intending to commit more murders, but was arrested after trying to cut the throat of a stranger with whom he was travelling in a coach. He spent ten months in a French asylum before being extradited, and on 22 August 1844 he was committed to the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum which was then attached to Bethlem Hospital. For many years he was unpredictable and occasionally violent, and never completely lost his delusions. In 1864 he was transferred to the newly opened Broadmoor Asylum in Berkshire, which was built to replace the criminal wings at Bethlem. He died there of consumption on 8 January 1886.

Dadd continued to paint throughout his 42 years of confinement in Bethlem and Broadmoor. Many of the pictures in the Bethlem collection are from a series of Sketches to Illustrate the Passions, on which he worked for several years in the 1850s, but he also continued to produce landscapes, seascapes, portraits, and imaginative and illustrative works of many kinds. In the ‘Passions’ series and some other watercolours from the same period, he used broad washes of colour, but his work in both oil and watercolour is generally notable for its very fine detail. In his most characteristic and truly personal style he employed a technique of stippling, derived from miniature painting, to produce pale, dreamlike watercolours of extreme delicacy. Fantasie Egyptienne and A Wayside Inn are outstanding examples of this technique.