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In the Frame for September 2013: Richard Dadd’s ‘Portrait of Alexander Morison’

I have to confess to not being a particular fan of Richard Dadd, to not really ‘getting it’, but I have always liked his portrait of Alexander Morison, visiting physician to Bethlem Hospital where Dadd was a patient following the murder of his father. Seeing the picture for the first time in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, in a room where it was surrounded by very traditional portraits of the great and the good, was transformative. Dadd’s painting looked startlingly modern and vibrant; the flashes of red, warm yellows and lush greens providing a foil for the starker figure of Morison himself, upright in contrast to the twisted trees, the surface less polished, lending more energy and immediacy. It appeared, perhaps helped also by its more modest scale, more human and less pompous than some of its neighbours.

Dadd depicts the Morison family house at Newhaven, with the Firth of Forth gleaming dully behind it, low hills beyond, open grass and trees in front. There is much to take our eye: the stately progress of the ships on the right, the red-tiled roof of the small building to the left and the animated fishwives in their traditional costumes on the strand, looking not quite to scale.

It is Morison himself though who draws our attention, standing just to the right of centre. He holds his top hat in one hand and could almost be gesturing to the viewer. In his other hand he holds a white cloth, a handkerchief and a book. He is formally dressed as we might expect of someone of his status; the white cravat fixed with a pin bright against the black of the rest of his clothing. His open coat reveals the waistcoat and adds a sense of movement to an otherwise static figure; likewise the wispy white hair standing up around his head like a white halo. The face is that of a man nearing the end of a long career in a potentially difficult profession. It appears quite lined and worn but the eyes hold our gaze. It would be difficult to walk straight past.

Although, as his patient, Dadd would have seen Morison in person, the remainder of the scene relies on imagination and secondary sources. Family members provided information and sketches of the area around Newhaven and the fishwives themselves may have been inspired or copied from earlier photographs by Hill and Adamson.1 All the more remarkable then that this portrait should be so unified and so arresting.