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In the Frame: Portrait Studies of Figures in Eastern Dress

Dadd  In The  Frame  Caroline
Richard Dadd. Portrait studies of figures in Eastern Costume (1842). Pen, brown ink, watercolour and gum Arabic. (c) Winchester College

The fact that this painting is unfinished, arguably makes it more, rather than less, interesting. It allows the viewer an insight into the painting process, doubly fascinating for someone like me who can’t paint at all. A series of faintly drawn heads in the bottom right hand corner shows how Dadd has built up the face from the first marks on the paper, all the way to a fully drawn model. The final head is almost classical in appearance and hints at drawings we might expect in the sketchbooks of the Renaissance artists. Other faces are more fully worked as Dadd builds up the technique of painting in front of our eyes.

Dadd has captured fleeting moments, perhaps intending to use the faces in subsequent paintings. He has caught different views of the face; as few are looking out at us we are free to scrutinise them. Many are sharply defined in profile, others presented more squarely. The man on the left, is the only one to truly look right out at us, his blue eyes strangely piercing; the light on the folds of the startlingly white turban, alerting rather than distracting us from his face. Though a study for Dadd himself, this figure draws viewers in by making eye contact and encourages us to explore those around him, almost as if we were circulating at a party. While some expressions invite a conversation, others are more thoughtful, some inscrutable.

Although this man looks to be wearing a more western style striped shirt, the majority of the figures are in essentially eastern dress; unsurprising as the sketches were made while Dadd was accompanying his new patron Sir Thomas Phillips on his tour of the Middle East. This allowed him to explore the possibilities of a number of styles of headgear from the plain fez to the more elaborately folded head wraps. It was customary to adopt eastern dress for traveling and Dadd himself reports wearing a fez with handkerchiefs around it as part of his travelling gear, while the white turban depicted here is reminiscent of his later paintings of Sir Thomas Phillips Reclining in Turkish Costume.

Dadd was an extremely accomplished watercolourist, demonstrated here by the vividness of his colours and his ability to recreate texture. His representation of fabric, its swathes and pleats, the way that these capture light and shadow, demonstrate his skill and understanding of the medium. His use of red throughout, encourages the eye to dart across the composition, discovering something new along the way.

This painting is on display in our temporary exhibition, The Art of Bedlam: Richard Dadd, and has been loaned to us from Winchester College.