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Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum at Tate Britain

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Photograph of Richard Dadd painting Oberon and Titania at Bethlem Hospital

Bethlem and its collections came under the spotlight in a discussion event hosted by Tate Britain on 1 December. Mike Jay (author of The Air Loom Gang, a study of famous Bethlem patient James Tilly Matthews) talked to Nicholas Tromans about his recently published work, Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum.

The conversation outlined Dadd's life and work, and posed some interesting (if unanswerable) questions: was his illness the result of heatstroke and the stress of his travels or did heredity play a part (two of Richard Dadd's siblings also became mentally unwell)? Does the crowded and often chaotic composition of works such as Contradiction (painted at Bethlem) serve as a sign of Dadd's 'madness' or, having been removed from the world at large, was he simply free to pursue whatever style he chose without concern for prevailing fashions and commercial considerations?

The key place of Bethlem in relation to Dadd's life and subsequent reputation was discussed at length, with particular reference to two physicians at the hospital who amassed collections of his work: Dr Alexander Morison and Dr William Charles Hood. The appointment of Patricia Allderidge as Bethlem's first Archivist in 1967 was noted as an important milestone as it allowed for an alternative view of Dadd's life to be presented, based on the careful consideration of archival evidence rather than political theory. Patricia's catalogue for the Tate's groundbreaking Richard Dadd retrospective in 1974 was for many years the only serious academic study of the artist.

Nicholas Tromans' book, The Artist and the Asylum can be purchased from the Bethlem Archives & Museum shop for the discounted price of £20. He will also be formally opening the forthcoming exhibition, 'An Artist Abroad', in the Bethlem Archives and Museum on Saturday 11 February. The exhibition, focusing on Dadd's early work, will run until 27 April.