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Victorian Times: British Painter Richard Dadd (1817-1886)

Richard Dadd, one of the most promising young artists in England in his day, was the 4th of nine children. He was admitted to the Royal Academy in 1837 at the age of twenty.

Dadd won three medals for draftsmanship and regularly exhibited at the prestigious gallery on Suffolk Street. In 1840-42, he worked on Shakespeare illustrations and was commissioned to illustrate Samuel Carter Hall’s Book of British Ballads. Dadd was particularly famous for his paintings of fairies and exotic landscapes - in 1850s spiritualism was tremendously popular in Europe and America and many were interested in mythology and believed in fairies, as the prominent Spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who wrote a book "The Coming of the Fairies".

He was 25, when his friend and patron Sir Thomas Phillips invited him on a tour to the Middle East and Egypt to document their journey in drawings and paintings.
The journey was long and difficult. While on trip, Dadd joined a group of old Arabs smoking hookahs, an arabic waterpipe, and spent five continuous days and nights smoking, and after visiting the City of the Dead, Dadd became convinced that Egyptian God Osiris had power over him, devils and monsters began assailing his imagination. (In Egyptian mythology, Osiris is killed and dismembered by his brother).

At first, his sudden disorder was attributed to this intake of narcotics and even to simple sunstroke, although in Rome, Dadd intended to attack the Pope during a public appearance.
Upon his return to London, Dadd became withdrawn and unpredictable in his behavior and very eccentric in his actions: he never removed his goatskin gloves and, for some reason, kept a cache of 300 eggs in his room.

His father, concerned that his son suffered from the effects of "sunstroke", made Richard to see Alexander Sutherland, a leading psychiatrist at the time. The doctor made a hard diagnosis: Richard was not responsible for his actions and deeds, and advised to keep Richard in isolation. Unfortunately, Dadd's father did not follow the doctor's advice.

On Monday, August 28th, 1843, Richard with his father came in Cobham to watch the maneuvers of the local regiment. Excited by music and loud sounds, Dadd brutally murdered and dismembered his father with a knife and a razor, seeing in his father the devil in disguise. Robert Dadd's body was found next morning. Dadd then ran away to France, where he was arrested after attacking a traveller with a razor.
Obviously, Dadd, who before his illness was known for his gentleness, intelligence and good humour, planned to murder more people - drawings of friends and family with their throats cut were found in his room.

In England, he was declared insane, received a life sentence and spent the rest of his life (43 years) in lunatic asylums, where he died aged 68 from "acute lung disease". Three of his eight siblings also died insane.
A kind doctor in hospital provided Dadd with art supplies and encouraged him to paint - which he obsessively did for the rest of his life.

Before the murder, Dadd had submitted two paintings in a competition for historical frescoes in the Houses of Parliament. They were hanging in Westminster Hall when he did the murder.
..Dadd escaped the death sentence because England had just instituted an insanity defense shortly before he committed murder. He was also given liberty to paint because of recent English reforms in the care of the insane.


  1. This was a very interesting post. I didn't know that Dadd spent that long inside the lunatic asylums, or that he was aloud to paint while in there. Weird Ben

  2. I just discovered the site and it is wonderful. I have found that the content here is great and the images are wonderful. Thanks for pulling this together.

  3. Thank you, Ashlie, for your kind words

  4. To Weird Ben
    "Dadd's most compelling work is a loving picture of Sir Alexander Morison (above), the doctor at Bethlem Hospital who nursed him back into painting after his rampage." -uh.edu/admin/engines/ut-1.htm

    "The Dadd's painting of Sir Alexander Morison shows Anchorfield as it was in 1852. The background is from a sketch by Miss Ann Morison. The figures in the middle distance - Newhaven fisherwomen - probably reproduced from photographs, show all the delicacy of drawing for which Richard Dadd was justly famed." (Morison, A.B. The Blackhalls of the ilk and Barra, hereditary coroners and foresters of the Garioch. 1905, Issue 29 (Google eBook)

  5. Richard Dadd at Orleans House Gallery

    This exhibition explores the life and work of one of the most fascinating Victorian visionaries - Richard Dadd (1817-1886).

    Works from the Bethlem Art and History Collections Trust, West London Mental Health NHS Trust and private collections are brought together to chart Dadd’s early career, travels to Europe and the Middle East, mental illness and work created while at Bethlem and Broadmoor Hospitals.

    Dr. Nicholas Tormans author of Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum published this July states:

    “Richard Dadd was one of the great Victorian painters, but spent his career in psychiatric hospitals, or as they were then known, lunatic asylums. An artist of extraordinary imagination from a young age, he was a specialist in fairy subjects before a tour of the Middle East triggered the onset of a mental illness that led him to kill his father. At Bethlem Hospital and then at Broadmoor, Dadd continued to work as an artist, creating haunting images combining bold imaginative leaps with the most delicate of miniaturist’s techniques. His art today presents both a beautiful mystery and a fascinating case study in the history of psychiatry.”

    To complement the exhibition, young people with disabilities who attend the Orleans House Gallery’s regular Octagon group have worked with artist Ashley Davies to create a collaborative work inspired by Dadd’s famous fairy paintings. This project has been generously supported by the Double O Charity.

    Exhibition runs from 28 May - 2 October 2011
    Orleans House Gallery, Riverside, Twickenham, TWE1 3DJ

    Free admission
    Gallery open Tuesdays- Saturdays 1.00-5.30pm, Sundays 2.00-5,30pm
    Tel: 020 8831 6000
    Email: artsinfo@richmond.gov.uk
    Website: www.richmond.gov.uk/arts


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