Richard Dadd

(1 August 1817 - 7 January 1886)

#English painter of the Victorian era, noted for his depictions of fairies and other supernatural subjects, Orientalist scenes, and enigmatic genre scenes, rendered with obsessively minuscule detail. Most of the works for which he is best known were created while he was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital.

Dadd was born at Chatham, Kent, England, the son of a chemist. His aptitude for drawing was evident at an early age, leading to his admission to the Royal Academy of Arts at the age of 20. With William Powell Frith, Augustus Egg, Henry O'Neil and others, he founded The Clique, of which he was generally considered the leading talent.

In July 1842, Sir Thomas Phillips, the former mayor of Newport, chose Dadd to accompany him as his draftsman on an expedition through Europe to Greece, Turkey, Southern Syria and finally Egypt. In November of that year they spent a gruelling two weeks in Southern Syria, passing from Jerusalem to Jordan and returning across the Engaddi wilderness. Toward the end of December, while travelling up the Nile by boat, Dadd underwent a dramatic personality change, becoming delusional and increasingly violent, and believing himself to be under the influence of the Egyptian god Osiris. His condition was initially thought to be sunstroke.

On his return in the spring of 1843, he was diagnosed to be of unsound mind and was taken by his family to recuperate in the countryside village of Cobham, Kent. In August of that year, having become convinced that his father was the Devil in disguise, Dadd killed him with a knife and fled for France. En route to Paris Dadd attempted to kill another tourist with a razor, but was overpowered and was arrested by the police. Dadd confessed to the killing of his father and was returned to England, where he was committed to the criminal department of Bethlem psychiatric hospital (also known as Bedlam). Here and subsequently at the newly created Broadmoor Hospital, Dadd was cared for (and encouraged to continue painting) by the likes of Drs. William Wood and Sir W. Charles Hood, in an enlightened manner.

Dadd probably suffered from a form of paranoid schizophrenia. He appears to have been genetically predisposed to mental illness; two of his siblings were similarly afflicted, while a third had "a private attendant" for unknown reasons.


In the hospital he was allowed to continue to paint and it was here that many of his masterpieces were created, including his most celebrated painting, The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke, which he worked on between 1855 and 1864. Also dating from the 1850s are the thirty-three watercolour drawings titled Sketches to Illustrate the Passions, which include Grief or Sorrow, Love, and Jealousy, as well as Agony-Raving Madness and Murder. Like most of his works these are executed on a small scale and feature protagonists whose eyes are fixed in a peculiar, unfocused stare. Dadd also produced many shipping scenes and landscapes during his incarceration, such as the ethereal 1861 watercolour Port Stragglin. These are executed with a miniaturist's eye for detail which belie the fact that they are products of imagination and memory.

After 20 years at Bethlem, Dadd was moved to the criminal lunatic asylum at Broadmoor, outside London. Here he remained, painting constantly and receiving infrequent visitors until 7 January 1886, when he died, "from an extensive disease of the lungs".


In 1841 Dadd was still a student at the Royal Academy when S. C. Hall invited him to illustrate the text for ‘Robin Goodfellow ‘ for his forthcoming Book of Ballads. Two years after its publication Dadd was incarcerated in Bedlam for the frenzied murder of his father in 1843. The 1841 oil painting by Dadd of Puck sitting on a toadstool was later reproduced as a steel engraving by Lizars and as such became instantly popular when it was published in various editions of Shakespeare.
[The work depicts Puck, a central character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sitting on a toadstool while smaller fairy figures dance around him in moonlight.


'Come Unto These Yellow Sands' (1842). The source for the painting is Ariel's song in Act I, scene ii of The Tempest, lines which accompanied the painting in the catalog of the Royal Academy exhibit in 1842:
Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands.
Curtsied when you have and kissed,
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burden bear.
Hark, hark!

The painting was one of the public's favorites when it was exhibited, and one critic said it "came nearer to the essence of poetry than anything he had ever seen". Dadd excelled at "fairy painting," and in 1841 he finished three major works in this genre of fantasy: 'Titania Sleeping', 'Puck' and 'Fairies Assembling at Sunset to Hold their Revels'. This last painting was exhibited in Manchester in 1841, but it is now lost.

He continued working in this vein and the next year, 1842, he showed 'Come Unto These Yellow Sands'; he also did a sketch for another painting, 'The Fairies' Rendezvous, but that painting has also disappeared. Dadd's exploration of fantasy and the world of fairies culminated with two works done in the 50s and 60s, 'Contradiction: Titania and Oberon' and 'The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke', both paintings based on A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Fairy paintings based on passages from Shakespeare like Ariel's song were, Richard Altick says, "an open invitation to artists to paint elaborate stylized arrangements of spirits, the Graces, nymphs, sylphs, fairies," all paintings designed to "lighten the drawing rooms in prosaic suburban villas with iridescent colors and compositional rhythms that were almost audible." A less noble end, he further suggests, is that "in such an unimpeachable literary context, bevies of sleek female nudes could be introduced without qualm, and they were". Altick's judgment on fairy paintings may be a trifle cynical and perhaps in Dadd's case unjust.

Dadd was always intrigued by fantasy and other-worldly subjects, and to him "fairy painting was a serious business, an act of the most intensely personal creation. It had nothing to do with the whimsy -- despite his ability to charm and please by purely fanciful and playful touches -- the voyeurism, sometimes the sadism with which his contemporaries often achieved popularity in this field. For fairy painting was also a way of exploring nature, as his landscape painting later became . . .". Dadd's fantasy, especially later in his career when it is hard to sort out the lucid moments from the mad in his creations, is perhaps closer to Shakespeare's and the plays to which he repeatedly returned for his subjects. Fairy painting was to Dadd what Harry Berger, Jr., calls the "green world" was to Shakespeare: a way of looking at the imaginary creations in order to cast light on our real world.

Dadd seems intuitively to have grasped a theatrical principle in the composition of his fairy paintings, what Patricia Allderidge calls "self-enclosing frames." 'In Come Unto These Yellow Sands', for example, the picture has an arch at the top that is not unlike the proscenium of a stage, and within the picture itself is the archway through which the sprites dance. This same device, an enclosing stage-like space, is effectively employed in 'Puck' and 'Titania Sleeping', as well as 'The Fairies' Rendezvous' and 'The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke', paintings that span Dadd's entire career.