June 19, 2019

Poet, Painter, Scandal-Maker: the trials and tribulations of the artist accused

Trusting you perused the previous article featuring the case of Oscar Wilde, I remain in the annals of the Victorian Era, as I continue with fantastic tales of insanity and corruption with my next artist criminals…

The unfortunate story of Richard Dadd conjures visions of madness and the horror of being committed for life to the insane asylums of the mid 19th-century. Dadd seemed to have been a young rising star when he attended The Royal Academy of Arts at the tender age of 20. His fantastical scenes of Shakespearean Fairy themes are certainly genius and, I believe, quite unique. In this case, begging the question that genius borders sanity may not be fallacy when you consider the evolution of his style compared to the state of his mental health. His early work seems more innocent, delicate and… well, airy!

He also painted and sketched everyday observations – especially on his journey to Southern Europe and Asia Minor in 1842 accompanying Sir Thomas Phillips as a Draughtsman – where things began to get a little shaky on the sanity front. Perhaps the journey, exposing his senses to so many new sights, combined with culture shock nudged him over the edge? Nevertheless, while cruising on the Nile, he began to freak and experienced strange personality changes, thought to be due to sun-stroke. He became increasingly paranoid and violent, and in Rome even had an overwhelming urge to murder the Pope! It seems he had experienced an epiphany in Egypt and now believed he was descended from Osiris, the sun god to battle against evil upon earth. Sir Thomas ditched him, needless to say, in Paris and Dadd returned to England, literally a changed man!

Impending Bedlam

More than likely shocked and dismayed at his son’s state, his father stuck to that Victorian moral trait of denial, even after the diagnosis of ‘not of sound mind’ was declared by physicians, and carried on as usual as to avoid scandal. Unfortunately Ricky was too far gone and, on a stroll in the park, brutally murdered father with his gleaming new cut-throat razor, certain he was the Devil incarnate. Fleeing to France, he was later arrested for attempting to razor a fellow passenger and thrown in the Gaol. Confessing to his father’s murder he was committed without trial to the notorious ‘Bedlam’ Asylum in London and they basically threw away the key.

It’s extremely interesting how quickly poor Richard had deteriorated; turning into a paranoid schizophrenic homicidal maniac within a year! Incredible too is the metamorphosis his artwork went through. Now his creations were writhing in minute detail; the expressions and activity of his scenes much more dramatic. His most well-known work ‘The Fairy Fellers Master Stroke’ has a depth of detail worthy of long study, and apparently took him 9 years to complete. You cannot help trying to imagine what was going on in that head of his as he dwindled into oblivion over 43 years in the dank confines of a Victorian loony bin.

Actually he painted much more and produced his masterpieces in the long years to come. His doctors encouraged it, which probably helped therapeutically – he sure as hell wasn’t being pumped with Lithium and Thorazine! Richard Dadd was confined until his death in 1886.

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