Saturday, 8 December 2012

The Awful Affliction of the Fairy Fellow

Pity Poor Richard.

                                  Richard, in this case, being Richard Dadd, who was born at Chatham in 1817. In 1834, the family moved to London, where three years later Richard entered the Royal Academy School. Young Richard was an excellent draughtsman and won a series of medals for drawing at the Academy school, and began a promising career by exhibiting and selling his early paintings, many of which are now lost. Two that are still known, Titania Sleeping and Puck (both c. 1841), show his early poetic imagination and fondness for fantasy subjects, and the following year he was commissioned to illustrate Robin Goodfellow for S C Hall’s Book of British Ballads

Richard Dadd - Robin Goodfellow - Book of British Ballads - 1842

As his reputation grew, Dadd was commissioned to accompany Sir Thomas Phillips, a South Wales solicitor, on his Grand Tour of Europe, to record the sights seen (these were, remember, the days before photography). 

Richard Dadd - Robin Goodfellow - Book of British Ballads - 1842

Phillips had been mayor of Newport during the Newport Rising of 1839, the last large scale armed rebellion on the British mainland, when Chartists attacked the Westgate Hotel in an attempt to free their imprisoned colleagues. There was a violent gun battle as troops fired on the rebels and Phillips was seriously wounded when the Chartists returned fire. The rebellion was suppressed, over twenty Chartists were killed, and Phillips became a national hero, being knighted by Queen Victoria just six weeks later. 

Richard Dadd - Thomas Phillips in Arab Costume

At the somewhat advanced age of 41, he and Dadd departed on a belated Grand Tour on July 16th 1842, travelling first to Ostend and then, by rail, caliche, horse, mule, foot, steamboat, char-à-banc, vettura and rowing boat, through France and Northern Italy, Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and the Holy Land. All the while, Dadd sketched what he could of the sights and sites, recording as best he could the exotic peoples and places, but feeling that he had insufficient time to do them justice. 

Richard Dadd - The Artist's Halt in the Desert

The pace was unrelenting and the two men stayed where they found lodgings, everywhere from Maronite convents to peasant mud huts. In Egypt, Dadd was tremendously impressed by the scale and grandeur of the ancient monuments and temples, and began a fateful, life-long interest in the mythology of the Ancient Egyptians. The rigour of the tour began to tell, even on Phillips, who hired a boat with a crew of sixteen to navigate the Nile, and it was at this time that Dadd began to suffer from what was then thought to be sunstroke. On the return journey home, Dadd began to suffer from increasing periods of depression and delusions, and began to quarrel with Phillips, severely straining the relationship. Phillips thought that Dadd should seek medical help for his condition and the two parted in Paris, as Dadd returned back to London alone. 

Richard Dadd - The Temple of the Caliphs

It quickly became obvious that there was something seriously wrong with him; in his youth he had been noted for his calm, kind, considerate and affectionate nature, full of humour and mirth, but now he was gloomy and reserved, unpredictable and occasionally violent, convinced he was being watched by unknown enemies, haunted by devils, and that his actions were governed by the will of Osiris. His descent into insanity undoubtedly had an hereditary element (four of the seven children born to Dadd’s father and first wife died insane), but his condition was also worsened by the hardship of the journey in the Middle East and the things he saw there. His behaviour became more and more erratic – in his rooms at Newman St, three hundred eggs and quantities of ale were found, his only diet then being boiled eggs and ale – and his father, Robert, took him to see Dr Alexander Sutherland of St Luke’s Hospital, a leading specialist in mental illness. 

Richard Dadd - working on Contradiction; Oberon and Titania

Sutherland’s opinion was the Richard was non compos mentis and should be placed under restraint but Robert was devoted to his son and determined to care for him himself. Two or three days later, Richard asked his father to accompany him to Cobham, a favourite childhood haunt, where he promised to ‘unburden his mind’, and after resting at the Ship Inn and booking rooms in the village, they walked to Cobham Park, where near a chalk pit named Paddock Hole, at about 11 PM, Richard drew a razor and first tried to cut his father’s throat before stabbing him to death with a spring knife he had bought especially for the purpose. Richard ran away to Dover and took a ship to Calais, from where he departed for Paris, but was overpowered and detained when he attempted to cut the throat of a fellow traveller with a razor. He was detained in a French asylum before being extradited to England, where after a brief spell in Maidstone gaol, he was transferred to Bethlem Hospital. 

Bethlem Hospital

The early Bethlem hospital had, rightly, been the linguistic and factual origin of Bedlam, a chaotic hell of clamour and madness. By the 1840s, those days were long gone and a much more enlightened treatment of the mentally ill prevailed, (relatively speaking, of course). Dadd was transferred there in a straitjacket, but was never physically restrained again. He told doctors that he had killed his father because he thought he was a servant of the devil and that Osiris, his true father, had commanded him to destroy all of the infernal agents in the world. He had, he said, been told to kill the Pope and the Emperor of Austria, amongst others, and in addition to the eggs and ale found in his rooms were portraits of his friends, all depicted with their throats cut. A list of names found in his pocket had that of his father at the top. 

Richard Dadd - Portrait of a Young Man (possibly W C Hood)

From 1852, Bethlem was controlled by Dr William Charles Hood, a man of vision and compassion, who introduced larger windows to the hospital, and had each ward furnished with an aviary of singing birds, flowers, pictures, statues and books, to provide the inmates with distractions, interests and amusement. His steward, George Henry Haydon, a similarly enlightened man, assisted Hood and they encouraged Dadd’s return to painting. 

Richard Dadd - Jerusalem from the Palace of Herod

At first he worked up the sketches in his sketchbooks done on the Tour, producing Orientalist landscapes and figure paintings, but in 1854, he began the first of his remarkable fairy paintings, Contradiction; Oberon and Titania, a subject taken from A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Richard Dadd - Contradiction; Oberon and Titania

Dadd dedicated it to Hood and spent four years working on it – in the only photograph of Dadd, he is seen at work on this painting. It is, arguably, his finest work although not his most famous, which was painted for Haydon, who admired Contradiction so much that he asked Dadd to paint another fairy picture for him – The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke

Richard Dadd - The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke

This is the strangest picture ever painted in England, maybe even the strangest picture ever painted anywhere. The eponymous leather-clad fairy feller lifts an axe over a hazelnut and is about to attempt to split it open with a single blow. He is surrounded by all manner of other fairy folk, some of whom look on in interest whilst others turn away in distraction. The work is painted in microscopic detail, in the manner of a miniature, jewel-like and glittering. Its power lies in its strangeness, we have no idea what is really going on and why. Something strange is happening, but we have stumbled across it and we know, deep down, that we have no place here. This is most definitely not for mortal eyes to see but we gaze in fascination, draw in by the magic, minutely scrutinising the details and always finding something new, something hidden, something secret. We do not know what will happen when that nut is cleft apart with that one fell blow but it will terrible, that much we feel in our bones. It is an utterly alien world that does not concern us, there are powers at play here that we can never hope to understand. It is, in every meaning of the word, magic. 

Richard Dadd - Sketch for The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke

The work remains unfinished but Dadd continued to paint for the rest of his life. After twenty years at Bethlem, he was transferred to the new hospital at Broadmoor, which was much more convivial and freer, and although he remained severely mentally ill, he found a kind of peace in the surroundings there. 

Richard Dadd - Mad Jane

He had periods when he was free from the voices in his head and was lucid; he painted stage scenery for the theatre in Broadmoor, he played the violin, on which he was very skilled, read classical literature, history and poetry and was kept informed of all the new developments in the art world. 

Richard Dadd's scenery paintings at Broadmoor (now lost)

And then Osiris returned with a terrible vengeance, ordering Richard to suddenly attack his fellow inmates, to act outrageously and disagreeably, to rave and to rant incoherently. And so he remained incarcerated until, in 1885, he became seriously ill with consumption. Richard Dadd died at Broadmoor on January 8th 1886, and was buried in the little cemetery there. Pity poor Richard.

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