Richard Dadd: Art, psychosis and the Victorian asylum at Watts Gallery

This article originally appeared on Culture24.

Watts Gallery is exploring the art of Richard Dadd, the Victorian painter whose life was eclipsed by psychotic illness, murder and the asylum

an etching in semi-side profile of a man with neck-length hair wearing a high-collared jacketRichard Dadd, Self Portrait (1841). Etching© Bethlem Museum of the Mind
The combination of technical brilliance and fantasy makes Richard Dadd one of the most compelling artists of the Victorian period. But behind the draughtsmanship and the exotic flights of fancy lies a story of murder, madness and incarceration

A naturally gifted artist whose talents secured a place at the Royal Academy, many of the Dadd paintings we see today were painted behind bars - in two of Britain’s most notorious asylums, Bethlem and Broadmoor.

He was born in Chatham, Kent, in 1817 but moved with his father, brothers and sisters to London in 1834 and, having already shown a precocious talent for sketching, entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1834.

At the Royal Academy he formed a close bond with the genre painters William Powell Frith, John Phillip and Augustus Egg. Collectively the quartet sought to challenge the rigid teachings of the Royal Academy and to produce paintings that would appeal to the new merchant classes rather than the aristocracy.They called themselves 'the Clique'. 

Works of the imagination

an oval painting of child figure on a toadstool beneath a lampshade of a blue flower with naked figures cavorting beneathPuck (1841)© Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston
Having already carved out a reputation for literary illustration, early in his career Dadd decided to dedicate himself to “works of the imagination”. Puck, from 1841, is one of several paintings that earned him the epithet the “fairy painter”.

With its baby-ish rendering of Shakespeare’s mischievous fairy sat beneath a purple flower chandelier, the work is said to have "impressed and baffled" critics in equal measure. It was bought by a collector from Preston and now resides in the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in the Lancashire city.


a watercolour of a desert scene of a fire at night with people sat aroundThe Artist's Halt in the Desert (circa 1845). Watercolour on paper© British Museum
The fairy world was something Dadd was to return to throughout his life, but like many of his peers in the early Victorian period, he was seduced by the exoticism of the east, and during the 1840s the influence of 'Orientalism' began to take hold.

In 1842, on the recommendation of David Roberts - the country’s best-known Orientalist painter and President of the Society of British Artists - the eminent solicitor Sir Thomas Phillips approached Dadd to become his artist-companion on a Grand Tour to Europe and the Ottoman Empire. The Artist's Halt in the Desert, executed later from sketchbooks and memories, shows the party encamped by the Dead Sea, with Dadd at the far right.

a painted view of an arid and mountainous landscapeView of the Island of Rhodes (circa 1845). Watercolour on paper© V&A
It was during the tour, however, that Dadd’s erratic behaviour started to be a cause for concern. Phillips observed a worrying “violence of expression”, and when, in May 1843, the artist suddenly abandoned his employer and returned to London, friends and family became increasingly anxious.


a painted portrait of young man with a black suit and waistcoat seated n a rustic bench in a gardenPortrait of a Young Man (1853). Oil on canvas© Tate
On August 28 1843, Dadd arranged to meet his father in Cobham near Chatham and killed him with a knife after being “impelled by a feeling that some such sacrifice was demanded by the gods and spirits above”. He then fled to France, where he attempted another murder, for which he was arrested and eventually extradited to England for trial. A search of his rooms revealed a portfolio of portraits of his friends – all with their throats cut.

Dadd’s trial caused a sensation. Declared a “criminal lunatic”, he was admitted in August 1844 as a patient to Bethlem Hospital, then Britain’s most notorious asylum. As the doors closed behind him he became the forgotten man of Victorian painting. Yet the painting continued and his art thrived. His vivid Portrait of a Young Man, possibly of Bethlem’s superintendent, William Charles Hood, in an imagined garden, was painted in 1853.


an oval painting showing small fairy figures in medieval style clothing moving among the undergrowthContradiction. Oberon and Titania (1854-8). Oil on canvas© Private Collection
During his 20 years at Bethlem, and then at the newly-built Broadmoor (from 1864 until his death in 1886), Dadd remained a prolific painter and draughtsman. Encouraged in his efforts by a series of kindly superintendents and warders, he produced scores of bewitching paintings that fused mythology, literature, antiquity and his own increasingly vivid fantasies. 

a complex painting of small figures moving around the undergrowthSketch to Illustrate the Passion: Grief or Sorrow (1854). Watercolour on paper © Bethlem Museum of the Mind
The Watts exhibition includes a rare opportunity to see Dadd’s two most ambitious paintings from these years displayed together: Contradiction: Oberon and Titania, 1854–8, painted by the artist for Hood, and The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, c.1855-64 dedicated to Bethlem’s Steward, George Haydon, who had admired Contradiction.

Bacchanalian Feast

a photo of three faces in close up one drinking from a golden cupBacchanalian Scene (1862). Oil on wood© Private Collection
By the 1850s, Dadd may well have been aware of some of the trends in Victorian art through engraving. But as Watts Gallery curator Nicholas Tromans, writing in his perceptive book Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum, says: “Dadd had no public...and had no need to obey the basic rules of composition”. 

Violent and dangerous

a black and white photograph of a man with a beard painting an oval canvas on an easelHenry Hering, Portrait photograph of Richard Dadd painting Contradiction (circa 1875). Photograph© Bethlem Museum of the Mind
According to Dadd’s case notes from Bethlem, where he was incarcerated from 1854 to 1864, he was, for several years after his arrival, considered “a violent and dangerous patient". He was, however, allowed and even encouraged to paint. A note from January 10 1860 records how, despite a mind “full of delusions”, Dadd employed himself “daily with his brush”.

Benevolent emptiness

a painting of three people in traditional Greek or Italian dress standing amidst ruins from antiquityWandering Musicians (circa 1878). Oil on canvas© Tate
By the time Dadd painted Wandering Musicians in 1878, of a musical Italian shepherd family standing on a hillside brimming with relics of antiquity, he had been incarcerated in Bethlem and Broadmoor almost all of his adult life. Tromans, writing in Richard Dadd: the Artist and the Asylum, describes the shepherd as having the “air of a rejuvenated self portrait”.

The painting he says, “seems to speak of a kind of benevolent emptiness, of an everyday rustic world that has always been there and always will be, in which a content couple pause before moving on.”

Dadd died following a bout of tuberculosis on January 8 1886. He was buried in the Broadmoor cemetery.

  • The Art of Bedlam: Richard Dadd is at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village until November 1. Visit for more information.

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