The other day I found myself at a loose end and so, as I’d been meaning to do for quite some time, I went with Hurricane Jack to the Richard Dadd exhibition at Orleans House in Twickenham, which as it happened was in its final week.
Richard Dadd is primarily famous for two things – fairy paintings and being insane. Outsider art, particularly that produced by the mentally ill, holds a strange fascination for me. I suppose it’s because art, perhaps more effectively than any other form of expression, offers a view into the mind. Art is heavily reliant on emotion and imagination, and as such is an ideal gauge of the mind. I’m not the first one to suggest this, of course, and art therapy is these days a popular form of psychiatric treatment.
In the 19th century, of course, there was no such thing as art therapy. Hell, there was hardly anything you’d even call therapy in the modern sense. However, during Richard Dadd’s periods in Bedlam and Broadmoor, he produced a number of works of art that are these days regarded as classics of outsider art – although given that he was an established and respected mainstream painter, it’s debatable whether you could really call him an “outsider artist.”
I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. Dadd was born in 1817 and, from a young age, was considered a highly talented artist. A number of his works were put on show at the Royal Academy and he received several commissions from wealthy patrons. Unfortunately, he also exhibited a number of unusual personality traits which were amplified during a trip to the Middle East. He became violent and deluded, hearing voices and developing the belief that he was descended from Osiris and obliged to fight the Devil. The Devil, he believed, was capable of taking human form, and one of the forms he took was that of Dadd’s own father. Therefore, on 28th August 1843, he murdered his father and fled to France. He was arrested and put in Bedlam. Among his personal effects were a number of sketches of friends and family members with their throats cut and a list of people who he felt had to die. The general consensus now seems to be that he was afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia.
During his period in Bedlam he produced his most famous works, including the intricate fairy painting, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke. This is commonly regarded as his masterpiece, inspiring a song by Queen and the Terry Pratchett novel The Wee Free Men. The intense detail in this and his other fairy paintings tends to be seen as a sign of an obsessive mind (although you might also argue that it’s a sign of someone with a lot of time and very little to do, but then, I’m not an art critic or therapist).
The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke wasn’t in the exhibition, nor were any of Dadd’s other fairy paintings. Actually, the exhibition seemed almost apologetic about this fact. I think this was unnecessary – it’s very often the case with artists, particularly notorious ones, that a particular work or type of work they did has been allowed to eclipse other, equally worthy works.
So what we have in this exhibition is, basically, The Rest. A selection of Dadd’s art from before his arrest and throughout his time at Bedlam and Broadmoor. Quite a lot of it is, I’ll be honest, rather pretty. If you didn’t know its origins, you wouldn’t be able to tell it was the work of a schizophrenic. I rather liked his stained glass work. However, there were a number of works seemingly produced as a deliberate expression of his mental state – the evocative “Passions” series stood out for me, which features allegorical figures representing various negative qualities. Some of these appear to have been painted from life, including a couple of representations of the architecture of Bedlam.