The Work of Richard Dadd

English artist Richard Dadd, famous for his magnificently detailed paintings of mythical beings is widely regarded as the quintessential insane artist but this romantic myth hides the true nature of his talent and illness.  The fourth of nine children, Dadd’s incredible artistic ability was obvious from an early age and he was trained in miniature painting during his formative years before going to study in the Royal Academy in London in 1837.  Among his peers at art school, he was widely regarded as the brightest and the best, winning a medla for his virtuosity, and it was noted that his friends regarded him as an intelligent, gentle and cheerful character.  Following the long standing tradition Dadd left for Europe and the Middle East with Sir Thomas Phillips to make drawings and study classical art.  When he returned in 1843 it was clear that something had changed and the previously contented artist had begun to exhibit worrying signs of severe mental illness.  During his travels in Egypt Dadd had become delusional and violent, believing himself to be under the influence of the god Osiris.  Mistaking his behaviour as a severe case of sunstroke no diagnosis was made until his return to England when he was found to be of ‘unsound mind’ and sent to recuperate with his family in Kent with tragic results.  As his delusions and hallucinations escalated, he became convinced that his father was the devil and in 1843 he stabbed him to death before fleeing for France.  During his journey he attempted to kill a tourist with a razor blade but luckily he was subdued and detained by police.  After confessing to the murder he was confined to the criminal department of Bedlam where he would spend the rest of his life.  We now know that mental illness ran in his family and that 3 other siblings were affected.  Dadd was cared for by progressive doctors by the standards of the time and was encouraged to continue painting.  It was here that he created his masterpieces including the staggeringly complex and beautiful painting ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke’  which took him 9 years to complete.  Contrary to popular misconceptions, Dadd was most creative during moments of lucidity and it seems plausible that his fantastical choice of subject matter was his way of escaping the reality of his life, his illness, his imprisonment and his crimes.  The staggeringly detailed work suggests a total immersion and extraordinary discipline and talent that evoked elements of popular pre-raphaelite painting and miniature painting techniques of the time but at an accelerated standard and intensity.  During 42 years of confinement, he relied almost entirely on his own imagination and incredible visual memory referring only to one known sketchbook he took in with him.  Some of his smallest works are postcard sized and reveal memories of the sights he saw during his travels and imagined scenes all rendered with an incredibly fine brush using a technique he painstakingly developed over the course of many years.  Though we fetishise and romanticise the idea of the isolated, tortured, insane artist, evidence shows that although this life experience and perception may influence the content of the work, the illness it’s self hampers creativity as it does every other aspect of a functioning human-being.  ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke’ has since become the source of inspiration for an incredible diversity of musicians, poets and novelists from Queen to Robert Rankin and remains a source of revelatory escapism and inspiration for creative minds.

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