Richard Dadd’s most famous canvas, The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke. Completed between 1855-1864 while the artist was at Bethlem Asylum

Born in 1817, artist Richard Dadd created delicate and detailed renderings of fantastical scenes.

He also murdered his own father in order to appease Osiris, the Ancient Egyptian god of the Underworld.

As a result, Richard Dadd spent much of his adult life locked up in the ‘criminal lunatics’ ward of Bethlem Hospital, better known pop culturally as ‘Bedlam’. Dadd died in 1886, one of the earliest inmates of the notorious Broadmoor High Security Psychiatric Hospital, Berkshire.

But before he fell prey to both his own demons and his family tendency to mental illness, Richard Dadd was a rising star on the London art scene.

While still a teen Dadd had already gained a reputation for his fine draftsmanship, and in 1837, at the age of 20, he was admitted as a student to Royal Academy of Art.

He won the Academy’s annual medal for life drawing in 1840 and by the time he’d completed his studies, Dadd was already carving out a reputation for himself as one of the most precocious artistic talents of his generation.

As a student in London Dadd had been one of the founding members of a group of young artists calling themselves ‘the Clique‘. While other members would go on to find fame as the leading British artists of their day, none could have foreseen that Richard Dadd was about to make his name for very different reasons.

From Slow-Motion Selfies To Possessed By A Death God

Sir Thomas Phillips in ‘Oriental dress’ by Richard Dadd

In July 1842 Dadd was hired by Welsh lawyer and former mayor of Newport, Sir Thomas Phillips, to document his expedition through the Mediterranean and into the Middle East.

This was a great gig. Dadd was to accompany Sir Thomas all expenses paid, essentially so that he could provide the pre-photography, analogue equivalent of Instagram stories for Phillips’ dream vacation.

Not only would the young artist be earning a steady wage, he would be able to sketch and study the art and architecture of the ancient world and the Orient.

Orientalism was in vogue in the early 1840s. Fashionable Europeans consumers were obsessed with the foreign glamour of the unraveling Ottoman Empire, as their governments vied for control over former Ottoman territories. For an ambitious young artist like Dadd, this was the opportunity of a lifetime.

But it was during this expedition that others first began to notice Dadd’s deteriorating mental state.

Osiris Wishes You Would Kill The Pope

Sailing ships painted by Richard Dadd

By Christmas, Dadd and Sir Thomas had covered a dizzying itinerary, which saw the pair travel from Germany across the Italian Alps and down through Italy, by boat across to Greece, then on to Turkey, overland down through the Levant and into the Holy Lands.

They had recently visited the Dead Sea and were travelling along the Nile up through Egypt, when Dadd became convinced that the Ancient Egyptian god of the Underworld, Osiris, was attempting to take control of him.

His travel companions were alarmed by Dadd’s increasingly erratic and at times violent behavior, but at first they attributed it to heatstroke.

But later, when the party arrived back in Rome, Dadd became determined to kill the Pope, and had to be restrained during a public appearance by the pontiff.

As Dadd’s violent tendencies became increasingly difficult to manage, Sir Thomas had increasing reason to fear the young artist, who had started to act out violently against his long-time patron.

Eventually it became clear that Dadd’s condition was not going improve while he was still on road. In no state to continue the expedition, he departed from Paris back to England, in the hope that with rest he would recover his senses.

The All Ale And Boiled Egg Meal Plan

Painting of Roman god of medicine Aesculapius, made by Richard Dadd now part of the Wellcome Collection

Rather than return to his family, once back in London Richard Dadd secluded himself in lodgings and subsisted on boiled eggs and ale.

His mother, Mary Ann, had died some time before, but Dadd’s father, Robert, was privately concerned enough about his troubled painter son, that he consulted with a doctor who recommended Richard should be kept under restraint in a private asylum.

Robert Dadd shrunk from this suggestion. Conditions inside private asylums could be brutal and despite his son’s strange behavior, Robert Dadd couldn’t see how his good-natured, popular and talented son could pose a danger to others.

Richard’s brother, George William, was also showing signs of worsening mental illness and although publicly their father maintained there was nothing wrong with the boys, he wanted to help his sons restore their mental equilibrium.

Robert took lodgings in the Kent village of Cobham, hoping that the quiet pace of country life would help his sons recover their sanity.

This did not happen.

Kent Countryside Drives Dadd Deeper Into The Jaws Of Madness

Richard Dadd – The Flight From Egypt

Richard’s delusions of pursuit and persecution, which had plagued him since his time in Egypt, were had started to coalesce around the terrifying concept that he was under attack from the Devil. In Richard’s unraveling mind the Devil was a shape-shifter, who could adopt numerous guises – even those of the people closest to him.

By now Richard had come to believe that he was the son of Osiris, and that divine forces – led by his death-god father – were urging him to do battle with the Devil.

Unaware of all-encompassing nature of his son’s delusions, Robert Dadd arranged for Richard to accompany him to Cobham, in the hope that the 26-year-old would ‘disburden his mind’ to his sympathetic father.

On August 28th 1843, the two men dined together at an inn and walked together in the peaceful Kent countryside.

At about 11.00pm the pair reached a local chalk pit, at which point Richard took out a knife and razor he had brought with him for the purpose, and stabbed his father to death. Satisfied he had destroyed the Devil, Richard Dadd fled the scene.

Should This Bloodspattered Englishman Be Sharing My Train Carriage?

Richard Dadd – Mercy (David Spareth Saul’s Life)

Richard Dadd then headed to the coast where he boarded a ferry for Calais, still wearing the same bloodstained clothes he’d had on at the time of the murder.

He managed to make it across the Channel, but was arrested en route to Paris when he attempted to murder one of the other passengers in his train carriage.

Fortunately the stranger survived Dadd’s knife attack and the fugitive painter was handed over to the British authorities.

When questioned about the murder, he told doctors that it had been necessary to kill the Devil who was imitating his father, as a sacrifice his true father Osiris.

When police searched Dadd’s London lodgings they found gory sketches of friends and family with their throats slit, and surmised that Dadd had been planning further slayings in the name of the Egyptian gods.

Clearly unfit to stand trial, Dadd was confined on the ‘criminal lunatics’ ward of the infamous Bethlam Hospital. He was to remain there for over two decades.

You Don’t Have To Be Mad To Work Here, But It’s Not Like You’ve Got Anything Better To Do

The artist Richard Dadd working on the canvas of Titania Sleeping, while a patient on the ‘Criminal Lunatics’ Ward at Bethlem Hospital

If Dadd had been born a generation earlier, his story – as well as his artistic career – would most likely have ended when he entered Bethlem asylum.

But despite their gory reputation, mid-nineteenth century psychiatric hospitals were about to undergo an era of reform.

A few years after Richard Dadd was admitted, Bethlem came under the directorship of the Sir William Charles Hood.

Sir William belonged to a wave of reformers who believed passionately in promoting the dignity and well-being of the mentally ill. Although their approach would come to be considered high-handed and paternalistic by 21st century standards, these early reformers shared a sincere belief in treating the severely mentally ill as patients, not as prisoners.

Sir William encouraged Dadd to go back to making art and made sure that he had the supplies he needed to create his most famous works, including The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke which Dadd completed over several years while at Bethlem.

No Family Reunion In Bedlam For the Mad Dadd Boys

Titania Sleeping by Richard Dadd – now part of the Louvre’s nineteenth-century English painting collection

Despite improvements ushered in by enlightened reformers, conditions at Bethlem – especially for so-called ‘criminal lunatics’ such as Dadd – were often restrictive.

Richard Dadd’s brother, George William Dadd, was also admitted to Bethlem in 1843.

Although they were admitted in the same year, and George William remained at Bethlem until he died, twenty-five years later, in 1868, the two brothers never actually met in all their time at the hospital.

George William had been admitted as an ordinary patient, while Richard was housed on the criminal wing. Security was so tight that even had the brothers wished it, no meeting between the two would have been permitted.

Of Robert and Mary Ann’s seven children, at least three suffered from serious mental illness. Richard’s sister Mary Elizabeth married painter John Phillip, a fellow Clique member from Dadd’s student days, but sadly also developed symptoms of psychosis. Another sibling lived for many years under the care of a private attendent, although the nature of their illness was kept closely guarded by the family.

From Bedlam To Broadmoor

Portrait of A Young Man by Richard Dadd circa 1853

Richard Dadd never gained insight into his condition and was plagued by delusions for the rest of his life. He continued to believe in the literal reality of various ancient gods and figures from mythology, and took a keen interest in a broad range of religious and mystical texts, from the Koran to the Talmud.

Even after twenty years in Bethlem, doctors still felt that Dadd posed a danger to others.

So when Broadmoor Hospital began to admit its first patients in 1864, Dadd was transferred to this notorious high-security psychiatric institution, where lived out his last two decades in relative quiet.

He continued to make art while at Broadmoor, right up until his death from a lung condition in 1886.

Examples of Richard Dadd’s can be seen on permanent display in various major national collections and his life and legacy have served as inspiration for many 20th century writers and musicians, including Freddie Mercury of Queen, novelist Angela Carter and fantasy author Terry Pratchet.




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