Between 7 November and 6 February, Bethlem Museum of the Mind – the ‘original Bedlam’ – plays host to an exhibition of the Victorian artist, Richard Dadd, who produced a number of works whilst detained at the hospital. Deborah Caulfield surveys the scene, finding a few gaping holes in this retrospective.
Before seeing this exhibition I’d thought of Richard Dadd as (just) a crazy murderer who was given a box of paints to keep him quiet, to while away his thirty-odd years in the madhouse. A Victorian faerie folk hero revered for pictures of impenetrable weirdness, an outsider kept inside for safety’s sake. That is all I knew.
This exhibition doesn’t aim to explain the how, why or what of Dadd’s illness. Arguably it doesn’t matter. Yet I do wonder about the circumstances that led to him and his two, possibly three, siblings to be committed?
It seems he was bipolar, psychosis having first occurred in Egypt during a tour to the Middle East and Greece as artist-companion to the lawyer and politician, Sir Thomas Phillips.
Dadd abandoned the tour early, returning home by all accounts a changed man. Then he murdered his father who he believed to be the devil.
In 1844, age 27, Richard Dadd arrived at the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum ‘without any prospect of departure’. He was a prolific and successful artist, a rising star with everything going his way. His friend and fellow artist Frith called him a ‘man of genius.’
By the time Dadd entered the mental health system conditions had improved. Gone were the straw and fetters. The rooms no longer ‘resembled dog kennels’ and the windows had glass in them. As John Timb wrote: ‘The management of lunatics has here attained perfection.’
Perhaps Dadd’s keepers thought some easel painting would be good for him, and maybe it was. Or maybe it wasn’t. It was certainly good for us.
The fact is, Dadd was compelled to paint. He simply couldn’t help it. Art was his life.
At age 13 he was drawing regularly in the British Museum. He then trained at The Royal Academy schools. While he was there he set up The Clique, a group of talented rebels, to challenge the RA’s authority and old fashioned ways.
Dadd’s Self Portrait (1841) shows a relaxed and unblemished face. The ink marks are tiny, delicate and precise. The textural variation in the hair and clothing is strikingly sensitive.
Unlike Van Gogh, from whose canvases anguish and instability ooze like paint from an over-filled tube, there are few, if any, signs of mental torment in Dadd’s work. One might reasonably conclude that there was nothing ‘wrong’ with him. Indeed, as Julian Bell wrote: ‘Dadd was as normal as they come; most artists are anomalous.’
Aside from his portraits and his incredibly detailed and fantastical ‘fairy’ works, Dadd painted illustrative scenes from literature, and exotic and allegoric and mythological dramas. He created from his imagination, using his own detailed on-the-spot sketches, pattern books or catalogues, for reference.
The Bethlem Art of Bedlam exhibition is billed as ‘a major retrospective.’ But it doesn’t include Dadd’s most popular and densely populated work, The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke (1855-64) which is owned by the Tate Gallery.
Instead, there is a reproduction with explanatory enlargements and texts of certain sections of the original. There is also the strange (but interesting) poem written by Dadd about the painting and how it came about.
While this is all wonderful and helpful, it hardly fills the gaping hole where the masterpiece should have been.
I won’t hide my disappointment, but I’m not complaining. There is plenty here to delight and inspire. Sketch for an Idea of Crazy Jane (1855) takes its name from a popular ballad of the period, about a young woman made crazy by her lover’s betrayal. The composition, colour and lightness of tone and brushwork – especially the sky – give this watercolour a soft, drifting, wistful air. The model was probably a man, maybe the artist himself.
Another watercolour that stands out is Sketch to Illustrate the Passions – Grief or Sorrow (1854). Deep in a wood, on a tomb, is a statue of a female, her hooded face turned upwards. Above her sits death (in the form of a skeleton) throwing a sideways glance. All around, branches, stems and foliage criss-cross in front and behind. The scene is eerie and magical. Perhaps due to the composition’s symmetry, it is also somehow rather comforting.
Most of my childhood was spent in hospitals of one kind or another, so they are among my least favourite places to visit. Cemeteries are more peaceful and less ambiguous.
In becoming a museum, Bethlem Hospital may have hit on a winning idea, as long as it pays. Currently there’s no entry charge, but when the Big Lottery 11 money runs out I expect this policy will be reviewed. For now, a donation of £2 is suggested.
The income generation practice of admitting the public to see the lunatics at one penny each ended in 1770.