Some of you may recall an Antiques Roadshow of 1987. An elderly couple brought in a picture of a night scene in the desert with horses, palm trees and a group of travellers around a camp fire.
The art expert, Peter Nahum, maintained the controlled and measured manner familiar to AR watchers but you could see that he was excited. He knew about this picture though he had never seen it before, he was an expert on 19th century paintings. The picture was painted by Richard Dadd (1817 – 1884) of his travels in the middle-east in 1842 and known to the art world as ‘The Artists Halt in the Desert’. In 1857 the painting went missing after an exhibition and was not seen again until Antiques Roadshow in 1987.
The painting was later sold to the British Museum for £100,000. It is a powerfully peaceful and tranquil scene; artistically unique in that it is lit by two light sources, the moon illuminates the background and the figures are lit by the light of the fire. The scene is so gentle and quiet but subsequent events were of such violence that one can but wonder at the abrupt change. A week or two later, Dadd underwent a personality change and became violent and convinced that he was controlled by the Egyptian god Orsiris.
See the discovery of the Richard Dadd painting in this film from 4:25.
On returning home Dadd was declared insane and taken into the bosom of his family in Cobham, Kent. Here he became convinced that his father was the devil in disguise. He murdered his father while they were out walking and fled to France. There an unfortunate tourist was attacked with a razor but survived. Dadd was repatriated and committed to the Bethlem Hospital. This was known as Bedlam and the building is now the Imperial War Museum.
Dadd was encouraged to continue painting by his psychiatrists, or Alienists as they were called in those days. He produced many masterpieces, the best known is ‘The Fairy Fellers Master-Stroke‘. You will see from the link that it inspired one of Queen’s songs.
When I heard that there was an exhibition of Dadd’s paintings at the Watt Gallery in Compton near Guildford, I dragged my wife along. She has spent several years educating prisoners in Winchester prison. She told me that prisoners all paint similar pictures; small and with meticulous details. So it was with Dadds.
Dadd’s pictures are small and contain incredible amounts of meticulous detail. He painted other works too. His figures sit looking vacant and uninteresting but the background is a wealth of vibrant detail. His landscapes also are full of detail. He was confined to his prison cell and had no opportunity to paint from life. All the detail comes from his imagination. There is a series of portraits illustrating the human emotions; fear, love, jealousy, grief and anger. Dadd understood human emotions. Today Dadd would have been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. He would probably have been given so many psychotropic drugs that he would have had no will to paint.
The exhibition is open until the end of October at the Watts Gallery. Richard Dadd 1817-1886. Studied at the Royal Academy of Art, London. Regarded as a notable talent. Travelled to the middle-east where his madness began in 1842. Murdered his father in 1843. Committed to Bethlem Hospital as Criminally Insane. Later in Broadmoor 1864. Painted throughout the rest of his life. Died of tuberculosis 1886.
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