December 14, 2011 9:14:00 AM
It is a commonplace that madness and genius are but a hairsbreadth away on the spectrum of human behavior. I do not know that anyone has ever tried objectively to correlate the two, but I have the impression that people of genius are no more likely to be afflicted with mental disorders than anyone else, and that mental disorders can keep genius from showing itself. One of the artists of genius that was literally mad was Richard Dadd, whose illness and lifelong confinement to Victorian asylums did not keep his paintings, fanciful or realistic, from being beautiful and interesting and strange. His life and work has been given a sympathetic overview, with reproductions of some of his most beautiful paintings, in Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum (D. A. P.) by art historian Nicholas Tromans. Tromans admits that he is not doing a clinical study ("I do not know what was wrong with Dadd."), and does not know what Dadd's mental state or process was when he was making his pictures. The remarkable paintings, though, show intricate planning even at their most bizarre or fanciful, and no one could guess from looking at them that they issued from confinement in mental institutions.
Dadd was born in 1817, one of seven children. His mother died when he was seven. His father was a chemist who was devoted to fossil hunting and kept an amateur museum of curiosities. Dadd showed early talent as an artist. In 1834 his father took the family to London where he would have a business in gilding and in art supplies; it might be that the father was motivated by hopes for Dadd's career. Dadd entered the school of the Royal Academy in 1837, and exhibited within the Society of British Artists which was near his home. He moved to a quarter of London favored by artists, and interacted with many Victorian genre painters; students of the Academy were left without much guidance from their professors, so they supported and stimulated each other.
From the start, Dadd was interested in illustrating literary fancies. Among the first of the pictures here is an engraving of his illustration for the poem "Robin Goodfellow," showing Robin (or Puck) cavorting with little goblins who cling to flowers and mushrooms. Fairyland had become a realm of endeavor for literary painters. Dadd was to interpret, for instance, the collision of fairy and human worlds in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the appearance of Ariel and other spirits in The Tempest, and the speech in Romeo and Juliet where Mercutio describes the activities of Queen Mab. Fairies were taken as allegories of the natural world, or as representation of some better world. (Tromans does not mention that sometimes fairies were considered real, by, for instance, those who were taken in by the Cottingley Fairy hoax of eighty years later.) Fairy paintings provided a thoroughly acceptable way for an artist to show beings without clothes, and to engage in extravagant visual imaginings realistically presented.
Sir Thomas Phillips was a solicitor, knighted by Queen Victoria for putting down a Chartist rebellion in 1839. He was still a young man, and decided that before he established his practice in London, he would take a Grand Tour in 1842. The idea was already quaint, but he felt that a gentleman such as himself needed to be accompanied by an artist to record the sights, and a friend recommended Dadd. "A dose of drawing real buildings and people," writes Tromans, "might do him no harm after inventing all those fairies." The ten month trip was to the classical sites of Italy and Greece, but also to Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Cairo. Dadd kept up a sketchbook, but complained that his host was whizzing him to new places without the time he needed to record what he saw. He did portraits of Phillips, some in Arab costume. Phillips looks as if he suspects something, and indeed he was worried about Dadd's sanity. When the subject of religion or politics came up, Phillips said that Dadd would give way to "violence of expression," and would claim that paganism had better effects than Christianity and that someone was spying on him or attempting to injure his health. Dadd left precipitously from Paris for London, where he attempted to continue his career.
Dadd's friends worried about his behavior and his talk of such things as diabolic possession, and watched him carefully, which must have increased his concern that people were watching him. His father asked for a medical evaluation, and the Physician to St. Luke's Hospital for Lunatics issued the opinion that he was dangerous and needed hospitalization, although the physician does not seem to have taken the trouble to interview Dadd himself. On 28 August 1843, Dadd pressed his father to take a walk in Cobham Park. Dadd became sure that he was acting under the influence of the god Osiris, and knifed his father to death. He had the sense of mind to flee to France, but in a coach he got a sign from the stars to attack a fellow passenger. He was taken into custody, and was to be the first person extradited under the new agreement between Britain and France.
Dadd was classed as a "criminal lunatic," and sent to the Bethlem Hospital; this was the officially accepted nickname of the Bethlehem Hospital, whereas the now more familiar "Bedlam" was the unofficial nickname. Twenty years later, he was sent to Broadmoor Hospital when the thinking was that criminal lunatics ought to be separated from other lunatics and given a place to themselves. Thus, Dadd was confined for the rest of his life (he died in 1886). He never committed further acts of violence, although his peculiar religious and paranoid ideas continued. There was not really any treatment for his condition, which was probably schizophrenia, although freezing showers and other bodily insults may have been tried. Nonetheless, Dadd remained devoted to painting, and his guards and wardens did him the service of encouraging him in his efforts. Before his breakdown, he had had patrons who bought his paintings (most of these for some reason were midland industrialists), and afterwards it was mostly the superintendents of his institutions that got his work. Of course Dadd no longer had to be concerned about having an income from his works, but one doctor who was able to collect Dadd's watercolors wrote in his diary that he had sent money to an attendant "to buy apples for Dadd." Eventually he became interested in woodcarving, and worked on frames for his pictures, and on decorating chairs for a private school near Broadmoor; he must have impressed his supervisors if they would trust him with a knife for such work.
Dadd produced sensitive portraits, and a series to illustrate the passions like treachery and recklessness. He worked oriental images into his paintings, and used his sketchbook from his tour as a start to produce handsome oils and watercolors of the desert, camels, and caravanserai. His Flight Out of Egypt (1849-50) shows a huge and colorful crowd around an oasis, Arabs, soldiers, tradesmen, and children, many of whom seem to be trying to communicate with others with little success. The two archetypal Dadd canvases here are Contradiction: Oberon and Titania (1854 - 1858) and The Fairy Feller's Masterstroke (1855 - 1864), both brilliant and strange oils crammed with flowers, grasses, satyrs, fairies, wizards, gnomes, and a bit of everything else, with figures of different scale and perspective and period. Tromans has realized that a page-sized picture of the Masterstroke will not do, and has included six welcome pages of enlargements so that we can see some of the detail that Dadd pushed into every square inch.
These are indeed pictures that can never be seen in full, even in enlargement - there is simply too much going on in them. It is good that the book has a large format, and Tromans has given a generous selection of the many types of painting Dadd produced. Dadd was extraordinarily gifted, and had an extraordinarily strange life. Within his imprisonment, he produced glowing, intricate works that reflect little of what must have been intense restrictions; he socialized little, and he never had women to model for him. There is the big question of how much his madness affected his art. Tromans reviews attempts to classify the art of the insane; there was a hackneyed list of characteristics like "obsessive pattern-making, the use of symbols and calligraphy, and the invention of creatures amalgamated from human and animal parts." Dadd did none of these, and his diverse inventiveness resists categorization. Tromans simply reflects, "His asylum art did not seem to say much about his condition." It is one of the supreme examples we have of an artist creating from life but unfettered by its darkness.