Richard Dadd: Who Became Quite Mad

I am finishing a story about the Victorian painter Richard Dadd for A Conspiracy of Shadows, the Book View Cafe all-original steampunk anthology.  This is a picture of Richard later in life.  My story takes place in 1842, before Richard went . . . quite mad.

Richard_dadd Richard Dadd was a Victorian-era painter who was once a very up-and-coming member of the Royal Academy, along with his other friends like Augustus Egg and William Powell Frith.  They called themselves “The Clique” and Richard was apparently the leader, or something very like one.

In 1842, Richard got what for a young Victorian man was an excellent invitation:  he was asked to travel around the world with Sir Thomas Phillips, a solicitor from Wales who had become a national hero due to putting down a “Chartist” riot.  Or rebellion.  Or something – using only a copy of the Riot Act between himself and the rabble’s bullets.  Shot, but not killed, Sir Thomas set out on a grand world tour.  In the days before photographs, an artist, preferably an excellent draughtsman, was needed.  For his drawing and painting ability as well as his excellent character and demeanor, Richard Dadd was the one Sir Thomas selected.

It was on this world-wide trip that Richard Dadd – became quite mad.  At some point after traveling through the Sinai and taking a cruise on the Nile River, Richard became convinced that he was a disciple of the Egyptian God Osiris.  This discipleship was of a murderous nature.  He attacked Sir Thomas, considered attacking the Pope during their visit in Rome, and was finally returned home to London, with sunstroke the suspected cause of his strange behavior.  After several visits with his friends that didn’t seem all that crazy, Richard’s father retired with him to the countryside.  It was there that Richard lured his father into a wood, slashed his throat, and finding that this did not kill him, finished his father off with a knife.  Richard then fled across the Channel, but was apprehended after attacking (unsuccessfully) a fellow passenger.  Richard was then committed to Bethlem or “Bedlam” Hospital for the Insane.

Richard Dadd is best-known today for his intricate fairy paintings, one of which is extremely famous, the subject of a song by Queen, and may be found in the Tate Museum, called “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.”  Another of his paintings was found on Antiques Roadshow and fetched 100,000 pounds.  The Fairy-Feller doesn’t mean “gentleman,” I don’t think.  I believe it refers to a fairy worker splitting a chestnut for the Fairy Queen’s carriage.  Basically, the thing was expressly made to one day be made into a song by Queen.

Here – you may listen to Queen, and view the painting.

I know rather more about Byron, Shelley, and the rest of them than I knew about Richard Dadd.  My impression after reading his letters and William Powell Frith’s commentary was – those fairies were real.  And Osiris is not a gentleman I’d care to meet up with in a dark alley at night.  No sir.  No indeed.  I should keep quite away from that fellow, if I had my druthers.

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Richard Dadd: Who Became Quite Mad — 5 Comments

  1. How odd though, that he just ran off the rails in mid life like that. It makes you wonder if he did not pick up some horrible disease in the Middle East, a fine place to this day to pick up a nasty bug. (Another great thought, especially for Victorians, is syphilis.)
    I assume he was interred at Bedlam? He would be a fine candidate for one of those post-mortem diagnosis panels. They could exhume him and, as it were, dig into it…
    (What do writers do? They ask why and how.)

  2. Hi Brenda – the current or most popularly-reported diagnoses are bipolar disease, or schizophrenia, with onset in his early 20’s. He also spent 5 days smoking “hubbly bubbly” in a water pipe with Arab companions near Jaffa, which I’m thinking must have been hashish. He depicted this scene in the very painting that was recently rediscovered and that appeared on Antiques Roadshow. He could also have gotten a disease in the Middle East, or traveling elsewhere on their Grand Tour. However, I’m thinking, he was only 24, and I think syphilitic madness took/takes longer. And, it was awfully sudden. It was very sad to read the tributes written by his friends in their biographies, as they continued their paths as successful artists and Richard went to Bedlam, then on to Broadmoor (newly-constructed for the criminally-insane). The picture of him here is apparently the ONLY picture.

  3. Syphilitic madness is generally considered third stage syphilis. However, this is like a cold virus that will give me a cold, you bronchitis, and a third person pneumonia. You can jump quite quickly from exposure to third stage, as you can with other spirochete-caused disease. Bipolar can show up around that time, too.

    A sad but interesting character. I look forward to the anthology!

  4. From a plot/character point of view, a rapid slide into syphilitic dementia could hardly be better. How nervous it must have made Dadd’s contemporaries!

  5. While writing the story, I found the memoir of William Powell Frith, one of the artists in “The Clique” that went on to relative fame and fortune, while Richard went to Bethlem Hospital. Frith describes how Augustus Egg, one of the other artists and friends, had learned of Richard’s madness and told Frith, who couldn’t believe it. Richard himself visited Frith several times, acting a little oddly, but not utterly crazy. The letter from the Holy Land that is frequently redacted that shows Richard’s “madness,” supposedly, was sent by Richard to Frith and is included in its entirety in the book. The other unusual experience that I had while writing the story is that it is a first-person narrative told by Richard, and I wrote the first two scenes before I read the long letters that Richard had written back home. Without reading them, I had gotten his “voice,” and the only differences were that he used a few words that aren’t current today, such as “The horses that one gets here are but sorry jades.”

    For example, the story begins at Missolonghi – as the automaton “Osiris” that haunts him is implied to be the embodiment of immortalized Byron:

    “I had not wanted to go to that place. You may think I possessed a ghoulish fear of war and blood and the ghosts of Greek maidens weeping over fallen heroes – but assuredly; no. Sir Thomas wished me to document our travels into piquant and foreign lands and had utmost confidence in my abilities.”