"Away with the Fairies" - The Victorian Painter Richard Dadd

1 August 1817, the Victorian painter Richard Dadd, noted for his highly detailed scenes of fairy paintings and spending most of his life in psychiatric hospitals, was born in Chatham, Kent.

“He's a fairy feller
The fairy folk have gathered round the new moon shine
To see the feller crack a nut at nights noon time
To swing his ace he swears, as it climbs he dares
To deliver...
The master-stroke“ (Queen, “The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke“, 1974)

Richard Dadd: "The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke" (1855-1864)

is a dragonfly in the upper left playing the trumpet, just as if it had walked in from a Hieronymus Bosch painting after sounding the fanfare for an apocalypse there. The rest is quite Shakespearian in a Midsummer Night’s dreamscapish way. Oberon and Titania are there, the royal fairy couple watching the drama of getting the coachwork for rival royalty’s vehicle prepared, Queen Mab’s, the fairy midwife, of “and she comes / In shape no bigger than an agate-stone / On the fore-finger of an alderman“-fame. And since the old hazelnut that was her chariot apparently had its day, a new chariot is on the stocks and a fairy feller is about to strike his master-stroke, cutting a hazelnut exactly in two halves. A feat that draws all kinds of English otherworldy denizens, some in Elizabethan garb and period beards, some dressed-up in last season’s dandy attire, two voluptuous maids with legs like Soviet shot-putters and a satyr-like creature peeking under their skirts. Good Queen Mab is present herself, of course, looking a bit oversized for a chariot made from the shell of a hazelnut and casting a cold glance at Titania’s stern post instead of the faery feller’s feat. The elfin woodsman is posed to strike, waiting for the word of the Patriarch wearing his triple crown that grows vegetational extensions with Mab’s conveyance riding on it, “Drawn with a team of little atomies / Athwart men's noses as they lie asleep; / Her wagon-spokes made of long spiders' legs, / The cover of the wings of grasshoppers, / The traces of the smallest spider's web, / The collars of the moonshine's watery beams, / Her whip of cricket's bone, the lash of film, / Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat“. And up in the right-hand corner are the seven figures from the children’s counting rhyme that foretells boys their future trade and girls their prospective husbands’, soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor, ploughboy, apothecary, thief, dressed up in the fashion of the artist’s own childhood in the 1820s. In regards to possible future trades, the rhyme leaves out “artist” as well as “schizophrenic patricide”, but that was the painter’s fate. When Richard Dadd had almost finished his own opus magnum, “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke” in 1864 after nine years of meticulously painting enchanted details quite apart from contemporary art trends and styles, he was about to be transferred from the criminal department of Bethlem Royal Hospital, Bedlam, where he was kept since 1843, to Broadmoore Hospital in Berkshire for the rest of his life.

Richard Dadd: "Titania Sleeping" (1841)

, Spenser, Shakespeare, the Romantic Movement had not only resurrected and firmly established the Victorian appreciation of the giants of English 16th and 17th century’s literature but put their fairy worlds into the limelight of popular taste. William Blake and Henry Fuseli were artistic forerunners before the industrial revolution began in earnest and the demand for staged as well as painted counter-drafts, otherworlds, grew into a market catered by the Georgian and early Victorian pop artists like William Etty, John Martin and even Edwin Landseer when he didn’t do dogs, horses, and the Highlands and so did the famous satirist George Cruikshank. Not that the sujet was completely trivialised, though, Turner, a true-blue Romantic, painted fairyscapes and the Pre-Raphaelites took to it like the lads to strong drink on stag night. But most of the illustrated fairy tales where just that and wouldn’t look odd gracing biscuit tins or chocolate boxes. Many did. When he was a promising young artist and one of the youngest members of the Royal Academy, Richard Dadd had already created a few fairy paintings à la mode, remarkable only to connoisseurs of the genre, but back then good enough to get him hired as draughtsman for the politician and entrepreneur Sir Thomas Phillips’ expedition to the eastern Mediterranean world by recommendation of the Scottish painter David Roberts, who certainly was an authority on depictions of scenes out east from the life. Greece, the Near East and Egypt did things to young Richard, however. Not that he didn’t do the job he was hired for. He actually drew some rather remarkable scenes of picturesque sights seen en route, but all of a sudden, he began to let Sir Thomas’ entourage know that he was illuminated and influenced by Osiris, no less. Sunstroke was the diagnosis and he was sent home to recuperate. Unfortunately, Dadd’s disease picture was far worse than the effects of going out in the midday sun in tropical climes.

Richard Dadd working on Contradiction: Oberon and Titania (1854/1858)

According to his contemporaries, Richard loved his father dearly and the old man, a chemist by profession, accompanied his son to Cobham, hoping that the very un-Osirian surroundings would cure him from his delusions. One fine August evening in 1843, while they walked in Cobham Park, Richard, all of a sudden, drew a knife and stabbed his father to death. He believed, as he later confessed, that he was the devil in disguise. It obviously wasn’t a spontaneous act, since Dadd already had his things together and managed to escape to France. He was finally caught when he tried to slash a fellow passenger in a coach with a razor. Under the influence of demons, as he later confessed, when he was sent back to England, tried as a patricide and found to be a criminal lunatic to be locked away for life in Bedlam. Later, he confessed he had wanted to kill the pope as well when he saw him on St Peter’s Square back in ’42 en route back home to England, but found him too well guarded for an attempt and a tourist in the Vatican Museum escaped a grisly fate as well, probably while staring at some painting depicting a Freudian primal scene. The corridors were quite well monitored even back then. Dadd’s sunstroke might have been a form of paranoid schizophrenia, not that the symptoms were recognised as such, at least not before Bénédict Morel described “démence précoce“ in 1860. However, Dadd was allowed to paint in Bedlam and later in Broadmoore. More than 60 drawings, watercolours and oil paintings came about during his more than 40 years in closed institutions, one of his doctors, William Charles Hood, collected them, since they did have a considerable artistic value, they were even sold the outside world. All of his works are highly detailed, at least in their depictions of floral elements, to a degree of pedantry, while Dadd’s human and fairy figures are usually slightly distorted and wear either outdated or historical costumes, as one cut off from the outside world might remember them, along with a typical fixed stare and tons of detail for psychological interpretation. Even if the artist himself wrote "You can afford to let this go /For nought as nothing it explains / And nothing from nothing nothing gains" in his epic-length doggerel “Elimination of a Picture & its Subject—called The Fellers' Master Stroke” accompanying his own master-stroke. He died in 1886, aged 68, “from an extensive disease of the lungs". His legacy as an artist, some of it still at display in Broadmoore Hospital, remained an insider’s tip for lovers of fairies and fairy tales, especially those with a Gothic nuance, ever since. From Octavio Paz and Angela Carter to Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and Freddy Mercury.

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