The Artist and the Asylum
London: Tate Publishing, 2011
Hardback, 208 pp. ISBN 978-1854379597. £24.00
Reviewed by Laurent Bury
Université Lumière – Lyon 2
When dealing with Richard Dadd (1817-1886), it is impossible to avoid mentioning madness, but it would be a mistake to reduce him to that aspect. Though Dadd’s artistic career spanned most of the Victorian age, he actually spent most of his life locked in various lunatic asylums, after he killed his father in a fit of dementia, when he was barely 25. Till now, one mainly had to rely on the catalogue written by Patricia Allderidge, “Bedlam’s most loyal historian” , to accompany the exhibition at the Tate in 1974, The Late Richard Dadd. Since then, research has revealed new information and it was high time another vision of Dadd was offered to the public. Nicholas Tromans’s elegant narrative reads like a biography, but it also includes a serious discussion of the painter’s work, focusing on subgenres like fairy painting or Orientalism. Indeed, Tromans seems to have read all the necessary sources, be it on the collecting patterns of Northern industrialists or, more obviously perhaps, Foucault’s now contested History of Madness.
In the early 1840s, Richard Dadd was still a promising young artist who specialised in Shakespearean scenes – including the splendid Titania recently acquired by the Louvre –, a category which provided Angela Carter with the title for her radio-play “Come Unto These Yellow Sands” (1979). Those works display a “giddying medley of sources” , capturing “Shakespeare’s pivoting between the sublime and the sexual, the natural and the fantastic” . Dadd might have continued providing that kind of literary genre painting if he had not been chosen by Sir Thomas Phillips (1801-1867) when he set off for an extended Grand Tour including the Near East. Phillips needed a draughtsman to bring back memories from his trip, and Dadd was recommended to him. The journey was all but a bed of roses: Dadd complained of the terrible conditions, and was particularly frustrated never to have time enough to complete elaborate studies of the magnificent “subjects” he found almost everywhere. This travel would prove too much for the artist’s mental balance, since “the genetic gun [was] loaded”: indeed, most of his family members had already been, or would sooner or later be, institutionalised because they suffered from all sorts of “behavioural problems” [80-81].
Determined to destroy the enemies of God, believing himself the son of the sun, Dadd eventually killed his father on 28 August 1843, during a walk in Cobham Park. Having fled to France, the young painter was arrested and admitted to the Maison d’Aliénés de Clermont, Oise, on 20 September 1843. Some ten months later, he was discharged to British authorities and, without trial, he was sent into permanent custody. Retrospective diagnosis is a difficult art, but it seems clear that he suffered from schizophrenia, declaring himself guided by his spirits. As Tromans cogently shows, “Dadd thus renounced total creative freedom […] If spirits influenced the making of art, then the naturalist’s rhetoric of ‘I saw this’ was no longer credible” [89-90]. The watercolours which Dadd started to create, using the many sketches gathered in his notebooks, thus offered a very idiosyncratic vision of the East; the Oriental landscapes he painted while at Bedlam were allowed to reach the art market and were bought by various collectors. Nicholas Tromans shows that Dadd’s art then evolved into two styles, with the use of fine stippling to represent the places he had visited, and a flatter, more linear manner for invented subjects. What characterises the painter’s imagery is “his loss of a shared human scale” , the miniature and the epic being more comfortable for Dadd than everyday life.
Tromans also studies Dadd’s relations with the different doctors who looked after him, either in Bedlam, where he stayed from 1844 to 1864 (Pugin had been an inmate of Bedlam in 1852), or in Broadmoor, where he also spent two decades. At Bethlem Hospital, to give the institution its official name, Charles W. Hood recognised his patient as an artist (he would eventually own 53 of his works, some of which he had commissioned), but still labelled him “Dangerous”. Broadmoor, the first purpose-built state criminal lunatic asylum, housed a more working-class, less distinguished population; there, the diagnostic became simply one of “melancholia, with delusions”.
Was Dadd’s work visible at the time? The question cannot be easily answered. It seems at least that in the second half of the 1870s, things changed positively, and there was “a modest ‘Dadd Revival’ ” . In 1876, the British Museum bought one of his Sketches to Illustrate the Passions, of which he had produced no less than 32 between 1853 and 1857. Almost simultaneously, the South Kensington Museum (the future Victoria & Albert) acquired some of his Egyptian drawings, plus several important watercolours. For Christmas 1877, an article about Dadd was published in The World.
Dadd’s posthumous reputation is a fascinating topic, which Tromans duly analyses. In the early twentieth century, modern art was often considered degenerate, the work of “lunatics”, and at the same time, the art really created by “madmen” started to attract more attention. In August 1913, soon after Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibitions, George Henry Savage, a former Superintendent of Bethlem Hospital, organised a show of “works by mad artists”, which included one of Dadd’s Passions, a watercolour very appositely entitled Agony – Raving Madness, which was reproduced by various popular magazines. Dadd’s most ambitious painting, and today his well-beloved masterpiece, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke (1855-64), was given to Siegfried Sassoon in 1933, who lent it to the Ashmolean and finally gave it to the Tate in 1963. This gift to the nation coincided with “the decisive turning of policy-makers against the asylum, while intellectuals began to be seduced by the idea that all psychiatry was corrupt” . The time was ripe for a reappraisal of Dadd’s work and personality, and the artist became a hero of counter-culture. John Rickett, of Sotheby’s (a firm which had recently sold several works by Dadd), and who himself owned some, published a landmark article in 1964, but his early death in 1970 prevented him from taking his research further. Patricia Allderidge, the archivist of Bedlam, started campaigning in favour of the artist, which led to the retrospective exhibition at the Tate and a flurry of publications. Dadd also became “the most fictionalised of any British artists” , inspiring Angela Carter, as already said, but also Michael Hoffmann for the poem “The Late Richard Dadd”, and Freddie Mercury for his song “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke”. Many novels and short stories include Dadd as a hero or as a background figure: one can think of Isaure de Saint-Pierre’s L’Œil d’Osiris (1980) or Jennifer Higgie’s Bedlam (2006).
Nicholas Tromans’s volume is completed by several appendixes: the text of Dadd’s descriptive poem, “Elimination of a Picture & its subject – called The Feller’s Master Stroke”, Dadd’s casenotes, a complete transcription of the notes made by the artist’s various doctors, a Bibliography and an Index.
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