If you’re familiar with the world of Victorian art, Richard Dadd’s name may just ring a faint bell. An artist long forgotten until the surge of anti-psychiatry in the 1960s, his work set the foundations for modern fantasy, and paved the way for effective treatment of the criminally insane.
Dadd’s normal childhood was soon upturned, with his artistic knack being identified in adolescence, which led to him attending the Royal Academy of Arts. On a tour of the Middle East, his patron Sir Thomas Phillips, and Dadd himself, began to pick up on erratic behaviours that seemed entirely out of character. Dadd speculated murdering the pope at one point of the trip.
Deeming himself as under the guidance of the Egyptian God Osiris, Dadd returned to England in a fragile state of mind, retreating to live with family. Under the insistence of his father Dadd remained home, instead of under psychiatric care. However, his mind was troubled far beyond the remedies of this comforting environment; Dadd murdered his father after becoming convinced he was possessed by the Devil.
A newly passed legislation allowed Dadd to be tried under insanity, escaping the average condemnation of the mentally troubled. He was admitted to Broadmoor, where he experienced a new type of mental care; with an onus on nourishing the sick– a therapeutic approach to mental health as inspired by the then, recent works of Freud.
Dadd’s mental condition, being schizophrenic in nature, continued to worsen, albeit at a slow pace.
Dadd’s artistic prowess, however, continued to grow. It might just be arguable that the confining environment of prison, in conjunction with Dadd’s displaced mental state, enabled his artistic career to flourish like never before.
Newspapers reported on Dadd’s art long after his incarceration, empathising with his plight and celebrating his artistic talent that had only grown in prison. Dadd’s troubled mental state led to an enhanced focus; enabling him to draw and paint remarkably, even from memory – which with imagination, was now his sole source for new material.
With a pervading obsession with the Gods, Dadd began to focus on the supernatural; a world he saw himself as much a part of as the deities he now felt so attuned with. Fairies, myths and legends became the source of his work, with a signature attention to detail that makes each piece remarkably distinct.
Richard Dadd is remarkable not for his schizophrenia, but for his endurance within the condition. For something that sets one apart from reality, isolation seems inevitable. For Dadd, the connections and friendships he made within prison, in conjunction with his ongoing artistic affair, his energy remained transfixed on self-expression and indeed, self-exploration. The world of the supernatural served as a rich basis from which Dadd’s expertise extracted and reinterpreted figures within a new, contemporary yet distinctly set apart way.
Uniquely Victorian, yet ostensibly modern, the context within which Dadd’s art was allowed to flourish highlights the pervading potential even the most far gone of us maintain.