1 August 1817 – 7 January 1886 (aged 68)
Richard Dadd was an English painter of the Victorian era, noted for his depictions of fairies and other supernatural subjects, Orientalist scenes, and enigmatic genre scenes, rendered with obsessively minuscule detail. Most of the works for which he is best known were created while he was a patient in Bethlem and Broadmoor hospitals.
Dadd was born at Chatham, Kent, England, the son of a chemist. He was educated at King’s School, Rochester where his aptitude for drawing was noticed at an early age, leading to his admission to the Royal Academy of Arts at the age of 20.
In July 1842, Sir Thomas Phillips, the former mayor of Newport, chose Richard Dadd to accompany him as his draughtsman on an expedition through Europe and Egypt. In November of that year, they spent a gruelling two weeks in Southern Syria, passing from Jerusalem to Jordan and returning across the Engaddi wilderness. Toward the end of December, while travelling up the Nile by boat, Dadd underwent a dramatic personality change, becoming delusional, increasingly violent, and believing himself to be under the influence of the Egyptian god Osiris. His condition was initially thought to be sunstroke.
On his return in the spring of 1843, he was diagnosed to be of unsound mind and was taken by his family to recuperate in the countryside village of Cobham, Surrey. In August of the same year, having become convinced that his father was the Devil in disguise, Richard killed him with a knife. He fled by boat to France, in such a confused and manic state that he later said he was on his way to assassinate Ferdinand I, Emperor of Austria. En route to Paris, Dadd attempted to kill a fellow passenger with a razor but was overpowered and arrested by police. He confessed to killing his father and was returned to England, where he was committed to the criminal department of Bethlem Psychiatric Hospital, commonly known as Bedlam.
In hospital, Dadd was encouraged to continue painting, and in 1852 he created a remarkable portrait of one of his doctors, Alexander Morison, which now hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Richard Dadd painted many of his masterpieces in Bethlem and Broadmoor, including The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, probably his best-known work. Dadd also produced many shipping scenes and landscapes during his hospitalisation, such as the ethereal 1861 watercolour Port Stragglin. These are executed with a miniaturist’s eye for detail despite being the products of imagination and memory.
The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke inspired a song of the same name by the British rock band, Queen. Also, the painting is a plot element in The Witches of Chiswick by Robert Rankin. The Wee Free Men, a novel by Terry Pratchett, published in 2003, was partly inspired by it as well. The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe includes references to a lost version of the painting. The painting and the artist are also referenced in Elizabeth Hand’s novel Mortal Love.
Richard Dadd’s influence has spread far and wide.