Can the work of Richard Dadd be seen to stand outside of the popular fantasies about art and madness?

David Maclagan, in his text The Art of Madness, discusses the myths surrounding madness and art. He claims that there are assumptions that many people make about artists in general, with the common idea that all those who create art tend to have some kind of psychotic tendency. The first idea that many hold regarding artists is that they feel more intensely than the average person, that they are hyper-sensitive, and tend to live in a world of their own. Many have the notion that artists ‘suffer’ and this suffering is often seen as a trigger for their work. These assumptions about artists link in very closely to the assumptions made about those who are mentally ill. The mad person is alleged to be a victim of very strong emotional feelings, like the artist. Artists are imagined to obsessively create and psychotic art is traditionally thought of as ultimately being driven by an even larger compulsion.

French artist Jean Dubuffet noted that works of art that are described as ‘Art Brut’ or ‘Raw Art’ were “created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses.” Outsider art, or raw art, as Dubuffet defines above, is a much discussed area within psychoanalysis and art, as outsider art is a key link between the two, as the majority of institutionalised patients are untrained ‘outsider’ artists. There is much debate as to whether madness, or a mental illness, can compel a person to create art, or whether they create art in spite of their illness, with continuing evidence linking the creation of art with mental health problems, whether it is a compulsion, or used as a personal therapy. There is evidence that creative people often have a history of psychological problems within their family, for example, the author Virginia Woolf suffered sexual abuse in her childhood. Psychiatrist Kay Jamison studied the lives of famous artists, poets and musicians in 1992, and found a strong link between disorders such as bipolar disorder and creativity or artistic achievement, and David Maclagan, writing in his article The Art of Madness, states that madness can act as an extreme form of inspiration, and can result from, as well as be a cause for, creating art. He goes on to state that many artists have a working relationship with madness.

The beginning of the nineteenth century saw the awakening interest in insane art. The Romantic Movement saw madness as liberating, and the emergence of asylums saw a place for those who were mentally ill to be able to produce art. Plato originally equated madness with genius, and it was becoming logical to ask whether mad people created works of genius. Many branches of ‘insane’ art were developing, such as Surrealism, where artists were inspired by Freud’s texts on the unconscious and dreams. Bethlem Royal Hospital, opened for the insane at the end of the 14th century and currently located in Beckenham, Kent, has a museum and archives full of work created by its patients from over the centuries. The hospital’s archives and museum focus on the link between madness and art. The work shown is by patients who fitted into one of the three following categories; the first being artists who communicated mental distress through their work, the second, patients for whom art contributed to their recovery, and thirdly, artists who became mentally ill. It is within this third category that the artist Richard Dadd would be placed. He was a patient at Bethlem Hospital for many years, before being transferred to Broadmoor, probably due to overcrowding, and it is him and his work that this blog will predominantly focus on. When looking at art and psychopathology, or mental illness, Dadd is a popular focus, due to the significant amount of art work he produced after he was diagnosed with what was suspected to be schizophrenia. However, Dadd was a previously trained artist, before his admittance to Bethlem Hospital, placing him in the minority of mentally ill artists.

Richard Dadd, born on the 1st of August 1817 in Chatham, was the fourth of seven children. His mother died in 1824, aged just 34. He was born into an intelligent, literate and liberal family and began to draw seriously at the age of thirteen; however, little of his work has survived from before he received his more advanced training. In 1842, Dadd set off on a tour of Europe and the Middle East with Sir Thomas Phillips, who had employed Dadd to document their journey. It was on his return from this journey that Dadd’s mental health was questioned. One friend found him after he had cut out a birth mark, claiming the devil had printed it on him. The once sensitive young man became increasingly suspicious and reserved, and was convinced he was being watched. Although his mental state was becoming increasingly unstable, he continued to paint images which barely showed the turmoil within his head. At around this time, Dadd’s twenty-six year old brother was showing very similar signs of insanity. Although Richard seemed to be increasingly ‘losing his mind,’ it was one single act that saw him admitted to Bethlem Hospital. A few days after a Psychiatrist had warned Dadd’s family that they must be careful with him, Richard’s father, Robert Dadd, suggested they take a trip together. They travelled to Cobham, where they stayed at an inn. Richard’s sister was concerned that her father would be alone with Richard, in his increasingly unstable state, but her warnings were too late, after Richard and his father went for an evening walk, where Richard violently attacked and killed his father using a knife and razor blades he had bought earlier.

It was after this incident that Dadd was admitted to Bethlem Hospital. It is thought he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, which research has shown can be triggered by a disturbed family environment during childhood. However, it seems that Dadd had a relatively normal and well adjusted childhood. Dadd even wrote to his brother, remembering his childhood, “I call to mind that childhood the brightest of our brief span here below soon passes away”. However, there is some evidence of disruption during Dadd’s childhood, for example, the death of his mother, and the consequent remarriage of his father. Also, the nature of the relationship between Richard and his father has been questioned. Robert Dadd, Richard’s father, was seen as a very powerful figure.

After he was admitted to Bethlem Hospital, to the public, he was ‘the late Richard Dadd,’ but it was during the next forty-two years that he would create some of his greatest works. Allderidge writes of these years, with many historians writing that he only survived these turbulent years because he survived as a painter.

Psychotic art is seen as offering us a window into private worlds of delusion, hallucination or delirium. With much of Dadd’s work which he created after his admittance to Bethlem, we are able to locate some, if not obvious, turmoil and mental distress, possibly due to the fact that most of his work during these years was completed from his imagination, as he had no contact with the outside world, therefore no opportunity for any new material. His series of paintings Sketches to Illustrate the Passions created during the 1850s illuminates for us some of his inner world. One sketch in this series, Hatred, painted in 1853 depicts the murder of Henry VI by Richard of Gloucester. This is a scene very much like that of his father’s murder. The Duke almost represents a self-portrait by Dadd. It is quite a disturbing image, and could possibly only have been imagined by someone who had experienced what Dadd had. Sigmund Freud argues that art acts as a fantasy world, one that cannot be described as real. The wishes expressed within an artwork are wishes and fantasies that are repressed; they are unacceptable to the conscious mind. We are intrigued by art, therefore, because we are able to view someone’s unrepressed wishes and fantasies. The wishes shown within an artwork are acceptable to our conscious minds because the fantasy loses its egocentric character. The wish is partly disguised, and the aesthetic pleasure derived from the art takes our attention away slightly from the underlying repressed fantasy. These repressed wishes expressed within artwork can give us an insight into someone’s inner world, highlighting why interest in ‘mad art’ is always increasing.

Art created by the mentally ill is unique in the way that the artist often has no link with the outside world. This is very apparent in the work completed by Dadd during his time in Bethlem, and also Broadmoor. He may have been involved in art movements such as Pointillism, had he had access to art from the outside world, as his later work relies very heavily on small detail, and he often used a very thin brush, with only one or two hairs to paint with. In the last forty years of his life, Dadd had no female models, so many of his later female characters appear very masculine, with strong arms and strong jaw lines, for example, Lucretia, painted in 1854.

Richard Dadd’s return to painting during his time at Bethlem is thought not to have been due to a return of sanity, as he continued to remain delusional. Edward Monro (1759 – 1833), was in charge of Dadd’s case at Bethlem. His father, Thomas Monro, was friends with artists such as Turner and Gritin, and probably would have known of Dadd’s artistic history. There is evidence that Dadd appeared to feel some kind of compulsion to create the art, and after W.C. Hood was appointed the new Resident Physician Superintendant in 1852, Dadd’s art was seen as part of his therapy. Dadd was able to work out his fantasies on paper, and this may have been one of the predominant factors in his mental state not deteriorating any further. It seems that Dadd and those who were working with him in the Bethlem Hospital saw his artwork as an escape from, or a release for his delusional thoughts. Despite Hood’s interest in encouraging the continuation of Dadd’s creativity, Dadd never received any formal art therapy, which may have been given to patients later on, such as William Kurelek, famous for his painting The Maze, who did however, receive formal art therapy.

It is thought that Dadd’s schizophrenia definitely gave a free rein to his imaginative ability, making the works he produced after his incarceration of much interest. However, it is interesting to compare the content and form of the work he produced before his hospitalisation, and afterwards. There is nothing overly-chaotic about the appearance of Dadd’s work, even after his incarceration. The typical signs of a ‘chaotic’ work might include fragmentation, unmixed colour and disintegration. So it seems that Dadd’s mental illness had little impact on the work he created after his confinement, possibly due to his very high technical ability as an artist. His previous formal artistic training means his mental instability may not have been the reason for his compulsive creativity, as is the case with many trained artists who are hospitalised. Although Dadd created more watercolours, larger pictures and less portraits post-hospitalisation, his works before and after the onset of his mental illness are very similar. Dadd belonged to what is known as the ‘Fairy School of Painting,’ as some of his most famous paintings, including The Fairy-Feller’s Master Stroke include mythological creatures, however, mythological creatures were also present in much of his work before his hospitalisation. Dadd often had delusions about the devil during his time in hospital, and would often attack his ‘friends,’ but this mental turmoil was never overly apparent or obvious in his work. His work, post-hospitalisation, included more people and animals, but definitely had a much more obvious depressive tone to it, such as his Sketches to Illustrate the Passions.

However, despite this apparent lack of obvious emotional turmoil within his work, Dadd’s series Sketches to Illustrate the Passions does include some disturbing paintings. For example, his Sketch to Illustrate Agony or Raving Madness might possibly show us a link to how Dadd was feeling being ‘locked up’ in a mental hospital. The picture shows a man in chains, clutching his head, obviously imprisoned. His Sketch to Illustrate Murder shows a similar internal anguish, depicting a man clubbing another man to death. Although, despite the few paintings that do show us evidence of mental anguish, many of his paintings completed during his hospitalisation were of his travels around Europe and the Middle East. Portrait of Sir Thomas Phillips in Arab Dress and Portrait of Sir Thomas Phillips in Turkish Dress, are probably developed from his sketches made during his travels, and therefore leave little room for Dadd’s imagination, and therefore his mental instability, to become apparent.

There is a belief that Dadd was an ‘ordinary’ painter before the onset of his schizophrenia, but the mental illness set loose his imagination and his creative side, enabling him to produce some of his most successful and famous work during his time as a mental in-patient. His most famous work The Fairy-Feller’s Master Stroke is evidence of this. Although his work differed very little before and after his hospitalisation, his work post-hospitalisation is what he is remembered for. His mental anguish and turmoil is not overly obvious or apparent in the content or form of his work, but some of his pieces depict disturbing images that possibly could only be imagined by someone of mental instability, such as Dadd. It seems apparent that his mental illness was not the reason he created art, due to his prior formal training, and the evidence that he had created art before he became mentally unstable, but it is obvious that the continued creation of work during his confinement enabled his mental illness to plateau and not deteriorate any further. His art acted as a personal therapy, and Hood noticed this and continued to encourage it, although Dadd never formally received any art therapy. Dadd predominantly differs from outsider artists due to his early formal art training, and his case dispels many of the myths about what psychotic art looks like, and the reasons behind why mentally ill patients are thought to create art. However, it does seem that he did not just create art to pass the time, and that to some extent; he was compelled to create his work. However, there is not sufficient evidence to suggest that he created the work he did after his incarceration because of his mental state; an assumption associated with numerous mentally ill artists.

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