For immediate release: The Art of Bedlam: Richard Dadd

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For immediate release:
The Art of Bedlam: Richard Dadd
16 June – 1 November 2015

Watts Gallery- Artists’ Village

This summer, Watts Gallery presents the first major exhibition in more than 40 years to explore the life and career of Richard Dadd (1817 – 1886), one of the most fascinating artists of the Victorian era. 

Although the artist enjoyed early success, Dadd is remembered primarily for his paintings of huge imaginative power created during his long confinement in Bethlem Hospital and Broadmoor.  Returning from a tour of the Middle East in the 1840s, Richard Dadd succumbed to a psychotic illness and murdered his father. 

Detained in asylums for the rest of his life, Dadd would never cease to work as an artist.  But as a “criminal lunatic” and with an audience that consisted primarily of his doctors and attendants, Dadd only received the acclaim his work merited after his death.

This exhibition will bring together some of the most important works created by Dadd throughout his life – along with sketches, works on paper and archive material – to encourage a reassessment of the artist. The exhibition will show that Dadd was both a thoroughly trained academic painter whose work is easily as technically accomplished as any artist of the period and that he also possessed an outrageous imagination that refused to be eclipsed by his illness and forced seclusion.

The combination of technical brilliance and fantasy make Dadd one of the most compelling artists of the nineteenth century.

Richard Dadd was born in Chatham, Kent, in 1817.  By the time his father moved the family to London in 1834, the young Richard was already showing promise as an artist. In 1837 he entered the Royal Academy Schools, and in the same year exhibited for the first time at the Society of British Artists.  Dadd’s pictures were shown at the Royal Academy and British Institution, and soon after at annual exhibitions in Manchester and Liverpool.

Along with his friends William Powell Frith, John Phillip and Augustus Egg – the future stars of Victorian genre painting – Dadd began to question the long-held authority of the Royal Academy’s tuition.  ‘The Clique’ – as this group of young artists became known – sought a new style, one that would importantly appeal to the new generation of collectors whose wealth had been made in the manufacturing cities of the Midlands and the North. Dadd’s early picture of Puck, 1841, a powerfully concentrated illustration to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is typical of this style with its modest proportions and the extravagant originality which impressed but baffled the critics. The picture was bought by a collector from Preston, and has been lent to the exhibition by the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in that city.

When, in 1842, the eminent solicitor Sir Thomas Phillips sought an artist-companion to record the sights of his Grand Tour to Europe and the Ottoman Empire, it was on the recommendation of David Roberts – the country’s best-known Orientalist painter and President of the Society of British Artists – that Phillips approached Dadd.  With his reputation in its ascendancy, Dadd accepted and became part of British art’s Orientalist moment of the 1840s, epitomised in this exhibition by works including Thomas Phillips Reclining in Turkish Costume, 1842-3 (Bethlem Royal Hospital, London).

It was during the Tour, however, that Dadd’s erratic behaviour started to be a cause for concern.  Phillips observed a worrying “violence of expression”, and when in May 1843 the artist suddenly abandoned his employer and returned to London, friends and family became increasingly anxious.1

In London, Dadd set to work to make finished pictures from the sketches he had made abroad.  He even submitted a drawing for the competition to select decorations for the new Houses of Parliament – a competition in which, coincidentally, George Frederic Watts won a first prize that would enable his own Grand Tour. 

But on 28 August Richard Dadd arranged to meet his father, killed him – “impelled by a feeling that some such sacrifice was demanded by the gods & spirits above” – and then fled to France, where he was arrested and eventually extradited to England for trial.2

The trial was a national sensation, the Observer’s report opening: “One of the most appalling murders, involving the dreadful crime of parricide, the victim an affectionate parent, and the murderer an artist of acknowledged genius, was committed in the peaceful village of Cobham on Monday evening ...”3

Declared a “criminal lunatic” in August 1844 Richard Dadd was admitted as a patient to Bethlem Hospital, then Britain’s most notorious asylum.

During his twenty years at Bethlem, and subsequently at the newly built Broadmoor (from 1864 until his death in 1886), Richard Dadd remained a prolific painter and draughtsman.  From memories of Eastern scenes, illustrated in this exhibition by works including Halt in the Desert, c.1845 (British Museum) and View in the Island of Rhodes, c.1845 (V&A), to portraits of asylum doctors and attendants – a highlight in this exhibition will be Portrait of a Young Man, 1853 (Tate), in which the sitter is believed to be the Physician-Superintendent of Bethlem, Charles Hood – Dadd is perhaps best known as the first ‘painter patient’.

The exhibition includes a rare opportunity to see Dadd’s two most ambitious paintings from these years displayed together: Contradiction: Oberon and Titania, 1854–8 (Private Collection), painted by the artist for Charles Hood, and The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, c.1855-64 (Tate) dedicated to Bethlem’s Steward, George Haydon, who had admired Contradiction.

Alongside The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke will be the manuscript of the poem subsequently written by Dadd to explain the mysterious content of the work (Elimination of a Picture & its subject – called the Feller’s Master Stroke, 1865 (Bethlem Hospital Archives)). Using Dadd’s own account of this fabulous work, which some have seen as a Victorian masterpiece of surrealism, the exhibition will for the first time provide visitors with a journey of exploration through its amazing list of characters and fantasy fairy world.

Significantly, The Fairy Feller’s painting was later given as a gift to the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who in turn bequeathed it to Tate in memory of his friend and fellow officer Julian Dadd, a great-nephew of the artist.

Watts Gallery’s Curator, Dr Nicholas Tromans, says:

“A great deal of mystery and myth has been connected with Dadd over the years. But new research has been able to shed more light on the reality of his life as an artist working within famous psychiatric institutions. Although it was a highly unusual one, Dadd pursued, in his way, a career as an artist.”

“The painters G F Watts and Richard Dadd were exact contemporaries, and their early training and ambitions were similar. While Watts went on to become one of the most famous artists in the world, Dadd’s name was largely forgotten after his arrest until recent years when he, too, has been acknowledged once again as the genius his early friends knew him to be.”

“This exhibition tells Dadd’s amazing story, and is the next in our series of temporary exhibitions focusing upon Victorian and early twentieth-century art , social history and design.”

The Art of Bedlam: Richard Dadd is a collaboration between Watts Gallery and Bethlem Hospital’s Museum of the Mind. The Museum of the Mind opened in March 2015 in Beckenham, the current site of Bethlem Hospital which was founded in 1247 and which remains an important psychiatric hospital today.

A reduced version of the exhibition will be shown at the Museum of the Mind from November 2015.

For further information:  @WattsGallery facebook/WattsGallery


For further press information:

Tamsin Williams – - 01483 563562 - 07939 651252

Notes to Editors:

Related publications, available from the Watts Gallery shop and online at

Richard Dadd: The Artists and the Asylum, TATE

Authored by Watts Gallery Curator Dr Nicholas Tromans, Richard Dadd: The Artists and the Asylum is the first full account of Dadd’s life and career, providing a vivid account of one of the most fascinating artists of the Victorian era as well as new insights into the troubled relationship between art and ‘madness’ in the nineteenth century.

Related events

Richard Dadd: The worlds of a visionary

Wednesday 1 July, 7-8pm, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village

Watts Gallery Curator and world expert on Richard Dadd, Dr Nicholas Tromans and Curator at Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Victoria Northwood, give a fascinating insight into Dadd, his contemporaries and those he inspired.

History of Art short courses

Mondays, 7 September – 5 October, 11am – 1pm
£180/£175 concessions
The Old Kiln, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village
19th Century Art and the Imagination

The course is led by Dr Nicholas Tromans, Curator of The Art of Bedlam: Richard Dadd and Watts Gallery’s Curatorial Advisor, Hilary Underwood and will cover topics relating to the exhibition including the Symbolist Movement and Victorian Fairy painting.

1 Patricia Allderidge, Richard Dadd: Violence Creativity in Victorian Bedlam (Oxford, 1993)

2 Broadmoor Case Notes, 14 May 1877

3 Observer, 18 September 1843

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