A Few Words About Richard Dadd

The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke 1855-64 Richard Dadd 1817-1886 Presented to the Tate Museum by Siegfried Sassoon in memory of his friend and fellow officer Julian Dadd, a great-nephew of the artist, and of his two brothers who gave their lives in the First World War

The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke. 1855-64. By Richard Dadd, 1817-1886. Presented to the Tate Museum by Siegfried Sassoon in memory of his friend and fellow officer Julian Dadd, a great-nephew of the artist, and of his two brothers who gave their lives in the First World War

You’ve never heard of Richard Dadd. Or if you have, you know the short version: painted a very strange photo, murdered his father and spent the rest of his life in an asylum. That’s an unfair summary of a brilliant, if tragic, artist.

WC became aware of Dadd because Terry Pratchett built one of his novels, The Wee Free Men, around Dadd’s most famous work, “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.” The painting, just 21″ x 16″, took Dadd nine years – nine years! – to complete. The Tate has the original, and describes the painting:

This work, although unfinished, is generally considered to be Dadd’s masterpiece. It was painted for H.G. Haydon, an official at Bethlem Hospital, where Dadd was sent after he became insane and murdered his father in 1843. He was transferred to Broadmoor in July 1864, before being able to complete the painting, but he later wrote a long and rambling poem entitled ‘Elimination of a Picture & its subject – called The Feller’s Master Stroke’, which attempts to explain some of the imagery.

With the exception of Shakespeare’s Oberon and Titania, who appear in the top half of the picture, the figures are drawn entirely from the artist’s imagination. The main focus of the painting is the Fairy Feller himself, who raises his axe in readiness to split a large chestnut which will be used to construct Queen Mabs’ new fairy carriage. In the centre of the picture the white-bearded patriarch raises his right hand, commanding the woodsman not to strike a blow until the signal is given. Meanwhile the rest of the fairy band looks on in anticipation, anxious to see whether the woodsman will succeed in splitting the nut with one stroke.

The magician-like figure of the patriarch wears a triple crown, which seems to be a reference to the Pope. Dadd saw the Pope during a visit to Rome in 1843 and was apparently overcome by an urge to attack him. Although the patriarch may be interpreted as a father figure, the tiny apothecary, brandishing a mortar and pestle in the top right of the picture, is in fact a portrait of the artist’s father, Robert Dadd. This group of figures was intended to represent the childhood fortune-telling game ‘soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor, ploughboy, apothecary, thief’. Unusually for Dadd, a note of prurience is introduced into the picture to the left of the patriarch, where two distorted but voluptuous fairy women are ogled by a satyr. Otherwise, the figures range from tiny gnats and centaurs, driving Queen Mabs in her old carriage, to a large dragonfly playing a trumpet.

The picture is executed on a minute scale and in exquisite detail, and Dadd worked on it for a period of between six and nine years. His technique was to make a detailed sketch of the composition and then paint each object and area in its entirety before proceeding to the next. He used fairly thick paint, applied in tiny blobs that give a cobbled appearance to some of the surface. The strange disruptions of scale and lack of perspective enhance the fantastic feel of the picture, and the onlooker is further distanced from the scene by a screen of tendrils and grasses.

Without spoilers, Dadd’s masterwork plays an important role in The Wee Free Men, brilliantly incorporated by Pratchett in his story line. Which is how WC came to know of Dadd’s sad life. Pratchett even manages to move the reader in to Dadd’s meticulous fantasy world. As Pratchett notes, viewed in the gallery, the painting seems to radiate a kind of fevered heat.

Dadd was already a well-regarded young illustrator when Sir Thomas Phillips, the former mayor of Newport, England, in July 1842 chose Dadd to accompany him as his draftsman on an expedition through Europe to Greece, Turkey, Southern Syria 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 1842, while traveling up the Nile River 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.

After returning to England in the spring of 1843, he was found by the courts to be insane and was taken by his family to recuperate in the countryside village of Cobham, Kent. In August of that year, convinced that his father was the Devil in disguise (or that Osiris commanded it; stories differ), Dadd killed his father with a knife and fled to France. En route to Paris, Dadd attempted to kill another tourist with a razor but was overpowered and arrested by police. Dadd confessed to killing his father and was returned to England, where he was committed to the criminal department of Bethlem psychiatric hospital – the horror we know as Bedlam. Here and subsequently at the newly-created Broadmoor Hospital, Dadd was cared for (and encouraged to continue painting) by the hospital staff.

At Bedlam and later Broadmoor, Dadd was allowed to continue to paint, and it was here that most of his masterpieces were created, including The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke. From the same period, he also produced the 33 watercolor drawings titled Sketches to Illustrate the Passions, which include Grief or SorrowLove, and Jealousy, as well as Agony-Raving Madness and Murder. Like most of his works, these were painted on a small scale and feature protagonists whose eyes are fixed in a peculiar, unfocused stare.

Dadd also produced many seascapes and landscapes during his incarceration, such as the ethereal 1861 watercolour Port Stragglin. His works are executed with a miniaturist’s eye for detail which is astonishing when you recall they are products of imagination and memory.

Dadd died in 1886, probably from tuberculosis, at the age of 68. He deserves better treatment than history and art history have given him.1 And while he was, in his own words, “Mad as a spoon,” he left a legacy of strange and compelling work.

  1. In 1987 a long-lost watercolour by Dadd, The Artist’s Halt in the Desert, was discovered by the BBC TV programme Antiques Roadshow. Made while the artist was incarcerated, it is based on sketches made during his tour of the Middle East, and shows his party encamped by the Dead Sea, with Dadd at the far right. It was later sold for £100,000 to the British Museum.