Richard Dadd: Mental Illness & Psychological Fairies!

Richard Dadd (1817-1886) was an outstanding and remarkable artist from Kent (UK), who was renowned (from an early age) for his extraordinary skill at life-drawing and painting. Due to this unusual ability he attended the Royal Academy of the Arts at just 20 years of age – winning a medal three-years later recognising the very high standard of his life-skills artistry. He would go on to attend the prestigious William Datson’s Academy of Art.  Despite all this official recognition, Richard Dadd went on (in the late 1830s) to found (along with other artists such as Augustus Egg, Alfred Elmore, William Powell Frith, Henry Nelson O’Neil, John Phillip and Edward Matthew Ward), the ‘The Clique’ – an experimental group dedicated to creating works of art that could be enjoyed by the people – rather than defined by the establishment. Although Richard Dadd was still in his early 20s, he devised The Clique to be an artistic vehicle that rejected academically defined standards of high art, and instead focused upon genre painting. In his mid-twenties, however, he was chosen (in 1842) to be the ‘official’ artist (i.e. ‘draughtsman’) accompany an expedition led by a member of the British aristocracy (Sir Thomas Philips) as he and his entourage travelled through Europe, the Middle East and Egypt (in North Africa). It was whilst travelling down the Nile that Richard Dadd began to exhibit symptoms of what today would be thought of as the beginnings of Paranoid Schizophrenia which appears to have been triggered by the discussing (and encountering) of the ancient Egyptian religion, culture and architecture.  

Mental Illness Leads to an Enhanced Attention to Detail

Richard Dadd believed that he had become possessed by the Egyptian god – Osiris. His behaviour became unpredictable and occasionally violent – claiming that he was ‘being watched’ and that he ‘could see’ occult messages hidden in paintings and architecture, etc. He returned to England (alone) in the Spring of 1843 and was diagnosed with suffering from an ‘unsound mind’. Later that year, whilst walking with his father through a park, he punched him to the ground and killed him by cutting his throat with a razor. As he was declared ‘unfit’ to stand trial, he was first placed in ‘Bedlam’ in London – before being transferred to ‘Broadmoor’ Hospital. As the years went by, he produced some of the greatest works of art ever seen. The above picture was painted by Richard Dadd from 1855-1864 whilst at Broadmoor. Again, Richard Dadd is an example of mental illness leading to tremendous outbursts and expressions of sublime art! Richard Dadd spent his time engaged in the production of artwork with no interest whatsoever in being released and returning to ordinary life. It is as if he understood that he was ‘ill’ and needed to be left in peace and quiet to direct all his life energies ‘away’ from what could possibly descend into violent interaction, and into each careful stroke of the brush and sweep of the pencil. Despite his mental illness and terrible crime, he is considered one of the greatest artists who ever lived. Whereas there was no known cure for his illness during his lifetime, today it is possible that he could be completely cured with medicine and returned to a normal state of (safe) being. I suspect his illness was genetic in nature and that it would have manifested whether he was travelling through Egypt or travelling down The Strand (in London)! Of course, sometimes the symptoms of this type of mental illness can be made worse (or better) depending upon the type (or ‘frequency’) of circumstance surrounding the individual concerned. Obviously, a quiet life spent painting with no other concerns (or responsibilities) reduced the violent nature of the illness.  

Richard Dadd Produced Masterpeces of Art!

What do we see in his paintings? They are ‘mythic’ in nature, and ‘confused’ in execution. These are not errors but rather a physical expression describing what the illness is doing to his thought processes. A number of artists (at a time when medicine in this area was ‘primitive’), focused their abilities to continue to express their art as a form of self-treatment and self-control. Richard Dadd had lost the psychological ability to see reality as it was. In other words, whereas the human mind has evolved to inwardly ‘reflect’ and ‘interpret’ what the body ‘sensed’ in the outer environment, the various forms of mental illness interrupt and muddle-up this process. The clear and precise ‘sensing’ of the outer environment is replaced by random contents orbiting the surface mind. The sensing of the faculty of the ‘imagination’ replaces the ability to perceive the physical world of concrete objects. Where people not suffering from mental illness perceive all different kinds of men and women in the physical environment – Richard Dadd saw only mythical-beings such as ‘fairies’ and other non-existent but culturally important elements of imagination. The ‘violence’ appears to emerge from the illness attempting to defend and perpetuate its presence within the mind of the infected. Whenever its delusive nature is ‘threatened’ by the return of ‘reality’, the illness triggers the manifestation of brutal and unpredictable violence. In the case of artists, however, mental illness appears to ‘allow’ the introverted pursuance of artwork and artistic expression to the point where the more violent symptoms ‘die down’. Richard Dadd died in Broadmoor in 1886. 

Even the ‘Mythic’ Reality Can be ‘Distorted’ in its Greatness of Expression!

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