The fatal Orientalist

How the East turned the mind of the painter Richard Dadd

By Tim Cornwell | June 30, 2015

In 1842 the gifted young British artist Richard Dadd embarked on a 10-month journey across Europe to the Ottoman lands of the Orient. As a draughtsman and travelling companion to a Welsh gentleman tourist, he joined what would become a horseback marathon. The two men travelled through France, Italy and Greece, before pressing onto Istanbul, Izmir and the Lycian coast, then via Damascus and Jerusalem to Cairo.

His patron, the lawyer Sir Thomas Phillips, paid the bills, but was a ferocious sightseer who set a gruelling pace. Dadd’s portrait of him in Turkish costume (above), in a quieter moment, features in the first major exhibition of this tragically compelling artist to be staged in Britain in more than 40 years.

The Phillips portrait is held in the archives of the Bethlem Royal Hospital, known as Bedlam, probably the most famous mental institution in British history, formerly housed at what is now the Imperial War Museum in London.  

Orientalism was the making of some artists. The Swiss-born 18th-century portraitist Jean-Étienne Liotard found fame as ‘Le Turc’ after four years in Constantinople, cultivating an exotic image for his clientele with a flowing beard and extravagant costume. The former Scottish stage set painter, David Roberts, defined the romantic landscape of the Middle East after his own trip to the Eastern Mediterranean three years before Dadd.

Henry Hering, ‘Portrait photograph of Richard Dadd painting “Contradiction”’, c 1857, photograph, Bethlem Museum of the Mind

It was the ruin of Richard Dadd. By the time he reached Egypt, the relentless stimulus of the trip, the heat and exhaustion, and the relentless energy of his patron had tipped his fragile mind into insanity. Returning home to London, showing increasingly bizarre and worrying behaviour, he finally stabbed his father to death, believing himself guided by ancient Egyptian deities.   

Other intended victims included the Pope and the Emperor of Austria. Captured when he tried to slash a fellow passenger in a French railway carriage with a razor, the gifted 25-year-old painter would spend the last 40 years of his life first in Bethlem and then the new Broadmoor hospital for the criminally insane.

Richard Dadd, View of the Island of Rhodes, c 1845, watercolour on paper, V&A

Richard Dadd’s ‘View of the Island of Rhodes’ was completed like many of his major works, locked inside hospital. The delicacy of this landscape makes the work of someone like Edward Lear look formulaic.

Richard Dadd: The Art of Bedlam is on show in the charming setting of the Surrey countryside, a half-hour train ride (and a short taxi or bus) from London’s Waterloo. The exhibition at the Watts Gallery near Guildford thankfully runs until November 1, because there could be no more pleasurable way for anyone interested in art history, Victorian and Orientalist art, or the vagaries of the human mind, to spend an afternoon.

The pictures occupy only a couple of rooms in the gallery. They would be swamped in a London setting. They include Dadd’s most famous picture of them all, the hypnotic ‘Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke’. It is the fairy paintings, often loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for which this morbidly fascinating artist is still best remembered. 

Richard Dadd, The Fairy Fellers Masterstroke, c 1855–64, oil on canvas, Tate

It is seven years since Tate Britain delivered a major survey of British Orientalist work, in The Lure of the East. The curator of that show, Nicholas Tromans, is now the curator at the Watts Gallery, a repository for the works of Victorian artist George Frederic Watts, an exact contemporary of Dadd.    

Tromans completed an excellent and beautifully illustrated book on Dadd, The Artist and the Asylum, in 2011. He has also written comprehensively on the Orientalists and the artist David Wilkie, who painted Sultan Abdülmecid at Topkapı in 1840. The work he has gathered ranges from portraits of sympathetic asylum doctors, to a series of watercolours on the particular passions thought to drive men mad. 

Dadd’s art, in the words of the Guardian reviewer Jonathan Jones, may be ‘compellingly odd’. But there are a series of pictures in this exhibition – oddness aside – that demonstrate tragically how high Dadd might have reached.  

Richard Dadd, The Artists Halt in the Desert, c 1845, watercolour on paper, courtesy British Museum

In the watercolour ‘Halt in the Desert’, a low full moon in a blue starry sky lights the clouds from below, and mountains from the side. The orange campfire flickers on the robe of a turbaned figure, catch the outlines of reclining Victorian gentlemen, presumably Dadd’s travelling companions, to the side. The moon shadow picks out another robed and turbaned figure, leading a saddled horse. It’s a picture of peacefulness and calm, in which one imagines only the sound of the crackling fire, or the quiet crunch of footsteps on gravelly sand.  

Like many of Dadd’s works, which went mostly into the homes of staff and doctors at his two hospitals, ‘Halt in the Desert’ was long lost in obscurity. It turned up on the British TV show Antiques Roadshow in the mid 1980s, owned by a taxi driver, and after being spotted by a quick-witted TV expert is now in the collection of the British Museum.

There is a recurring fascination in the insanity of artists, in the cross-currents between creativity and mental illness, and not just with Van Gogh. Records show three out of seven siblings in Dadd’s family suffered serious mental illness and a fourth had an attendant at home. But what exactly pushed him over the edge?

Richard Dadd, Sketch to Illustrate the Passions – Grief or Sorrow, 1854, watercolour on paper, Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Dadd’s fellow students at the Royal Academy in London spoke of ‘a man of genius’; an Academy veteran called him ‘foremost among the rising young men of the age’. 

With the opening up of steamship routes, a journey to the East was a promising way for artists to develop material for the annual exhibitions held in London. But Sir Thomas opted for an adventurous but arduous overland trip. ‘The trip was not what sensible Orientalists do, which is take a boat to Jaffa, and go back,’ Tromans said.

Denied a leisurely journey there or back to record his artists’ impressions, Dadd appears to have been overwhelmed. It was David Roberts who had recommended him for the trip; Dadd’s lengthy letters to him are the best source of information on what went wrong. 

At Corfu, Dadd got his first taste of the overpowering exoticism of the Orient. He was baffled by where to fix his artist’s gaze, amid the ‘menagerie of pompous ruffians, splendid savages, grubby finery, wild costume, long mated hair, dark complexions, and noisy shopkeepers...mixed with English, soldiers and civilians, Italians, donkeys, mules, and strange half-naked children...’

When he pulled out his sketchbook, he was ‘surrounded by the whole market...deliciously villainous faces’ who grinned and glowered in curiosity. ‘Oh, such expression on such heads! is enough to turn the brain of an artist.’

Before long he wrote of constantly struggling to set his impressions down on paper. 

‘A thousand things to arrest the attention, and which all seemed to slip away from me as if unreal – as if they were the pageants of a dream, rather than a substantial reality; and yet I do not think that I am much to be blamed, for a body can’t very well sketch riding on horseback.’
Haunted, perhaps, by the fear of failure, and mental confusion, he begins to record in his letters to Roberts how his ‘imagination was so full of vagaries’ that he doubted his own sanity, and could not sleep, still caught in the motion of riding and by the heat. As he walked ‘swallowing, with insatiable appetite, the everlasting succession of picturesque characters, [he] had the most unaccountable impulses, that would not let [him] stop to sketch, but were constantly prompting [him] on, to drink in, with greedy enjoyment, the stream of new sensations’.

Richard Dadd, Self Portrait, 1841, etching, Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Tromans’ book records how on the journey home, Dadd’s hyper-sensitive description of artworks he encountered were mixed with ‘nervous depression’, particularly in a three-week frustrating quarantine at Malta. As he suddenly left Phillips and returned to London, he had a growing fear of being watched, and a creeping sense of  demons hovering over him at every turn. Over his father’s body, he would invoke a sacrifice to the ‘great God Osiris’.

Dadd’s principal sketchbook of his Turkish adventures is in the V&A, and too fragile to exhibit. Another may have been lost. There could be room for more research here, Tromans suggests, both in the relationship between artists and archaeologists then plying the Lycian coast, and in the letters back to Roberts.

Main image shows Richard Dadd’s ‘Portrait of Sir Thomas Phillips in Turkish Dress’, 1842–3, watercolour on paper, Bethlem Museum of the Mind.

Posted in Exhibitions, Fine Art, History, Museums
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