Richard Dadd: 1 Family and faeries

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Come unto These Yellow Sands (1842), oil on canvas, 55.3 × 77.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In just three weeks, on 1 August, it will be exactly two centuries since the birth of the most innovative and imaginative British painter after William Blake: Richard Dadd (1817-1886). If you know his work at all, chances are that you have only seen one of his paintings, his famous Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke in the Tate Gallery.

In this series I am going to look more thoroughly at his paintings, and his life – most of which was spent in secure asylums, after he had murdered his father.

Dadd’s work, and his murder, were greatly celebrated at the time. He was steadily forgotten, and it wasn’t until the late 1960s that interest in his art was rekindled. This culminated in a major exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1974, and books by Patricia Allderidge cataloguing his known work. Since then, interest has dwindled again. I have been unable to identify any exhibition timed to celebrate his bicentenary.

Richard Dadd was born in Chatham, Kent, England, at a time when it was a major Royal Naval Dockyard. He showed an aptitude for drawing when he was at school locally, so at the age of 20 was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools in London. In that same year (1837), Dadd exhibited for the first time with the Society of British Artists, which became his main platform for selling his work.

He exhibited at the Royal Academy for the first time in 1839, and the following year was awarded the Schools’ medal for life drawing. This set him on the road to becoming an important and popular painter and illustrator.

Together with William Powell Frith, Augustus Egg, and others, Dadd founded (and led) a group known as The Clique in the late 1830s. At the time, Dadd was generally thought to be the leading painter of the group, although it was Frith who went on to become best-known both then and today.

The Clique rejected academic art, preferring genre painting with popular appeal typified by William Hogarth. When the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was active in the 1850s, former members of The Clique attacked their principles, believing their art to be deliberately eccentric and primitivist.

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Portrait of a Girl (1832), watercolour with gum on paper, 27.6 x 25.1 cm, The British Museum, London. Courtesy of and © Trustees of the British Museum.

Dadd’s watercolour Portrait of a Girl (1832) is his earliest dated work to have survived, and shows his early skills with the figure, and inital heavy-bodied style. There remains uncertainty as to its subject, who was most probably either Elizabeth Carter or her sister Catherine, who later married Dadd’s brother Robert.

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Family Portraits (1838), watercolor with gouache over graphite on moderately thick, slightly textured, blue wove paper, 14.6 x 20.9 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven, CT. Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

Once he was attending the Royal Academy Schools, his watercolours became lighter in touch, as shown in this collection of Family Portraits (1838). Included among these are his father (top right), brothers and sisters, and a self-portrait.

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Portrait of Maria Elizabeth Dadd, the Artist’s Sister (1839), watercolor with gouache over graphite on moderately thick, slightly textured, blue-green wove paper, 16.8 × 14.3 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven, CT. Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

Portrait of Maria Elizabeth Dadd, the Artist’s Sister (1839) is one of his finest early watercolours, and shows how quickly his style and technique developed.

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Augustus Egg (1838-40), oil on panel, 64.1 x 49.5 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven, CT. Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

At the Royal Academy Schools, Dadd learned to paint in oils, and was soon making fine works, such as this portrait of his fellow painter in The Clique, Augustus Egg (1838-40). He is shown here dressed as a Roundhead, from the English Civil War, with the characteristic hat, high collar, and military dress. This appears to have been Dadd’s own choice, which he felt reflected his subjects’ personality.

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Hamlet and his Mother; The Closet Scene (1840, or 1846), oil on canvas, 102.2 × 86.4 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven, CT. Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

Dadd painted a successful series of scenes from Shakespeare, of which Hamlet and his Mother; The Closet Scene (1840, or 1846) is a survivor. There is some dispute as to the date of this oil painting, which appears to have been exhibited in 1840. The actors shown are one of the most famous Shakespearean double-acts of the century, Charles Kean and Ellen Tree

Dadd seems to have prospered over these early years in his career, being sufficiently versatile to turn his hand to book illustration and a commission for decorative panels for Henry, Lord Foley.

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Titania Sleeping (1841), oil on canvas, 64.8 x 77.5 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The following year, Dadd became an early exponent of the new fashion for ‘faerie paintings’, in his magnificent Titania Sleeping (1841), which is now in the Louvre. This was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1841, where it appeared with the quotation of Oberon’s speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act 1, Scene 2) which begins I know a bank where the wild thyme blows… and plots revenge on Titania which sets up the main plot of the play.

Titania, nude, is shown sleeping at the mouth of the grotto on the right, surrounded by an arch of goblin musicians. The framing of bats shown above refers to one of Titania’s speeches in the play.

Unfortunately this painting was badly hung, and missed by many of those attending the exhibition. It was purchased by an art dealer, who made it a prize in a lottery for middle-class art collectors, which was not such a bad fate for Dadd after all.

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Puck (1841), oil on canvas, 59.2 x 59.2 cm, Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston, England. Source of image not known.

Puck (1841) was exhibited at the Society of British Artists in the same year, accompanied by a quotation from Act 2 Scene 1 of the same play:
I do wander every where
Swifter than the moon’s sphere,
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.

Puck is shown sitting on a toadstool, with nude fairies dancing around it. In the four corners are figures resembling river gods. This was well received, although one influential critic warned Dadd that he had to be cautious of the boundary of the absurd.

Several other faerie paintings by Dadd appear to have been lost, including another major work, Fairies Assembling at Sunset to Hold their Revels (1841).

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Come unto These Yellow Sands (1842), oil on canvas, 55.3 × 77.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Come unto These Yellow Sands (1842) refers not to A Midsummer Night’s Dream but The Tempest, and was exhibited with the lines:
Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands,
Curt’sied when you have, and kissed
(The wild waves whist).
Foot it featly here and there,
And sweet sprites the burden bear.

However, when it was shown in Liverpool in 1843, Dadd seems to have referred back to Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who could be the prominent figure on the top of the rock arch.

Faerie paintings quickly became an accepted sub-genre of the day, and were often accepted for exhibition by the Royal Academy and other prestigious organisations. Several painters specialised in them, and I here show two examples from leading exponents Robert Huskisson (1820-1861) and Joseph Noel Paton (1821–1901). As with many of these works, they used Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1590-97) and its characters as the launching point of their romantic fantasies.

Robert Huskisson (1820-1861), The Midsummer Night’s Fairies (1847), oil on mahogany, 28.9 x 34.3 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1974), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2017), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Robert Huskisson’s The Midsummer Night’s Fairies (1847) shows a scene similar to that in Dadd’s Titania Sleeping.

Joseph Noel Paton (1821–1901), The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania (1849), oil on canvas, 99 x 152 cm, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons.

Joseph Noel Paton’s The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania (1849) is an even more elaborate fantasy work.

Faerie painting had originated in the late eighteenth century, with works by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825, a major influence on William Blake) among others, and reached peak popularity between about 1850-70.

Dadd was not given the time to develop his own work any further in this sub-genre: in 1842, he was recommended as an artist-companion to Sir Thomas Phillips, for a grand tour of Europe and the Middle East.


Biography and work.
An explanation of the Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke in literary terms.

Tromans, Nicholas (2011) Richard Dadd, The Artist and The Asylum, Tate Publishing. ISBN 978 1 85437 959 7.