Richard Dadd: 2 Travels and Tragedy

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Halt in the Desert (c 1845), watercolour on paper, 36.8 x 70.7 cm, The British Museum, London. Courtesy of and © Trustees of the British Museum.

In 1842, Richard Dadd’s artistic career suddenly changed. He gained a patron, in the form of Sir Thomas Phillips, the former mayor of Newport, Wales, and had to set aside his faerie paintings to become the artist-companion who recorded his patron’s grand tour of Europe and the Middle East.

In return for all Dadd’s expenses and costs, Phillips expected him to make drawings and watercolours of the places that they visited, and the sights which they saw. Phillips seems to have intended to use them later to illustrate a travel book. The pair left England in July 1842, and made their way through Italy and Greece to taste the classical civilisations, and on to Turkey, what is now Lebanon, Syria, and Israel, and Egypt.

Phillips proved an exhausting traveller, who stopped only as briefly as was necessary, and set a ferocious pace through fiercely hot and testing conditions. Dadd found very little time to draw or paint, and only two of his sketchbooks have survived.

It is also worth bearing in mind that, until this trip, Dadd seems only to have worked in the studio, and to have painted few if any landscapes. Although he was more than technically competent for his role, he would probably have greatly benefited from a less ambitious schedule, and more time to draw and paint.

By the ninth of September, the pair had ‘done’ Italy and Greece, and crossed the Aegean to enter Turkey, when it was the centre of the slowly failing Ottoman Empire. In Constantinople (Istanbul), Dadd made many elaborate drawings of figures. They then toured a series of ancient sites which were in the process of being dismantled and their treasures taken overseas to fill major European museums. The pair visited Rhodes in October 1842, after which they crossed by steamer via Cyprus to Beirut.

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), View of the Island of Rhodes (c 1842-43), watercolour on paper, 24.5 x 37.2 cm, The Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Image courtesy of and © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Dadd did find time to paint this painstaking watercolour View of the Island of Rhodes (c 1842-43). This shows the site of a ruined castle of the Knights of Saint John, in the left distance, amid rugged and arid scenery.

Travelling via Damascus, Dadd and Phillips entered Jerusalem on 20 November 1842.

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Jerusalem from the House of Herod (1842-43), watercolour on paper, 16 x 25.5 cm, The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, NY. Image via, origin not known.

Although Dadd must have completed his stunning watercolour view of Jerusalem from the House of Herod (1842-43) in London, it was derived from pencil sketches made in front of the motif, and may well have been started there too. As in his view of Rhodes, the artist uses fine stippled brushstrokes throughout the buildings and details which give passages the appearance of oil paint.

In December 1842 and January 1843, Phillips and Dadd undertook an extended cruise on the River Nile, which enabled Dadd to paint several of the archaeological sites there.

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Tombs of the Khalifs, Cairo (c 1842-43), watercolour on paper, dimensions not known, The Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Image courtesy of and © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Tombs of the Khalifs, Cairo (c 1842-43) is a more conventional watercolour ‘drawing’ which must have been just the sort of illustration which Phillips would have wanted for his book.

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Entrance to an Egyptian Tomb (c 1842-43), watercolour on paper, dimensions not known, The Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Image courtesy of and © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Although now sadly discoloured and faded, Entrance to an Egyptian Tomb (c 1842-43) is another fine watercolour which Dadd must have made while he was still in Egypt.

In February, the pair crossed the Mediterranean to Malta, where they had to spend three weeks in quarantine, and on to Naples and Rome for April 1843. By this time, Dadd was starting to behave a little strangely, and expressed some paranoid feelings. Nevertheless, they travelled on to Florence, where Dadd was able to study some of the great works of art. By May they were in Paris, where Dadd suddenly abandoned his patron, and returned to England precipitately.

Back in London, Dadd’s behaviour became progressively more disordered, and some wondered whether he had not suffered ‘sunstroke’ when he had been in the desert. Dadd worked on some paintings resulting from his travel, but concerns for his health grew. His father obtained specialist medical opinion, which reported that he was dangerous and in urgent need of care, although that conclusion was reached without actually examining him.

On Monday 28 August 1843, Dadd and his father had arranged to meet in Cobham Park. The next morning, his father’s body was discovered by a butcher: he had been punched, his throat partly cut, and stabbed in the chest. Richard Dadd had suffered a psychotic crisis, and felt driven by the gods – particularly the Egyptian god Osiris – to sacrifice his father.

Richard Dadd fled to France, where he changed clothes in Calais, and travelled on to Paris. From there he took a coach heading towards Lyon, but when it was near the Forest of Fontainebleau, he was driven again to attack a fellow passenger with a razor. Dadd was quickly overpowered, and taken to a local magistrate, to whom he identified himself, and explained that he had just come from England, where he had killed someone.

The French authorities quickly recognised his insanity, and he was transferred to an asylum at Clermont, about fifty miles to the north of Paris. He was diagnosed with ‘homicidal monomania’, an established defence in cases of murder. Dadd was eventually repatriated to England by the end of July 1844, where he was labelled a ‘criminal lunatic’, and admitted to Bethlem Hospital, London, on 22 August 1844. Dadd was just 27 years old, and was to spend the remaining forty-one years of his life in secure institutions.

Dadd was a well-known artist by this time, and the London artistic circles were buzzing with gossip about his case, and his future. Thankfully his doctors and carers in Bethlem and Broadmoor Hospitals appear to have encouraged him to continue painting. His first works during his confinement were therefore continuations of work which resulted from his travels with Phillips.

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Caravanserai at Mylasa in Asia Minor (1845), oil on panel, 21.3 x 30.5 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven, CT. Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

Caravanserai at Mylasa in Asia Minor (1845) is a fairly conventional ‘orientalist’ view of a group of travellers at what had been the ancient Greek city of Mylasa, now Milas in south-western Turkey. Dadd’s visual memory appears to have been remarkable, although he would have had sketches to help him.

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Halt in the Desert (c 1845), watercolour on paper, 36.8 x 70.7 cm, The British Museum, London. Courtesy of and © Trustees of the British Museum.

His watercolour of a Halt in the Desert (c 1845) is Dadd’s second outstanding landscape view. An unusual and haunting nocturne, it shows Phillips’ party seated around a fire, on the shore of the Dead Sea. Phillips is stood behind the fire, lit by it.

Dadd is believed to have painted this when in Bethlem Hospital. However, he has inscribed on the back of it in French, which raises the question as to whether it may have been painted in early 1844, when he was at Clermont in France. Dadd describes the work as being a recollection of his memory, and locates the scene to between the River Jordan and the Mountains of Moab in what is now Jordan.

Richard Dadd could now only paint from his memory and imagination.


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.