Bethlem Asylum Artist Richard Dadd In Leamington Spa

By Caroline Lewis | 17 August 2006
painting of a man in Renaissance dress holding a sword dripping with blood in front of a slain man

Hatred, 1850. © Bethlem Art & History Collection

Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum will exhibit the enigmatic works of Richard Dadd (1817-1866) from August 18 to October 1 2006.

Many of the extraordinary paintings were created in the years he spent at the lunatic asylum at Bethlem Royal Hospital in London, from where the collection on display has been loaned.

watercolour of a coastal scene with a bridge and boat.

Temple of Fame. © V&A

A troubled figure, the Royal Academy artist was committed to Bethlem in 1843 at the age of 27, and would spend the rest of his life there and at another asylum in Broadmoor. Today, his condition would probably be described as either schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder.

He believed he was possessed by the Egyptian god Osiris and killed his own father, thinking he was the devil in disguise. On one occasion during travels in classical Europe, he felt an incontrollable urge to attack the Pope on a public appearance in Rome.

painting of a man in Arabic dress

Portrait of Phillips, standing. Sir Thomas Phillips was Dadd's patron, whom he accompanied on a Grand Tour. Dadd's symptoms emerged during their travels. © Bethlem Art & History Collection

The doctors at the institution allowed Dadd to paint during his incarceration, and the hospital authorities kept the hundreds of works he frantically produced. The paintings, many of them vivid recreations of the hallucinatory visions he experienced, have remained at Bethlem (which now houses a museum) until this day.

“The paintings of Richard Dadd are a remarkable insight into both the mind of a man troubled with mental health problems, and a celebrations of the achievements of those suffering with such conditions,” says Chloe Johnson, Curatorial Officer at the gallery and museum.

illustration of a woman with long hair in classical dress, holding a dagger

Lucretia. © Bethlem Art & History Collection

Dadd’s work demonstrates the state of his mind. His ‘Passions’ series refers to extreme emotions - Hatred, Jealousy, Madness and Murder are some of the titles – while other scenes seem to relate to his periods of ecstasy, populated by nymphs, fairies and mythical creatures. One of his most celebrated paintings is The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, about which rock band Queen wrote their eponymous song.

portrait of a seated Victorian gentleman

Portrait of J McD. © Bethlem Art & History Collection

“Dadd was an incredibly talented artist whose works are considered equal to those of his more famous contemporaries,” comments Chloe. “Many of his intricate paintings are smaller than postcards, created with precise detail with the tip of a very fine brush.”

His miniature paintings of maritime and landscape scenes are all the more incredible given that they were all painted from memory. Despite his talent, Dadd is not particularly well known, making this exhibition a rare opportunity to see his imaginative work outside London.

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