Nicholas Tromans' Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum
Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum Nicholas Tromans (Tate Publishing 2011)
For those who willingly subscribe to the view that all great artists are mad or bad (or a combination of both), this new biography and critical appraisal of Richard Dadd, the Victorian artist, murderer, and inhabitant of the most notorious English asylums of the period, raises many important questions about the relationship between art and the artist's mental health. Tromans closely examines the work that Dadd produced whilst in the care of the authorities and relates it to the mental therapy that he received.This makes for a fascinating study of a genuinely engaging artist who continues to interest, but also baffle, the modern viewer, and also brings into sharp focus the changing attitudes towards severe mental states.
Richard Dadd occupies a difficult position within the canon of English art, both for his work, which is out of character for the mid-Victorian period, and for his life, the last forty years of which were spent in the secure accommodation of Bethlem Hospital and Broadmoor.His life story is unusual reading, but as with all artists, it offers significant clues to understanding the art that he produced.
Dadd was born in 1817 at Chatham in Kent, the third son of Robert Dadd, a chemist. As a child he showed talent in drawing, and in 1837 he was admitted to the school of the Royal Academy.He won several prizes there over the next few years. Although famous for the fairy paintings that he completed later in life, as early as 1841 he exhibited works entitled 'Puck,' 'Titania Sleeping,' and 'Fairies Assembling at Sunset,' which suggests that this focus was not simply the product of his mental illness. Throughout his early career he showed great promise and was associated with many artists who became well known Victorian painters.Everything changed, however, with an extended tour abroad.In July 1842, on the recommendation of David Roberts (the renowned painter of Egyptian temples), he accompanied Sir Thomas Philips on a tour of Europe, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. He returned nearly a year later, in May 1843, but was already showing signs of mental instability. On August 28th he cut his father's throat in Cobham Park, Kent, and fled to France. Two days later, on 30th August, he attempted to kill a fellow passenger in a carriage near Fontainebleau and was arrested. After some months in an asylum in Clermont he was extradited for murder, but back in England he was certified insane and deemed unfit to stand trial. He was admitted to the criminal asylum at Bethlem Hospital in Southwark and stayed there until 1864, when he was transferred to the newly constructed Broadmoor Hospital. He remained there until his death in 1886.
Tromans' book adopts a chronological approach, and the opening chapters detail Dadd's education and his formative 1832-33 travels in Italy, Greece and the Near East. The book becomes fascinating when the author takes the unusual step of relating the treatment of the unstable artist to the wider issue of mental illness in the mid-nineteenth century and its transformation. Dadd was first sent to Bethlem hospital. Even the name of this institution is significant. 'Bethlem' is an abbreviation of Bethlehem, but was more commonly and notoriously known as 'Bedlam,' a word now used to mean chaos and disorder. In the eighteenth century Bedlam was a place of entertainment, where the well-to-do would pay to see the mad at play. However, as the author explains in some detail, serious changes had begun by the 1840s, when Dadd entered the system.Rather than simply accepting the inmates as incurably insane, doctors were beginning both to question the often inhumane treatment of restraint and confinement, and search for possible causes. This was crucial for Dadd, since almost from the beginning of his incarceration he was allowed access to paint, canvas and drawing materials.
Tromans' narrative centres upon two interlinked themes: the changing nineteenth century attitudes to those classed as insane, especially the sub-group to which Dadd was assigned (namely the 'criminally insane'), and to what extent the art which Dadd produced reflects his mental instability. Modern medical practice's use of art as a kind of psychotherapy that may reveal the inner workings of a disturbed mind is, of course, never very far away in discussions of this kind. However, Tromans is very careful not to make assumptions or to claim too much. In this he is helped by deflecting attention from Dadd's most iconic work, The Fairy-Feller's Master-Stroke, to a more detailed examination of his lesser known paintings. With reference to several of these pieces, Tromans argues that not only are the subjects of the paintings themselves illuminative, but that the works' stylistic characteristics are the result of Dadd's physical, and mental, removal from a 'normal' artistic environment.
All artists must necessarily consider their audience, even if they seek to dismiss their views as irrelevant or misguided. This is a concern of those who wish to fully understand Dadd's art because in both a practical and artistic sense, Dadd had no audience. He had no studio or patron, no colleagues with whom to compare himself or argue, no critics to dismantle or celebrate his work. Although his work occasionally appeared on the art market, most of it remained either within the domain of the hospital or in the possession of those in charge of it. For example, Alexander Morison (Consulting Physician at Bethlem from 1835 until 1852) owned several of his works, and in the year of his retirement had Dadd paint his portrait. This painting is a strange concoction of a landscape that Dadd could never have seen (apparently based on a sketch by Morison's daughter Ann) and the elderly figure of Morison, who, Tromans suggests, looks more like an undertaker.
In the preceding years Dadd had concentrated on works which looked back to his fateful tour of 1842-43. These paintings--Caravanserai at Mysala, View in the Island of Rhodes and the large canvas Flight Out of Egypt -present a graphic realisation of Dadd's alienation from the real world in which he existed. Painters of all kinds re-interpret the world through their own experience, but in these works Dadd has to rely on memory and his uncertain artistic vision. These paintings are amongst the most revealing of his predicament: alone within a secure institution, but capable of developing images that are both the product of his mental state and his reaction to it. Tromans succinctly describes this dilemma in these terms: "Patterns and meanings existed that could not be accommodated to the gaze of the artist, trained to believe that his or her eyes alone could capture the truth. Isolated at Bethlem, with nothing to look at now but brick walls, Dadd almost appears to mock the authority of vision."
In 1852 Bethlem hospital appointed William Hood as its first resident Physician-Superintendent. He was very much influenced by John Conolly, the advocate of non-restraint methods of care for the mentally ill, and within a few months conditions within the institution began to change, although for those like Dadd in the secure areas for the criminally insane the changes must have, of necessity, been slight. Hood viewed insanity as a complex combination of circumstances which involved the whole personality, not simply as a result of specific events or illness. He believed that persuading his patients to talk about their condition, and to challenge their view of themselves and the world, would lead to a healthier situation. By 1856 Dadd had been moved to more comfortable surroundings and his artistic output became more varied, moving away from faintly remembered Oriental landscapes to more expressive figurative works. One of these, The Child's Problem of 1857, is particularly notable in that it represents a move into a realm where we are required to unravel meaning from what seems, on the surface, a deceptively simple subject.
A child, a ruff around his neck, peers over a table top upon which lies an abandoned chess game, showing 'White to play and mate in two.' Is this the child's problem, or is it a problem set by the child? Or is the problem the sleeping figure whom the child is trying to rouse? Confusion is added by background references to the slave trade, with the symbol of the Anti-Slavery Society on one side and a slave ship on the other. Obviously Dadd would have sympathised with those suffering in slavery, but it had been abolished in this country more than thirty years before. Or perhaps the problem is the child himself, with the wild stare indicative of some kind of mental confusion or even terror. Whatever the solution, if indeed there is one, Dadd demonstrates that he is capable of instilling into his work unsettling mystery which might be a reflection of his inner state, of turmoil which he could not express in any other way. Over the next few years Dadd went on to complete his best known works, The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke between 1855 and 1864, and Contradiction: Oberon and Titania between 1854 and 1858.
These two works are by far the most ambitious of Dadd's career and are related both in subject matter and in the circumstances of their production. Contradiction was painted for Dr. Hood while The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke is inscribed on the back as for George Haydon, the Steward of Bethlem from 1853 and Hood's primary assistant. Both pictures are firmly positioned within the 'fairy' genre, but are difficult to fully explain.Much has been written about these works and they are without doubt the high point of Dadd's art. Tromans examines them in great detail and skilfully draws out the Shakespearean themes that are the starting points of both pictures. He does his best to explain the many layers of significance which can be suggested, but ultimately, like all who attempt to disentangle these most difficult works, he is overwhelmed by their complexity, urging us to simply accept them as the product of an artist whose confusing iconography, source material and environment mean that they will probably never be fully understood. Both have clear meaning in relation to their central themes, but it is in the minutiae of the details that confusion reigns. Dadd seemingly created worlds within worlds, ever smaller and more complicated, connected together but also independent. In a later poem, or more accurately a rhyming monologue, which he called Elimination of a Picture & its Subject -called the Master-Feller's Master Stroke, there is an attempt to explain, but the rambling text does more to confuse than enlighten. That is, until the final lines where Dadd reminds us of King Lear's statement that"nothing can be made out of nothing" when he writes:
But whether it be or be not so You can afford to let this go For nought as nothing it explains And nothing from nothing nothing gains.
Tromans concludes this fine book with a brief account of Dadd's time in the newly built asylum, Broadmoor. It was there that he died in January 1886, and was buried in an unmarked grave in the hospital cemetery. It was not until the Tate acquired The Fairy-Feller's Master-Stroke in 1963 that his art became widely known, and as Tromans accurately states, this picture is now one of the most popular in the gallery. But, despite the well-researched detail contained within this volume, Dadd's art remains elusive.
Mental instability and great art are now almost irrevocably intertwined, although the connection, it can be argued, is less about the art and more about our perception of the artist as someone who is on the outside of 'normal' society. This book demonstrates on almost every page how dangerous it can be to make assumptions when searching particular works for revelations of the mind's workings. Dadd's art is fascinating in its own right, not just because of the unusual circumstances of its production. This book reveals many of its secrets but, thankfully, much mystery still remains.--Paul Flux