Richard Dadd – 1817 - 1886

The VV has long been fascinated by the work of Richard Dadd, a Victorian artist whose depictions of fairies – in whose existence he staunchly believed – were executed in the minutest detail.

The son of a Chatham pharmacist (and one of nine other children of whom at least three exhibited some form of mental instability), when the mild-mannered and cheerful Dadd entered the Royal Academy he was regarded as being one of his generation's most promising talents, going on to found ‘the Clique’ – a group of young artists of whom he was the undoubted and popular leader. 

Bacchanalian Scene 1862

But something happened to affect Dadd’s health when, in 1842, he left England and travelled abroad, employed as an expedition artist. He journeyed through Greece and Turkey, Syria, and Egypt - and it was on his arrival in Egypt, when immersed in the country's culture and landscape that Dadd came to believe himself possessed by the spirit of the god Osiris. 

Dadd's portrait of Sir Thomas Phillips

When brought back home to England, Dadd recuperated from his mental distress while staying with his family. But this period of convalescence only resulted in tragedy when Dadd suddenly murdered his father, convinced that he was the devil in disguise.

The Fairy Fellers Master-Stroke (painted between 1855 and 1864) - thought to be Dadd's most accomplished work

Attempting to flee to the safety of France, Dadd was apprehended and then returned to England where a list of other intended victims was found upon his person. Also, several portraits that he'd made were discovered with violent streaks of red pigment slashed across their throats - inferring that he also planned to damage the subjects of the works. Considered to be a serious risk, Dadd was confined to Bethlem (the asylum also known as Bedlam) and there he remained until 1864 when he was moved to Broadmoor – a hospital for the criminally insane where the artist lived for many years until dying of consumption. 

During his years of confinement the talented artist was lucky enough to be under the care of kind and forward-thinking doctors who allowed their patient to continue producing his astonishing work.

Come unto these Yellow Sands

The VV's favourite painting by Dadd is  Come unto these Yellow Sands, inspired by Fairy Land iii, a poem by William Shakespeare - and this is also the title of a radio play by Angela Carter, in which she wrote about Dadd's life. The VV has only been able to source this very short extract from the play - but there is always the hope that Radio 4 might one day decide to repeat the play again. 

COME unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:
Court'sied when you have, and kiss'd,-
The wild waves whist,-
Foot it featly here and there:
And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.
Bow, wow,
The watch-dogs bark:
Hark, hark! I hear
The strain of strutting chanticleer
Cry, Cock-a-diddle-dow!

If you wish to see paintings by Richard Dadd there are several on display at Tate Britain.

Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum by Nicholas Tromans is a book with a wealth of information and stunning reproductions of the artist's work. Tate Publishing in July 2011. 

There have also been exhibitions held at The Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham and the the gallery may still have information on any forthcoming events.

And this article by A S Byatt is well worth a read.


  1. Fantastic, one of my favourite Victorians & I blogged about him last year.
    Do you remember that episode of the Antiques Roadshow when someone brought in a long-lost Dadd painting?


    A fascinating & ultimately tragic man.

  2. Hello Amateur Casual,

    Oh this is fascinating!Could you post a link to you own blog, or let me know via Twitter. Would love to read your post. And no, I had no idea about the Antiques Roadshow event - was it an early work, or had someone perhaps taken it as a gift from the asylum?


    PS - have just been building my blog roll of links again after managing to delete them all accidentally...your will be reinstated today!

  3. Wonderfully interesting blog Essie...I'm so looking forward to exploring more of it. I found you through the BronteSisters blog.
    I wasn't familiar with Dadd...quite a sad story, but what a brilliant doctor!
    Congratulations on your book, love the cover...I look forward to reading it.
    xo Jessica

  4. Thank you so much, 24 Corners - hope you enjoy more in the blog. I must admit that it's great fun to write.


  5. It was the classic 'found it in the attic, thought I'd bring it along' story. It was a watercolour called “The Artist’s Halt in the Desert” a scene taken from the expedition with Sir Thomas Phillips in Jordan depicting the travelling party resting by the Dead Sea.

    Dadd painted it whilst in Bethlem, entirely from memory.

    No idea how it came to be in a gentleman's attic, but the British Museum bought it for £100,000, and it is still there.

    A great story, & who knows what else is out there is attics' basements' and sheds'!

  6. Great to have that information. Thank you A C. Making me think of a future post on Victorian paintings of the Orient...