The Art of Bedlam: Richard Dadd

Last week, artist LWG visited The Art of Bedlam: Richard Dadd at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind. Despite her own history with Bethlem Hospital, LWG highly recommends the show, which continues until 6 February 2016. 

“Richard Dadd was born in Chatham, Kent, in 1817, and educated in Rochester, where his artistic talent was noticed at an early age. He studied at the Royal Academy of Art and was awarded the medal for life drawing in 1840. In 1842, Sir Thomas Philips invited Dadd to accompany him as a draftsman on his expedition through Greece, Southern Syria and Egypt. This trip provided much inspiration for his work, but also culminated in his breakdown, which is most likely to have been paranoid schizophrenia. 

LDBTH199-Sketch to Illustrate the Passions - Insignificance or Self-Contempt (1854) (600 dpi)

Richard Dadd, Sketch to Illustrate the Passions – Insignificance or Self-Contempt (1854) (c) Bethlem Museum of the Mind

While travelling up the river Nile, Dadd’s companions noticed a profound change in his personality; marked by violence and the delusional belief that he was being influenced by the Egyptian God Orisis, lord of the afterlife, who was depicted as a green skinned man with a pharaoh’s beard, a crown of ostrich feathers, partially wrapped in bandages like a mummy, and carrying a crook. Terrifying, no? 

Dadd’s condition was initially attributed to sunstroke, but on returning to England he was diagnosed as being ‘of unsound mind’ and taken by his family to recuperate at home in the Kentish countryside. By August 1843 he had become convinced that his father was the devil in disguise, whereupon he knifed him to death and fled to France, attempting to kill another person with a razor en-route. He was however, overpowered and arrested, then returned to England where he was committed to the criminal department of the Bethlem Royal Hospital, from which we derive the delightful term ‘Bedlam’. Here he was encouraged to paint by what was considered to be an ‘enlightened’ administration by doctors William Wood and William Orange, and Sir W. Charles Wood. 

LDBTH206-Sketch to Illustrate the Passions - Grief or Sorrow (1854) b

Richard Dadd, Sketch to Illustrate the Passions – Grief or Sorrow (1854) (c) Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Later, Dadd moved to the new Broadmoor hospital, where he continued to work. Dadd’s ethereal miniaturist works are often startling and unsettling. They stunningly depict scenes from his travels purely based on memory. The works on show at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind show a distinct progression as his mental health deteriorated; light airy watercolours move on to tiny, dark oils of increasing complexity. What an extraordinary draftsman and skilled painter he was! And a ‘Very sensible and agreeable companion’ too.

The Bethlem Museum of The Mind is a beautiful, light airy space, that also showcases work of any artist that has been a patient of the hospital. Hopefully mine too, one day. The Maudsley and I have a past you see. I spent a decade avoiding the place, but when my dear friend Nick Farey had his sadly, posthumous, exhibition in the gallery I decided the time had come to face the place down, so to speak, and stop avoiding large swathes of south London altogether!

LDBTH774-Portrait of Sir Thomas Phillips in Turkish Dress (1842-3) (600 dpi)

Richard Dadd, Portrait of Sir Thomas Phillips in Turkish Dress (1842 – 3) (c) Bethlem Museum of the Mind

The Museum of the Mind was then housed in a tiny building that now houses the restaurant and cafe and was desperately claustrophobic, crowded and dark; but then, I was bound to say that as an ex patient! (Matters were not improved on that particular visit by my nearly getting shut in either…) But now I have walked back in and out of those gates several times to real artistic and archival treats such as this exhibition and the concurrent by Elena Brebner ‘A Magical Month in Ireland.’ It is a valuable document of history too – even if the objects and records terrify the life out of me! But then I would say that!! 

Thank you then, to Nick, for getting me to revisit the place, thereby overcoming my fear, because I would have missed discovering this fascinating little gem of history and creativity otherwise. I’ll go again I think. Just as long as they leave the door open!”

The exhibition continues until 6 February 2016 at Bethlem Museum of the Mind. Click here for more information

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