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The Madman as Painter

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The Madman as Painter

An artist of genius and a murderer, Richard Dadd spent 42 years in psychiatric institutions. Spring 2016
The Social Order
Arts and Culture

Hidden in the beautiful, undulating countryside of Surrey, south of London—much of it ruined, though, by the hideousness of post–Great War suburbia—is the Watts Gallery, a museum devoted to the work of the Victorian painter George Frederic Watts, once known (it is impossible to suppress a smile) as England’s Michelangelo. Watts (1817–1904) was the son of an impoverished but ambitious piano tuner, and he owed his rapid ascent up the social scale to the swift recognition of his talents by people in the upper reaches of society. Though somewhat lacking in humor, he was charming and good company. When, as a very young man, he went to Italy to study at the font of Western art, the British ambassador to the Duchy of Florence, Lord Holland, and his wife were so taken with him that they asked him to stay. “We have plenty of room,” said Lady Holland, which was no more than the truth: their residence had 100 rooms. He stayed for years.

But I had not come to the Watts Gallery to commune with Watts: I had come to see an exhibition of the pictures of Richard Dadd, said to be the most comprehensive such exhibition ever held. He was a painter of brilliance—and also insane.

Born in the same year as Watts, Dadd was a similarly gifted artist and draftsman: and in the year Watts went to Italy, Dadd toured the Middle East for ten months as an artist and traveling companion to Sir Thomas Phillips, a wealthy Welsh lawyer knighted for his part in the suppression of a political riot in Newport, Monmouthshire, in which he was slightly wounded. On his return from the Orient, Dadd passed through Italy while Watts was there, but the two artists never met. By this time, Dadd’s conduct and conversation had become strange, his character had changed, and Phillips had become frightened of him.

Dadd traveled the last leg of the journey home on his own. Sometime after he arrived, he lured his father, Robert Dadd, a pharmaceutical chemist who had also been curator of the Chatham and Rochester Philosophical and Literary Institution (which may have served as a partial model for Dickens’s Pickwick Club), to Cobham Park. There, he attempted to cut his father’s throat, failing to do so but killing him instead by stabbing him in the chest. His father dead, Dadd stretched his arm toward the sky and said, “Go, and tell the great god Osiris that I have done the deed which is to set him free.” The story of Dadd reminds me of a male patient of mine a century and a half later, who approached a woman at a bus stop and attacked her with a meat cleaver, exclaiming, “Mary Queen of Scots was innocent, so you have to die, too!” Fortunately, he managed to injure her only slightly.

After killing his father, Dadd managed to escape to France, where he tried to murder a passenger in the carriage in which he was traveling. It had been his intention to go to Austria to assassinate the emperor. He was arrested and taken to an asylum in Clermont, remaining there for ten months before extradition to England. His main treatment in Clermont was cold showers, but these failed to alter his ideas or his state of mind. Dadd believed that his father was an imposter, his real paternal parent being Osiris, and that Robert Dadd, in fact, was an enemy of Osiris, perhaps the Devil himself, intent upon preventing Richard from coming into his divine heritage. He believed something similar of the coach passenger whom he had suddenly attacked: and though the clinical notes made of Dadd’s condition were scanty, it is likely that the more the doctors spoke to him, the less they understood his thought processes.

Dadd was sent for trial in England, but, there being no doubt that he had done the deed of which he was accused, and there also being no doubt that his mind was deranged, he wound up in the wing for criminal lunatics at Bethlem Hospital in London, until he was moved 20 years later to the first purpose-built hospital for the criminally insane in Britain—Broadmoor, in the Berkshire countryside. There, Dadd died of tuberculosis in 1886, having spent the last 42 years of his life in psychiatric custody. He never lost his delusions, nor was he ever apologetic about what he had done.

Notes from Dadd’s decades in lunatic asylums have survived: a total of 64 entries, approximately one every eight months. Many are singularly uninformative about him:

24 October 1865: No change.

2 October 1868: Much better; no action of the bowels from 18th Septr. Till 30th Septr. when they were relieved by simple water enema.

From my early years as a physician in such institutions, I, too, remember the days of asylum constipation, a result of inactivity and stodgy food (the vegetables largely purloined by the staff). The main entry describing Dadd’s mental state was dated March 21, 1854, ten years after his admission to Bethlem (also known as Bedlam), by his doctor, William Hood. It is worth quoting in extenso:

For some years after his admission he was considered a violent and dangerous patient, for he would jump up and strike a violent blow without any aggravation, and then beg pardon for the deed. This arose from some vague idea that filled his mind and still does so to a certain extent that certain spirits have the power of possessing a man’s body and compelling him to adopt a particular course whether he will or no. When he talks on this subject and on any other at all with the motives that influence him to commit the crime for which he is confined here, he frequently becomes excited in his manner of speaking, and soon rambles from the subject and becomes quite unintelligible. He is very eccentric and glories that he is not influenced by motives that other men pride themselves in possessing—thus he pays no sort of attention to decency in his acts or words, if he feels the least inclination to be otherwise; he is perfectly a sensual being, a thorough animal, he will gorge himself with food till he actually vomits, and then return to the meal. With all these disgusting points in his conduct he can be a very sensible and agreeable companion, and shew in conversation, a mind once well educated and thoroughly informed in all the particulars of the profession in which he still shines . . . . He had been travelling in the East and was abroad at the time his peculiarities were first noticed.

The French notes say: “Dadd is a distinguished English artist in whom overwork (often at the expense of sleep), unexpected disappointments and a rather long stay under the brilliant sky of the Levant seem to have produced a partial insanity characterized by odd delirious ideas that led him to homicide.”

What was wrong with Dadd, and what caused his illness? Nowadays, he would be diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia. Some authors have suggested Capgras Syndrome—the delusion that a person (usually a close relative or friend) has been replaced by a double of identical appearance. This, however, does not exactly fit Dadd’s case, since he denied that his father had ever been his father. In any case, most diagnoses of this kind merely redescribe the symptoms and have little, if any, explanatory value. At the time of Dadd’s confinement in asylums, many supposed that he had been the victim of sunstroke.

One probable precipitating factor was unmentioned: hashish. In the years immediately before and after Dadd’s voyage in the Orient, French doctors, writers, and artists were fascinated by the drug. In 1844, the alienist (as psychiatrists were then called) Jacques-Joseph Moreau (1804–84) founded the Club des Haschaschins in Paris, frequented by Théophile Gautier, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, Honoré Daumier, and Eugène Delacroix, among other writers and artists. Moreau had traveled in the Orient for four years, from 1836 to 1840, and in 1845 published his great work, Du Haschisch et de l’aliénation mentale (Of Hashish and Madness). He took the drug himself, and wrote: “Personal experience is here [in the book] the criterion of truth.” He said several things of interest in the context of the development of Dadd’s illness: “All those who have visited the Orient know how widespread is the use there of hashish, among the Arab, above all, for whom it has become as imperious a need as opium for the Turks.” Dadd spent some time in Cairo, wandering the streets on his own; it would be surprising if he never came across hashish in any form, and he might well have tried it—indeed, he probably did.

Moreau himself became paranoid under the influence of hashish. Speaking of the man who furnished him with cannabis in Paris, Louis Aubert-Roche, a French physician who lived and worked in Egypt (including during the construction of the Suez Canal) and who tried hashish as a cure for cholera, Moreau writes:

Imperceptibly, in my growing state of exultation, I persuaded myself that the colleague who had brought the hashish had given me one of a different and much stronger quality, that he had mixed with the pure extract. It’s an experiment, I told myself, that he wants to do: it’s seriously idiotic! . . . But who is it who replies that he didn’t want to poison me? . . . He did want to poison me; and I cry out, “Aubert, you are a murderer, you have poisoned me!” The cheerful way in which Aubert listens to my lamentations, the words of consolation he offers, only make my conviction stronger.

Louis Aubert-Roche was another French doctor who had traveled in Egypt, and who had recommended the use of hashish in the treatment of typhus and plague. In addition, Moreau remarked that self-control weakens under the influence of hashish and that, even while contact with reality is not altogether lost, impulsiveness supervenes: he himself had to ask for the windows to be secured to prevent him from jumping out. In his report to the Revue des deux mondes, in a piece titled “Le Club des haschaschins,” published in 1846, Gautier also described a paranoid reaction on which he acted impulsively under mad ideas.

But if hashish was the precipitating cause of Dadd’s psychosis, it is unlikely to have been the only cause. Normally, paranoid reactions to hashish abate quickly, though I have known them to last for weeks, and in the hospital in which I worked, we observed what we called the Amsterdam Returnee Syndrome, that is to say, a paranoid psychosis lasting several weeks, necessitating hospitalization, in a young man, who, never having tried cannabis before, went to Amsterdam for a weekend, smoked continually, and returned mad. But it seems that Dadd had a genetic predisposition: three of his siblings and half-siblings ended up permanently in asylums.

Nevertheless, there is a quality to his post-Egyptian artistic work that suggests that he had taken hashish. Before the journey, he painted a series of fairy paintings that were—to me, anyway—twee, affected and conventional for their time; after his admission, first to Bethlem and then to Broadmoor, his paintings have an extraordinary, and beautiful, hallucinatory quality. One of the most extraordinary pictures ever painted, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, which is only 15 by 21 inches and took him ten years to paint, seems to me to have been done by a man with a personal, though presumably not continuing, experience of micropsia, a condition in which everything seems much smaller than it is, and which is one of the possible effects of intoxication with hashish (there are other causes, of course).

"The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke," 1855–64 (TATE, LONDON/ART RESOURCE, NY)

Dadd continued to draw and paint while cooped up in Bethlem and Broadmoor. Two of his most remarkable portraits are of two of his doctors, Sir Alexander Morison and William Hood, both of whom collected his work. (It was then unthinkable that a parricide should profit from his labors, and Dadd died poor.) These are very disturbing portraits, realistic and hallucinatory at the same time. Morison stands expressionlessly in front of his loch-side house in Scotland (which Dadd could never have seen), a top hat in one hand and a white towel in the other, two fishwives mysteriously in the background, clouds scudding in the pale blue sky as in a time-lapse film. Extravagant and yet real vegetation seems to threaten the other alienist, Dr. Hood, as if in some science-fiction fantasy. He looks, unblinkingly full-face, out of the canvas, without emotion, almost like an automaton. These portraits, completely unlike any others known to me and instantly recognizable as Dadd’s work, treat each of their subjects as if he were, as Dadd believed his father to have been, a mere simulacrum, in exterior a human being but in the interior an evil being, or at least one controlled by an evil being.

In 1865, the asylum notes show Dadd to have been painting almost every day. His thoughts were mad, but he continued to work until he became too weak physically to go on. His output was considerable, of high quality and deeply disturbing. A mother and child, painted in 1860, were clearly modeled on the religious motif, but the mother holds the child without tenderness, and the child, still a baby, stares straight ahead with an appraising look of concentrated malignity. On a ledge in the background sits a blackish bird with ruffled feathers that appears to be a vulture.

Most disturbing of all Dadd’s many disturbing pictures is the watercolor The Child’s Problem. A grandmother sits snoozing in a chair, her face that of a severe and harsh woman, while a small boy, with the crazed face of a terrified homicidal lunatic, plays chess on a chessboard on a table in front of him that he is not tall enough to see over, with the pieces almost at eye level—which, of course, makes playing chess almost impossible. On the wall above and behind him is the famous image of the Negro slave in Josiah Wedgwood’s abolitionist medallion. (“Am I not a man and a brother?”) The exact meaning of this strange composition is unclear, but it seems to imply that human existence is a horrific trial to be endured, an existential enslavement, an insoluble task. Yet it was not always so for Dadd: the watercolor sketches that he painted on his Oriental trip before his madness show how alive he had been to the beauty of the world and (incidentally) to the dignity of the people through whose lands he had traveled. It would take an Edward Said to see anything other than admiration in them.

After his death, Dadd remained largely forgotten, his reputation reviving only during the countercultural years of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he rose, briefly, to hero status as the ultimate outsider, an unrepentant parricide, whose work was hallucinatory (even if nobody appreciated at the time the role that hashish may have played in his life). But in some ways, Dadd was a most unlikely hero of the countercultural movement.

It was clear from early in his life that Dadd was naturally gifted; he was also academically trained as a painter, even if he claimed to have benefited little from his training. Had he not been both gifted and trained, he almost surely would have moldered on wards of Bethlem and Broadmoor. Further, he showed the most ferocious application to his work: it seems almost a sign of madness in itself that a man should spend ten years producing a picture no larger than 15 inches by 21. Such intense concentration on a single task was not exactly the first characteristic of the counterculture.

Nor did his story really provide an illustration of the fashionable Foucauldian idea that the supposed philanthropy of the asylums was but a disguised lust for control and power by the upper bourgeoisie. Surely, no society could have entirely disregarded the fact that Dadd killed his father for mad reasons, which were likely to recur and induce him to commit further such acts. In fact, the Victorians come out rather well from the story: not only did they spare his life and not punish him; they also provided him with the wherewithal subsequently to lead a meaningful life and to contribute considerably to his country’s artistic heritage. Of course, he was privileged both because he was educated and talented; most lunatics at the time would not have received such considerate treatment. But the very fact that an appropriate discrimination was made in his case is impressive. I am far from sure that it would be made today.

We pride ourselves on our enormous progress, and in many respects we are justified in doing so. But would Dadd have been better off if he had committed his homicide today? This is far from sure (though he would not have died from tuberculosis).

He would certainly have been treated with drugs. These drugs may or may not have abated or eliminated his symptoms. They almost surely would have given him severe side effects. He would probably have become fat, sluggish, and less in control of his fine movements, the very movements necessary to his art. His mind, though cleared of some of his more extravagant and dangerous notions (the last record of his mental state, in May 1877, 34 years after he killed his father, still spoke of the necessary deed to set Osiris free), would have been befogged by drugs and he would have lived as if in a permanent hangover or permanently jet-lagged. Perhaps he would have been discharged from the hospital (of magnificent architecture and gardens, incidentally) to some dismal halfway house with others also in a permanent pharmacological fog—at least until they took the pot that would be offered to them on the streets almost straightaway and which would have driven them mad again.

A single case cannot be the reason for a change in practice, of course. Dadd was an extraordinary man, gifted to the point of genius, which, by definition, the overwhelming majority of people who commit acts such as his were not and are not. But reflection on his case should at least remind us of the necessity to exercise judgment, to treat people as individuals and not just as cases of something or other.

Top Photo: Dadd’s work was noted for its minutely detailed depictions of supernatural subjects and Orientalist scenes. (TOPFOTO/THE IMAGE WORKS)

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