Being the Story of Richard Dadd and the Painting of the Fairy-Feller’s Master Stroke
Civilisation is a veneer.
This is London, the acme of grace and refinement, and rats scuttle within a few feet of every distinguished citizen.
Just as a city may conceal its shame, so might its people. There are rats of the psyche too.
There was once a time when survival was a contest, and our genes remember it. Conventions of decorum contain our innate savagery.
Your mind is a sharp instrument. Unleashed, it will make short work of the fabric of conformity.
...This is the voice of the painter, Dadd. He is deemed mad.
...These are the voices of those around him, and they are presumed sane.
...This is the voice of the narrator, whose state of mind is inconsequential.
Morison’s Rooms at Bethlehem Hospital : Summer, 1858
Late afternoon sunbeams dance orange in the crystal, and the oriel is bathed in faerie-light.
The gentle sussuration of his voice washes over me. My World is never so calm, but neither is the World beyond this room.
Morison sets down the sherry decanter in the burning red pool of the charger. He continues in his familiar soft growl, like a contended dog half-asleep at the fireside. He conjures this deceptive tranquility, this oasis of false reason in which he floats, but I forgive him for it. These vestiges of liberty rely on his trust, and he is my friend.
‘None of this for you, Mr Dadd’ he chides, raising the sparkling glass through the dying rays of crimson sun. He does not notice the sprites and atomies that fly from it. I try to ignore their buzzing, and fix all my attention on the soporific Scots burr.
‘Now, the steward informs me that we must discuss this’, Morison continues, nodding towards the canvas. A shower of faeries bursts from the chandelier above it, and they settle about the room, on drapes and antimacassars. Their singing is a distraction, and I know that they would have me remain silent. They and I both understand the importance of this thing.
‘You began it for Mr Haydon more than three years ago, I am told. You paint over it again and again. Is this the product of boredom, Mr Dadd, or do you have some other purpose?’
The room is awash with the swell of summer eventide. The scent is of candlewax and leather, womb-warm, suffused by tones of blood. The pervasive chorus is sapping wakefulness. I remember nothing more.
Origins : the Testimony of Augustus EggRichard Dadd was born in Chatham, into a family of means and manners, and in 1817 those two attributes were a sufficient guarantee of good breeding. The physicians who dismissed his infant nightmares knew no neurochemistry. Even their modern-day counterparts might have discerned nothing in those early years, since Richard was a vigorous, bright and confident young man, and it was soon evident that he possessed an exceptional gift for drawing.
Dadd was living in Great Queen Street when I first met him in 1838. He had been admitted to the Royal Academy the year before. He was a friend of John Phillip, who was betrothed to his sister, and William Powell Frith was another companion. O'Neill and Elmore, Ward and Joy were others, and William Scott sometimes, and this group was well-known in contemporary artistic circles, and often met in his rooms. We called ourselves ‘the Clique’.
Dadd was soon sought after for his illustrations of Shakespeare, particularly after he exhibited ‘Come Unto These Yellow Sands’ in 1841. He received commissions to illustrate books and to decorate town-houses, and he found himself a distinguished patron in Sir Thomas Phillips. I must admit to some feelings of envy as they embarked upon the Grand Tour in the summer of 1842.
One place where it was begun, and another where it now resides.
A lunatic asylum and an art gallery.
Perhaps they are not so very different. In each, it’s proper to contemplate the motivation of the inmates.
Room 15 at Tate Britain, just inside from the Millbank entrance, is a sorry example of the futility of categorisation. Richard Dadd’s terrible masterpiece shares this space with its contemporaries, including Burne-Jones’ Beggar-Maid and Rossetti’s Annunciation. These neighbours are fine works, but they are vapid and vacuous in the company of the Fairy-Feller.
The Pre-Raphaelites were feckless and faint-hearted hankerers after the pagan spirit. They left us shallow depictions of its romanticised notion. The diminutive canvas in their midst is something else entirely.
Some rare paintings transcend imagery. They are not representations of things, nor are they scenes, nor likenesses of the dead. They do not hang from the stark walls. Rather, they pierce them. They are windows on a different consciousness.
Linger at this window, and it will seize your dreams.
Alexander Morison was an early pioneer in the treatment of mental illness. He reasoned that his patients might be consoled through the enactment of their former recreation.
Mr George Dadd, Esq.
12 Nineveh Terrace,
30th January, 1855
I beg your forbearance in a matter of some delicacy. I know your brother, Mr Richard Dadd, in consequence of my employ as Steward at the Bethlehem Hospital.
He has implored me to visit you, so that he might recover his painting materials from your care. Mr Dadd would once again take up his craft, the pursuit of which his doctors deem conducive to the relief of his affliction.
In like vein, your brother also respectfully asks you to return a certain ring purchased by him in the course of his Eastern travels. This ring is set with an agate stone, and he assures me that you will thus recognise it and comprehend its significance.
I would not cause you distress in this transaction, kind Sir, and so await your word of agreement. In the hope of your convenience I stand ready to come to your chambers on Friday the sixth next, thereupon to make a collection of these items.
I am, Sir, your humble and indebted Servant,
Dadd’s Tour in 1842 : OsirisSir Thomas Phillips and Richard Dadd travelled down the Rhine Valley, on to Lake Maggiore and the Bernese Alps, and then to Venice and Bologna. Next it was Athens, via Corfu, and after that Smyrna and Constantinople, followed by Asia Minor, and then on to Rhodes, Cyprus and Beirut. By mule and foot they came to Tripoli, then Damascus, then Jerusalem. Upon reaching the Dead Sea, they took to boats and up the Nile valley to Thebes, arriving there just before Christmas 1842. It had been a gruelling schedule. Dadd had begun to suffer headaches and ‘sun stroke’ some time before reaching Egypt, but it was here, amid the echoes of ancient religions, that he experienced his first hallucinations.
Did he turn to look at me, from his lion bed of birth and death? I believe that I saw it, the tilt of his carved face, the shifting of the soot that hid him. Did Isis and Nephthys pause in their frozen motions of revival to flick an inscrutable gesture at me with their fingers? I do not know what I saw, I do not trust my eyes, but I am sure that I heard him. In the temple of Opet he spoke to me; he spoke truths too great to hold. That is why I do not remember his words. The ecstasy of his voice and meaning overwhelmed me but the words do not matter. I am his chosen and he suffuses me.
Days have passed; days in which I doubted the truth that Osiris has given to me, and thought myself possessed of evil. But the truth of my fate is with me and I cannot doubt it.
Phillips is here with me now. His eyes are tiny and distant and I wonder if he too suspects the things that will be coming after us, but I think not. The air is greasy with the burnt caramel fetor of his pipe. I share his smoke and the world slows. For a moment I am calm and I grin foolishly at Phillips. That is when the burning begins, but it is only in my eyes and I think that it is just the smoke. I rub at them and my fingers begin to sting. Phillips says something, he is asking if I am all right, his eyes focus on me through the haze of smoke and I try to say that I am fine. The words leave me, I feel them go, my mouth forms into communicative shapes and they are gone to swirl with the smoke, forming new patterns as they mingle and breed. I cannot hear them. I say 'I cannot hear the words' but those words flutter up with the others. Phillips is speaking again but his words do not hold any meaning, he has invented a new language, it is a trick. His words have sound but no meaning. We must be opposites, he and I. It is a sign that he is my opposite. His moustache bristles; isn't that the word? That's what moustaches do, they bristle. Each hair is perfectly clear : I could count them if I wanted, but my eyes will not stay still and they burn. The sweet taint of the opium is sitting on my mind, binding my thoughts like tar. He is moving : Phillips is looming, getting closer. He touches my shoulder and says something in his new not-language and that is when the crush of thoughts and the blanket of opium-calm over them ignite into pain, and I remember nothing more but the screams that tear at my throat.
Dr William Hood : Musings at Bedlam, 1861
For some time now, I have been minded to record my observations on Dadd and his remarkable painting.
At the time of my appointment as Consultant Physician for this Hospital, my predecessor appraised me of Dadd’s handicraft, expressing also his belief that this activity had a placatory benefit on the patient. Dr Morison evidently did not see fit, however, to comment on either Dadd’s prowess or his obsessive meticulousness.
I learned of both traits from Haydon. Some three years ago, I chanced to question the steward on his habit of wearing a particular ring. Haydon told me that Dadd had given him the ring in gratitude for the procurement of artist’s materials. Moreover, Dadd had promised to make a gift of a painting to his benefactor. This turns out to be the painting to which Dadd still applies himself daily, and which to this day remains unfinished, at least according to its creator.
The painting is some twenty-five inches in height and fifteen in width, rendered on canvas in oils. In spite of this small size, I estimate that Dadd has worked at it for fully ten thousand hours to date, and yet seems in no way ready to call it done.
Haydon reports that the painting was started after only one or two days of preparatory sketches. After painting a solitary figure, Dadd began to compose the likeness of soil and mould, as might be found upon a shady forest floor. He reiterated these features in minute detail for weeks on end, until the surface of the painting took on a powdery and swollen quality, redolent of decay. Then he formed a habit of declaiming before the easel, reciting poetry apparently of his own making, all learned by heart. In time, more figures began to appear, and then soon after came the habit of painting a different scene over the original composition. Very often, he has moved the same figures around the painting, or changed the season, or the light, all as if the scene were alive and time were passing in the world it depicts.
The first figure painted, referred to by Dadd as ‘the Patriarch’, seems to possess divine status in our patient’s pantheon. All the other figures are described as faeries, and the painting itself as 'The Faerie-Feller’s Master-Stroke’. Haydon has established that it relates to a theme from Shakespeare, the fashioning of a Faerie-Queen’s chariot which is described in 'Romeo and Juliet'.
There is nothing particularly unusual about the painting of faeries, as a promenade among the ateliers of Soho will readily affirm. These faeries, however, are decidedly strange. A study of the image is a disturbing experience, and to watch Dadd at work upon it is more disturbing still. I am much less convinced than was Morison that its influence is therapeutic, for Dadd seems very often to be in thrall to it. My tentative attempts to distance him from it, however, have given rise to such demonstrations of despair and anger that I am now minded to let him stay at it.
Dadd paints in a bare room in daylight. He uses two easels, one bearing the painting and the other a palette. He holds a brush in his right hand and a magnifying-glass in his left, and often the brush has but a single hair. The fineness of the detail he paints is extreme, and sometimes quite imperceptible, to me at any rate. Sometimes he will remain motionless for minutes on end, with the brush-tip against the canvas and the glass in close proximity. As he works, he often chants his verse, or makes hissing sounds in the manner of an animal.
Haydon, for his part, is greatly changed in his opinion of both the painting and its executor. From a former estimation of gratitude and pride, he has progressed through fascination and revulsion to an attitude today that is not so very far removed from terror. Dadd has asked the steward to pose for him, and so to be put into the picture, but Haydon will have no such thing. Asked why he then continues to wear Dadd’s ring, the unhappy steward has been heard to claim that its jewel serves as a charm against evil.
Dadd in Rome : January 1843
The Tour continued, taking in Alexandria and Malta, before Richard took a turn for the worse soon after arriving in western Italy.
As I recover my senses I can see that I am in another unfamiliar room. There is little view beyond the window, but Rome in the spring is garish and I do not care to look at it anyway. The air is darker then it should be this early in the day, there is a sticky overcast that presages another storm.
A movement near the door draws my ear; it is Phillips.'I see you are back in the land of the living my boy,' he says. I turn to face him and he smiles, so I smile back and he settles in a chair next to my bedside. I ask him what happened, though I remember most of it quite clearly. I need to know what he saw. It is a test.
'You don't remember, hey? Well, that's not too surprising. Quite common in these cases I suppose.' He looks up at the ceiling and brushes his moustache absently. His eyes are diffused, remembering.
'I suppose you remember arriving at the piazza?'
I looked around and saw columns circling us - standing stones topped with the idols of saints and worthies, so high and smug, raised above us.
'It wasn't easy to find a good place to stand, with a view of the basilica, there were many people, and noise. It bothered you, I think.'
The crowds, babbling their wonder at the false monument. The ignorant and gullible come to praise the profane heart of their faith. It sickened me and I stumbled blindly after Phillips as he worked his way through the throng, looking for a vantage-point. When he stopped we were at the base of the obelisk. I could have touched it, if I had wanted to. The swarm of supplicants was too close for me to make out the sun burst sweeping out from the mastsebah, but I felt it burn at my feet. At the same time, I felt the power of the needle beside me calling my eyes upward. I fought the impulse to look, and set my gaze on Phillips instead. He seemed oblivious to the blade of stone towering beside us. He was looking at the basilica, waiting with the rest of the mass. The Holy See had him, I saw it then. I had hoped, just for a moment, that he understood that they were acting through him. But he was oblivious, caught in the great lie, and I hated him for it. There was no comfort in fixing my eyes on him and like a drunkard I spun to look…to see in its glory…I was frozen by it…it took me whole.
'We were waiting to hear his Holiness speak. The sun came out. That was when I really noticed that something was wrong.'
The sun hit the peak of the needle at the same moment my eyes scaled the shaft.
'You were terribly pale, looked dreadful. I asked you what was wrong but you just said 'the sun' over and over.
It was a sign…so obvious a message...the sun hitting they symbol of the sun god. It was awful…terrible…to see that. The monument of the sun castrated by the hated sign of their desecration. The sun struck the cross and the reflection of its light blinded me. Where the sun should have absorbed itself in natural worship it was cast back.
'I expect the force of the sun brought on another headache. I should have thought of it, made sure you were completely well. I tried to suggest that we leave, find shade and a cool drink for you but you would not move, didn't seem to hear me. I should have insisted but his Holiness arrived and the crowd was too boisterous to make it practical for me to get you out of the piazza just then.'
As the heir of St Peter stepped up to speak revolt moved in waves through the paved symbol of Ishtar and travelled up Baal's column until it throbbed with power. I heard the voices again, drowning out the Latin of the false one, older and more powerful than him…than all of them with their puling cheap religion…could ever hope to be. It spoke to me of the progenitors of decay. Our father who art in heaven, who is a lie and a sacrilege against the old forms…forgive me father for you have sinned.
'You became fevered, delirious. Your speech was disordered and I could not follow it.'
The might of…them, the ones who watch me…who have chosen me…boiled from the obelisk and filled me. They guide me and they guided my actions then.
'I tried to calm you, but you pushed me away and started to run through the crowds towards his Holiness. Guards stopped you, though it took several of them to contain you. There's not really any more to tell. Once you were restrained I interceded and explained that the heat and exhaustion have affected you quite badly, so finally they allowed me to bring you back here.'
Phillips has stopped speaking and is watching me intently. I shake my head, visibly bewildered and say that I do not know what came over me. I remember none of what he described. He is concerned, but he believes me and tells me that we shall travel north, where it is cooler. Perhaps they may yet prove to be working through him, but I know now that he is not to be trusted. I agree to his plans and tell him that I am tired.
Once he is gone I stare about the room again. In the corner of the window a moth is casting itself against the glass. The dust from its wings glitters bronze and gold and begins to form itself into patterns. I watch.
Events conspired to set Dadd apart. His artistic intentions were not constrained by the commercial considerations that trammelled his peers. He was driven by a deeper compulsion.
In the asylum, there is no audience and no patronage. There is scarcely an intellectual community of any kind. And so we might conclude that the making of the Fairy-Feller was not a diversion, and nor was it a thank-you to a mad-house orderly. It was not an exercise in draughtsmanship, and it was not even the reiterated outpouring of a disordered mind.
It was an expression of the yearning at the heart of art itself.
Dadd in Paris : May 1843
Sir Thomas Phillips no longer believed that Richard was suffering from a temporary malaise. He had done his best to bring his unfortunate companion this far.
Sometimes I doubt and I know that it is evil, to doubt. I must be sure, I must be certain, and I am. Most of the time, I am certain. But sometimes, what I know is different and I am just as sure, then. Sometimes, I know that the voices are evil, that what they tell me is wrong and I hate myself for the things that I have seen, in my mind.
This morning I killed Phillips. I waited for him in his room. I had his razor. His own razor, still a little sticky with his shaving soap. I stared at the patterns on it as I waited for him. I could see them in the corners of the room. They are always there now, at the corners of my vision, darting before me, dancing, fornicating, twisting over the ceiling, their tiny faces contorted and gleeful, their voices high and constant and through their chatter I hear His voice, deeper and compelling, telling me over and over that Phillips is not to be trusted, that he is evil and that he will deceive me if I let him. I kept my eyes on the smudges of soap because I did not want to see them, did not need to see them. It was not decent that they could be so pleased at what I was there to do. Not decent that I shared their elation when I must be composed. I must be calm to carry out the act.
I was sure, then. I brimmed with certainty, the doubts belonged to someone else, a me who was not me. I turned them over, the thoughts of the not me. The thoughts that tell me that the voices are not true, that Phillips is my friend, that I am scaring him. I smiled as I dismissed those thoughts and exhilaration tingled in my skin.
Phillips came in and frowned to see me in his room. I told him that I knew of his evil and my voice rang with Their power. I told him that I would bring justice upon him. I hit him to the floor and pinned him there. My hand was over his mouth, forcing his head back. His eyes were dreadfully wide; his breath on my hand was hot and quick. I noticed that his collar had been done up too tight and had made his neck red. He hardly struggled at all. He did not have time. I ran the blade over his throat with a firm quick movement and the blood that poured out bubbled a little.
As I watched the focus of his eyes slip away from me, dip into nothingness, he walked in the door. There was nothing in my hands. The razor was gone.
'I killed you. I killed you just now. Must I kill you again?' I heard myself speak and it was my own voice, weak and faltering. The power was gone. I had failed and they had repudiated me for it. I leapt at Phillips, sure that if I killed him again they would come back to me and I would be certain again. I wanted to cut his throat and see him bleed again but the blade was gone, so I clawed at him and tried to throttle him. There was no strength in my hands. My limbs quivered and I fell to the floor when he pushed me and did not get up. I sat and wept like a scorned woman.
For an age Phillips stood where I had attacked him and stared at me as though he did not know me. I crawled away from him and hid my face in the valance at the foot of the bed. When he spoke his voice was unsteady.
'Richard, you must get help. This is not sunstroke.'
I could not answer him and he did not say anything more. When he left he locked the door.
Three years after Richard Dadd was sent to Bedlam, the zoological gardens in Regent’s Park were opened to the public. They had a tiger, or some such beast, and it is said that it paced up and down in frustration until its legs broke.
The Chalk-Pit at Cobham : August 1843
Phillips chose not to travel with Dadd from Paris to London, but the invalid made it home somehow. In the course of the summer, Richard Dadd become convinced that he was being called upon by Osiris to do battle with demons. The fixation was debilitating, and Dadd withdrew to a rented room in Newman Street. His father called upon Dr Alexander Sutherland of St. Luke's Hospital to examine him, and Sutherland pronounced that Richard Dadd was non compos mentis. In spite of this, Robert Dadd agreed to accompany his son on a trip to Cobham, in the hope that it might aid the young man’s recuperation.
He was beside me and we were alone. His name was at the top of the list and we were alone. I kept the list folded neatly in my pocket, where I could touch it and be reassured.
It took a long time to finish. Days and nights of torment just to find all the names and then longer still to find the right order. The Fairies tried to help, more of them than I have ever seen clustered into my rooms, but it is in their nature to bicker and they are so easily distracted. They would press thickly about me, jostling to be heard and inevitably some would start to fight, hissing and snarling, inflicting terrible wounds on each other and others would watch, jeering or sitting with wide eyes, giggling. Then I would chase them away, shout and stamp till they scattered though they never stayed away for long. They could not stay away for long, They were bound and compelled, as was I...
At night I could not sleep for them. They would cling to the bed-frame, snarl and pluck at the blankets until I was driven from my bed and back to work.
I do not know how much time passed in that way. Measurements of day and night did not have the right meanings and weights. If I concentrated hard I could stop time, hang suspended in a moment and see every detail of the world with such clarity...
There are angels and demons in the world. Spirits of power and beauty, and of curdling horror. And there are the lesser spirits, the fairies, who are to us as deer are to horses but who share our mixture of the divine and the wretched. They speak to me and tug coyly at my spirit and they are wondrous to behold.
I tried to escape them, when I came back. I threw myself into my old life, as though I could fit myself back into the narrow rut that I had sprung from. I tried not to see. The competition was a mistake, a distraction, trying to escape their influence through feverish days and nights of work, design after design. But it was for nothing. The spirits would not let me be, and they saw to it that I failed.
There are things that go unseen, things that walk in the skins of men, but evil has crept into their flesh and hollowed them out. They are hollow men who smile and talk and act as men do to hide the malignant swirled emptiness inside. But I walk with angels and demons and it is my curse that I can see those who are marked with emptiness. I walk with angels and demons and I see…
It would have been terribly dark but for the moonlight reflecting from the chalk. I felt cold air rising from the ravine and heard the elms shiver and sing. I was never allowed to venture so far from home at night. By day I would have the run of the estate, the house even, and my first awkward, stumbling steps onto the path of art were taken there. I soaked in the influences of the old masters hanging in the hall and made sketches in the grounds. But the secrets that might be divulged by the light of the moon were denied me. It was not as I remembered it. There was more life, older life, there than I ever suspected as a child.
He was reassured, after that terrible interview with the doctor, when I suggested Cobham. I knew that he would be comforted and I let him think that I wished to go back, retreat to the womb of my childhood and be reborn. He is credulous and weak of mind, filled with evil. He would seek to sway me from my path and lead me child like back to the world of lies that he walks in.
At the inn, over dinner, I talked, as I promised I would. I balanced truth and honesty, threw him scraps of insight and let him think that he was helping me. He did not know that they were whispering to me all the while, advising me on what to tell and what to hold back, buried and secret.
He did not want to go walking in the dark with me. He tried to tell me that the morning would be soon enough. I could not wait for morning and my urgency persuaded him, as it did after the doctor…
He was talking, as we stood beneath the oaks, looking out at the moonlight reflecting off the chalk, but I could barely hear him. There were other voices overlaid with his. They make it hard to concentrate and I knew I must focus, must be clear and resolute. I wanted to cry and did not know why. There were so many sensations. He looked like my father, sounded and smelled like him. Stood and walked and lit his pipe like him. How could it be that he looked so much like him and was rotten inside? It hurt to think about what I must do. I knew I must think about it, must see with perfect clarity. It made my head hurt. It hurt. I want it to stop hurting. I want it to be quiet and dark. No sound, no movement. Stillness forever and ever.
I had knives. I sharpened them over and over in between times, as I worked on the list. They were as sharp as I could make them.
My father was gone long before...
The knives were sharp. I made them sharp so that it would be quick.
I heard them whispering that they would make me strong and take away my fear. They said that they would. They promised me. I want to laugh and sing and cry. They have made me strong. They helped me to see. I see more than any man and I will cross each name from the list and evil will flee from me.
Henry Maudsley, 1871
I know that our forebears would have hanged such men, but praise be to God that we are nowadays more solicitous. We cannot hope to cure the most desolate inmates, but it is my certain conviction that we are bound to redeem their souls.
Writing Guidelines, 2004
I'd like a scene of him painting : a great deal less lucid than he is in the room with Morison. Madness has many faces, and we shouldn't romanticise it - or rather, that shouldn't be all we do. I'd like the unpalatable side of it in there too, and I think his painting would be a good time to do that. We could have two scenes of him painting, or one that shifts tone and mental state quite abruptly. I think painting must have been more than one thing for him : salvation and curse at once.
We can't ignore the time it's set in, but let's not let get too much into faux Victorian ‘realism’. There's still a lot of mileage we can get out of the period, though. The social calm and manners were paper-thin and beneath the surface the world was boiling through in places like Bedlam. Repression breeds passion, you know? The fairies are perfect. The Victorian fascination with them was odd. They turned them into something safe and pretty, and tied them to innocence and childhood, but what they were before never went away. The veneer cracks and there is blood and fear beneath it. The fairies illustrate that time, and more broadly they signify the tension between cultured society and human nature.
I intend to write the chalk-pit section as an isolated piece. I've got all the information lined up in my head, and I know more or less what I want to do with it, but I'm undecided on who to focus on - Dadd or his father. There are advantages to either. I don't want it to be just more of the same, and using a different voice would get around that. But might it be a bit lazy? I don't feel that I've said everything that I should say through Dadd yet. I certainly haven't done justice to the range of the illness, and switching focus seems like a bit of a cop-out, but it would be interesting.
I might write both and see which turns out better. I'll write it on Wednesday. I can't do it tomorrow : tomorrow I get older and my girl has plans for me. Quiet, non-painful plans, possibly involving the viewing of many Audrey Hepburn films.
It was just before midnight on August 28th 1843 that Robert Dadd bled to death in Paddock Hole, cut to ribbons by his son. Richard made straight for Dover, and boarded a ship bound for Calais. The corpse was found the next morning, and the police were soon searching Richard's lodgings. They found a copious store of hard-boiled eggs and ale, along with sketches of the painter's associates, each of them depicted with a slashed throat.
The pursuit to France was soon under way. The douaniere at Calais remembered a man in bloodstained clothes, though they had inexplicably declined to detain him. Richard was found in custody at Montereau, and it transpired that he had subsequently tried to cut the throat of a fellow traveller en route to Paris. He soon confessed to the murder in Cobham, and produced the list of people ‘who must die’, with his father's name at the top.
Richard Dadd was transferred to the asylum at Clermont until the late July of 1844, whereupon he was returned to England to appear before the court in Rochester. The hearing took place on his twenty-seventh birthday. He pleaded guilty to murder, and was sentenced to removal ‘to a place of permanent safety without coming to trial’.
Curse : 1855-64
They are coming after me. This glaring space is a ringing blur, and there is nothing but the window set upon the easel. My flesh burns away, so that sensation exists merely in the coursing of my sparkling blood. The pitch of their singing mounts, until the soil at my brush-tip begins to heave and boil, and what is left of me is sucked dry. Once I am made part of it, this crumbling patina becomes a thing of flux, and I know that it cannot be stopped. It darkens and assumes a resinous quality. Shimmering and drum-skin tight, it is infused afresh with their substance. Their song is a shrill hum now, and they are come very near. I am too exhausted to resist, and the deadweight of the bristle drags me down into their domain.
The Window Today
Small paintings are usually the most impenetrable. You can stand back from a large canvas. You can absorb it without obstructing the view of others, and you can take your time to seek the artist’s vision.
Try the same thing before the Fairy-Feller, and you will soon sense the hostility of resentful watchers. As long as the gallery is full, this is not too perilous. You will naturally ascribe the animosity to the people around you.
But should you dare to look deep into the painting when alone in the room, you will discover the real source of your disquiet. Searching for the artist’s presence is not always an uplifting experience.
Be as careless as you like with the dilettante Rossetti or the pompous Burne-Jones. Their presence will dissolve as soon as you step into the daylight.
Be circumspect with Dadd, for his suffering is not so easily dispelled. His painting seethes, and the grass-stalks whiplash from its depths like razors. A hundred pairs of eyes return your gaze with relentless and sullen malice. These faerie-folk are deadly real, and they are vain and proud, and their contempt for you wrings your soul.
The realisation will leave you cold. This tiny painting was that miserable man’s psychic prison.
In the July of 1864, with Bedlam overcrowded, Richard Dadd was transferred to the new London asylum at Broadmoor and was temporarily separated from the Fairy-Feller in the upheaval. Although it was returned to him a few weeks later, he never again showed any great interest in it. After nine years of obsessive work, the painting had been suddenly and arbitrarily finished.
Dadd continued to paint for the rest of his life. Some of the later works are fine, but the infatuation that had characterised the rendering of the Fairy-Feller seems never to have visited him again. The Broadmoor records and infrequent visitor accounts describe an apathetic and sullen individual. The fire in Richard Dadd’s soul had gone out.
On January 7th, 1886, Richard Dadd passed away in Broadmoor Hospital ‘from an extensive disease of the lungs’. His masterwork was inherited by the son of his brother George, who shut it away in his attic because it frightened his children.
One of George Dadd’s grand-children perished in the trenches in Flanders, but not before he had befriended a young man called Siegfried Sassoon, and promised him the Fairy-Feller’s Master Stroke. It was the war-poet who bequeathed the painting to the Tate in 1963, in memory of Julian Dadd.
By the time that the Fairy-Feller’s Master Stroke first went on public display, they had a name for its painter’s affliction too. According to those first gallery notes, Richard Dadd’s behaviour was attributable to a condition called manic depression.
Nowadays, of course, we call it Bipolar Disorder, and we deem it treatable. Today’s Richard Dadds have their sharp edges pharmaceutically dulled, and they shamble through life in a stupified facsimile of normality. Their bewilderment is benign, and their parents live out a natural term to fret over them, and society’s precious conscience is salved. A frozen soul will never paint its Fairy-Feller, of course, but the modern preference is to avoid overt confrontation with the broken mind. A Victorian curiosity is distant enough to be safe. Its modern equivalents are too evocative of our own fragility, and we step around them nimbly like turds on the pavement.
Salvation : 1855-64
He is sitting there again, at the foot of the dew-spangled bank. His shoulders are hunched and his knees are clenched anxiously to his chest. Perspiration glistens upon the bald dome of his skull. As ever, his expression is a blend of misery and trepidation.
I pick up a single-haired brush and touch him gently with the tip. For a moment, I feel the anguished stab of his gaze.
‘Do you know how to split a hazelnut?’ he asks for the hundredth time. I nod carefully, keeping a close watch on this white-bearded little man and on his disdainful companions.
‘No, you do not’, he retorts indignantly. ‘What would happen then, if you struck a hazelnut with an axe?’
He means an axe of like size, of course. I visualise the Feller’s keen blade embedded in the nut after his first stroke. Now, if he hefts his axe once more, he can bring down both nut and cutting edge together, and the nut will be cloven in two.
‘Nay!’ wails the little man, rocking on his haunches. There is pain etched over his face. ‘This is Mab’s nut! Her coach must be perfect! You will bruise it and spoil it like that!’
I withdraw the brush, perplexed. I do not know another way.
‘Lord Oberon decrees that the axe must be sharp enough to cleave the nut in a single blow!’ he screeches. ‘The Patriarch has seen to it. The Feller’s axe is of a wondrous metal, unknown outside this world. The Smith has forged it and tempered it, and quenched it with his tears. The Feller shall wield it. Mab’s coach will be made!’
And now I notice that the Patriarch has been watching all along, caressing his beard with curling fingers. There are faeries dancing upon his hat-brim. The Smith watches rapt, hands on his knees, and the moth-people look on, scowling. The haughty ballerinas peer and totter on their fat-calved tiptoes, and the trumpeters blare.
Amid the nodding grasses and the leaf-litter and the daisies, the Feller wipes his brow and catches his breath. The gleaming blade describes its upward arc.
The little man squeezes his eyes tight shut, and clasps his knees, and rocks, and rocks.
The gallery is closing now, miss.
What? Oh, yes…sorry.
Are you all right, miss?
I’m fine. I was absorbed in the painting, that’s all.
It does that to people, that one. You weren’t looking at it nearly as long as some.
I’m sure. Well, good evening, anyway.
The chap who painted it was mad, you know?
[The narrator pauses a couple of paces from the door, and turns to face the smiling security guard]
Yes. I know.
And she is thinking of it still. Someday she must come back, and drink it all again.