|Richard Dadd, pencil drawing copyright Janet Cameron|
Richard Dadd painted fairies, was leader of a clique of talented artists and eventually, an insane asylum inmate. He also stabbed his father to death while gripped by insanity. He was "... tall with good and expressive features and gentlemanly demeanour," said contemporary journalist, Samuel Carter Hall.
Richard was the son of chemist, Robert Dadd, born in Bromton in Chatham in 1798. In November 1812, Robert married Mary Ann Martin and Richard was their fourth child, born in 1817. When Richard was seven, his mother died and Robert married Sophia Oakes, who gave him two more children. In 1835 Sophia died; her death following that of his birth mother must have had an effect on the boy.
Although streetwise and familiar with the rough aspects of a dockside town, the boy developed an affection for nature, especially for coastal and countryside locations. This sense of place informed his art. In 1836, the family moved to London and Richard pursued his artistic career at the Royal Academy School.
Driven to Madness by Filth and Squalor
According to biographers, Dadd's travels may have influenced his soundness of mind. He was invited to accompany Sir Thomas Phillips, solicitor, on a grand world tour in 1842. Letters to his father tell how in Venice he became indignant about the exploitative behaviour of the gondoliers. He feared chaotic, unruly crowds. Repeatedly, he complained about cheats, knaves and the inadequacies of priests, and was upset by fllth and squalor. He suffered nervous depression, was sometimes unable to draw and had sudden bizarre urges, one being to attack the Pope in Rome.
Around 1840, Dadd belonged to a group of young artists known as "The Clique" who met in Soho to discuss and debate. Included in this group were William Powell Frith, Henry O'Neil, Augustus Egg and John Philip. When Dadd arrived back in London in April, 1843, the friends observed him begin to lose his struggle between reason and madness. He harboured feelings of persecution, imagining he was being watched. Living on eggs and ale, he still managed to produce some beautiful works of art.
During the last week of August, 1843, Dadd visited Mosely & Co, Cutlers, at New Street, Covent Garden to buy a cut-throat razor and a clasp-knife. Meantime, his father Robert, concerned about his son's mental state, consulted Dr. Sutherland at St. Luke's Asylum. On Saturday 26 August, Richard Dadd was examined and deemed not responsible for his actions. Robert, went into denial and became convinced his son was recovering.
The Artist Murders his Father - Enemy of God
The following day, father and son took a trip by steamboat from London to Gravesend, then a gig to Cobham, to have a heart-to-heart talk. In Cobham, the Ship Inn was full, so they took rooms locally. Richard asked Robert to go for a walk that evening, and despite encroaching darkness, they went through the park. While close to a chalk pit, Paddock Hole, Richard attacked his father with a terrible, desperate violence, using both razor and knife. He tried to drag the body away, perhaps intending to dispose of it, but he had to give up and leave his father for dead. Climbing a stile, he ran away. (After this, Paddock Hole was known as Dadd's Hole, but it has now been filled for road widening.)
The body lay face-down around 30 feet from the road. It wasn't clear whether he was dead or drunk, so when Charles, nephew of local butcher Abraham Lyster, spotted him from a gig, he wasn't alarmed. Charles and Abraham were going to Wrotham Market but they stopped and called out to the prostrate man. Charles investigated and realised he was dead. He called to another man, George Biggs, a shepherd. Charles and George turned over the body and were shocked by the awful mutilation. George remained to guard the body, while the other two went to report the murder to the constable in Cobham.
Constable, William Dawes, hurried to Paddock Hole to examine the body. Robert's black coat was unbuttoned, revealing congealed blood and deep wounds to throat and chest. Nearby was the knife, and later the razor was discovered beneath the corpse. A search was organised, but Richard Dadd was not found. He had fled by post-chaise to Dover and crossed the Channel to Calais, explaining his dishevelled appearance as due to an accident. He bought a new suit and abandoned his blood-stained clothes at the Calais Inn before taking a train to Paris.
In the carriage, his feverish mind believed that voices were urging him to kill his travelling companion. He lowered the man's cravat and collar and drew a cut-throat razor from his coat. The Frenchman resisted but received four wounds to his throat.
Committed to an Asylum for the Insane
Dadd appeared before the JP in Montereau and was transferred to the asylum at Clermont, Fontainebleu, still believing himself the instrument of God, commissioned to destroy men possessed by the devil. He swore the killing of his father was a good act; he had destroyed an enemy of God. On his "list" was the Emperor of Austria, Ferdinand the First.
In England, the post-mortem returned a verdict of wilful murder. Robert's funeral took place at Gillingham Church. Meanwhile, in the French asylum, Richard's health worsened, but eventually he improved and was sent back to England in 1844. On 29 July, Dadd appeared before magistrates in Rochester, sporting a long beard and moustache, but he declined to offer any defence. After a second appearance, he was committed to Maidstone Prison, then on 22 August, he entered the Criminal Lunatic Dept. of Bethlem Hospital. He was twenty-seven.
With the support of the authorities, he painted successfully for the next forty-two years. His work decorated the asylum, although this displeased his family as they felt it promoted public knowledge of his shame.
Adapted from Murder & Crime, Medway, Janet Cameron, Tempus Publishing, 2008.
Richard Dadd, David Greysmith, Studio Vista, 1973.