History & Mental Illness: Richard Dadd

Ricahrd Dadd captured painting

It’s sad that today in the 21st century Mental Illness is still a social taboo; yet 1 in 3 of us will at some point suffer from some form of it. History has also had a chequered history of dealing with people who we would now understand as being mentally ill.


What always staggers me is that some of these people who have these long term mental illness’ are in their own way amazing genius’ and talents.


One such man whos story had touched me is Richard Dadd. He was an Victorian artist and in many ways was very lucky as he had open minded people who cared for him.


Dadd was born in Kent on the 1st August 1817. He secured a place at the Royal Academy when he was 20. Amongst his peers at the Royal academy were William Powell Firth and Henry O’Neil.


Richard’s talent was spotted by Sir Thomas Phillips who requested that he join him on a European and middle eastern tour including Syria, Greece, Egypt and the Holy Land. It was during this trip that Dadds personality and behaviour changed dramatically. He believed that he was bewitched by Osiris the Egyptian god and had mood swings and would be come violent. What is most disturbing to me is that this change was thought to have been sunstroke.


My favourite painting by Dadd "Come Unto These Yellow Sands"


When he returned home his family soon realised that he was unwell. He was diagnoses as being of unsound mind and it was thought that going to the country to recuperate would help him ease his mind and settle back to life at home. Sadly this failed. Under a delusion that his father was the devil Richard Dadd stabbed his father in an unprovoked and savage attack. He fled to France and attempted to kill a random tourist. Lucky for him the French police arrested and sent Dadd back to England where he was committed to Bethlam. He remained at Bethlam for 20 years and was then moved to Broadmoor Hospital and he was treated by some of the most enlightened mental health doctors of the time; William Wood and Sir W. Charles Hood. These men encouraged Richard to continue painting as a therapy for his illness.


It is widely thought that Richard Dadd was in fact suffering from Paranoid Schizophrenia. There also seems to have been a family history of the illness as 3 of his siblings were thought to have had similar mental health problems. Dadd died in Broadmoor on 7th January 1886 from lung failure.

 For me his story is both sad and full of hope. Its sad because the legacy of his work clearly shows that he was man with talent. Due to the time he lived in he didn’t have access to medication that could have enabled him to have a active normal life not being homed in prison and asylums. However the fact that Victorian England recognized that he was ill and committed him rather than executed him for his father’s murder for me is deeply moving. Dadd was fortunate in that his family had the means and inclination to care for him, many others were not so lucky in their care during this time. That said it still blows me away how a brain can function and create beautiful detailed fine art and yet be so destructive.  


Thank you for your beautiful art Richard Dadd.


This entry was posted in Art, History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to History & Mental Illness: Richard Dadd

  1. I found this a deeply moving story. Thank you very much for telling it.

    The human mind remains very far from our complete understanding.

  2. Pingback: Review of the McQueen retrospective at the V&A: Savage Beauty | Laura Brennan, A Historian

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s