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5 minutes with… A haunting self-portrait by Richard Dadd

Tom Rooth, Director of the Victorian & British Impressionist Pictures Department, recounts the story of how the 19th-century artist lost his sanity, and explains why he’s become so attached to this self-portrait

Richard Dadd was just 24 and a recent graduate of the Royal Academy Schools when he painted this small, exquisite self-portrait in 1841. It exudes the quiet confidence of an up-and-coming young artist, which is what Dadd was at the time, according to Tom Rooth, Director of the Victorian & British Impressionist Pictures Department.

‘He was a member of a group of young painters called The Clique, which included William Powell Frith, Augustus Leopold Egg and Henry O’Neill,’ says Rooth. While the other members of this talented group went on to enjoy successful careers, Dadd’s life was to take a series of very different and increasingly dark turns.

Richard Dadd (1817-1887), Self-Portrait, circa 1841. Oil on board, 7½ x 6 in (19.1 x 15.3 cm). Estimate £8,000-12,000. This lot is offered in Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art, Maritime Art, Sporting & Wildlife Art  on 22 March 2017 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

Richard Dadd (1817-1887), Self-Portrait, circa 1841. Oil on board, 7½ x 6 in (19.1 x 15.3 cm). Estimate: £8,000-12,000. This lot is offered in Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art, Maritime Art, Sporting & Wildlife Art on 22 March 2017 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

Shortly after painting this self-portrait, David Roberts RA — ‘a key heavyweight of the 19th century’, according to Rooth — recommended that Dadd should accompany Sir Thomas Phillips, the Mayor of Newport, on a trip to the Near and Middle East in order to produce topographical records. It was evidence, the specialist says, that Dadd ‘was developing a good name’.

The journey commenced on 16 July 1842, and it was while travelling that Dadd began to display signs of illness, attributed to sunstroke. His behaviour became increasingly disturbed and erratic. On the voyage between Alexandria and Malta, Dadd watched Phillips playing cards with the ship’s captain, believing that the game was for the captain’s soul. Stopping in Rome on the return leg of the journey, he felt a compulsion to attack the Pope. Upon arriving in Paris, Phillips urged Dadd to seek medical advice — to which the artist’s reaction was to flee back to London.

Dadd, it seems, was aware of his deteriorating mental state. In a letter from 1842, he revealed the stimulating effects of his travels: ‘The excitement of these scenes has been enough to turn the brain of an ordinary weak-minded person like myself, and often I have lain down at night with my imagination so full of wild vagaries that I have really and truly doubted my own sanity.’ 

After supper, Dadd and his father set off for a walk. Around two hours later, Dadd attacked his father with a concealed knife and razor

On returning to England, Dadd’s delusions continued, and he became convinced that his father, Robert, was the devil. At Richard’s insistence, father and son travelled to one of their favourite places, Cobham in Kent, about 30 miles from London, where they stayed at the Ship Inn. After arriving, they had supper, and then set off for a walk. Around two hours later Dadd attacked his father with a concealed knife and razor: Robert’s body was discovered the following day. After searching his rooms at Newman Street in London, police discovered Richard’s drawings of his friends, each with a brushstroke of red across their throat.

It was initially thought that Richard Dadd had committed suicide when in fact he had fled to France, where the voices commanded him to head to Austria to murder the Emperor. Rooth explains that on a coach ride through the forest of Valence ‘those same voices instructed him to kill a fellow traveller. After attacking the man with a razor and inflicting four deep cuts, Dadd was overpowered, arrested, and committed without trial to a French asylum.’

In 1844 he was returned to England, where he was committed to the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London, commonly known as Bedlam (and now the home of the Imperial War Museum). This is where the second chapter of his artistic story began. 

‘He’s good company,’ says Tom Rooth of Richard Dadd’s beguiling self-portrait. ’Now I’m very keen to find him a good home.’

‘He’s good company,’ says Tom Rooth of Richard Dadd’s beguiling self-portrait. ’Now I’m very keen to find him a good home.’

At Bedlam ‘he was encouraged by his doctors to paint and produce art,’ says Rooth, ‘which seems contrary to the Victorian ethos of controlling one’s impulses.’

Free from the rigid constraints of Victorian society, Dadd set about exploring the far reaches of his imagination, producing original, fantastical and fastidiously detailed works, which culminated in his masterpiece The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, painted over 11 years from 1855–64 and now in Tate’s collection. Dadd accompanied the painting with an epic poem — an apparent attempt to show the composition was not arbitrary, but meticulously planned.

Dadd’s later work is now celebrated and highly collectible. It has also found its way into popular culture: Queen wrote and recorded a song titled The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, and authors such as Robert Rankin and Terry Pratchett have found inspiration in his paintings.

After 20 years at Bedlam, Dadd was moved to Broadmoor, where he continued to paint until his death in 1866. A number of his works remain on display at the hospital. Until the sale on 22 March, however, this youthful self-portrait of Richard Dadd will reside on Rooth’s desk at Christie’s South Kensington. ‘He’s good company,’ says the specialist. ‘Now I’m very keen to find him a good home.’