The painting is titled The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, and was painted by Dadd while he was taking some “me” time at Broadmoor Hospital [personal note to my friend Catherine: BROADMOOR! TONY! GAH!] after murdering his father and then attempting to murder some French guy while on the run in France.
Richard Dadd wasn’t a well man. (Maybe I should have started with that.)
He’s on my radar at all because he makes a quick and creepy appearance in a biography of Wilkie Collins called The King of Inventors by Catherine Peters. I like to keep track of things like credit card payment due dates, social engagements, and the anniversaries of the deaths of schizophrenics on my Yahoo! calendar, and today I got a reminder about Dadd.
Dadd was born 1 August 1817. He’s not part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but he’s Brotherhood-adjacent, because artists have always been great at three things: (1) annoying me, (2) writing ponderous “artist’s” statements, and (3) being incestuous as a group. He studied at the Royal Academy (which is part of the reason why Dadd wasn’t part of the PRB; that group of winners hated the Royal Academy and what it stood for SO MUCH that they gave the founder of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the devastating nickname “Sir Sloshua Reynolds.” If I had to add a (4) to my list of three things artists are great at, I think it would have to be devastating nicknames) where he ran into folks like Augustus Egg and E.M. Ward — both of whom show up frequently in Dickens biographies.
In 1842, he was picked to be a draughtsman for an expedition to Greece, Turkey, Syria, and, finally, Egypt. (And going off topic a moment to talk a little more about Egypt: Remember how great it was when Flaubert took that trip to Egypt with his probably-gay-as-pants friend Max and Flaubert was obsessed with the eunuchs and upset that they wouldn’t hang out with him — “What would I not have given in the Orient, to become the friend of a eunuch! But they are completely unapproachable.” — and Max kept taking pictures using an extremely attractive Nubian “for scale” but I mean, come on: we all know the pyramids are big.) And while it probably can’t entirely be blamed on Egypt, sometime in December, somewhere along the Nile, Richard Dadd started losing his mind, thinking he was under the influence of the Egyptian god Osiris (the Egyptian god who was cut up into 14 pieces by his evil brother and then scattered over the world, forcing Osiris’s sister-wife to go searching and assembling only she couldn’t find Osiris’s penis because that had been swallowed by a crab oh my god you guys: think of how different Christmas could have been if we’d all been Egyptian).
His traveling companions attributed it to sunstroke. It was probably paranoid schizophrenia.
Back home, in August of 1843, Dadd murdered his father, thinking his father was the Devil in disguise (he wasn’t), but before that he went through a period where he was obsessed with hard-boiled eggs and “lived on nothing else” according to Peters in her Wilkie Collins bio. (I also love the way Peters describes the murder: “Dadd went spectacularly mad and cut his father’s throat.”)
After his arrest, after trying to kill that other guy in France (who probably also was the Devil in disguise as far as Dadd was concerned), and after he was safely hospitalized away (first at Bedlam before later being moved to Broadmoor [another personal note to my friend Catherine: BROADMOOR! TONY! GAH!]), the police searched his rooms and studio where they found “drawings of his friends, including Frith, Egg, and Ward…with a red slash painted across the throat of each.”
Go ahead and take some time to shudder thoroughly. I’ll wait right here, shuddering myself.
Oh, but I’m not quite done with the uncanny and creepy: as it turns out, years later, E.M. Ward, a narrative painter of British historical scenes, killed himself. By slashing his throat.