Extract > Miranda Miller on Richard Dadd, Bedlam and Dr William Charles Hood

Miranda Miller on Richard Dadd, Bedlam and Dr William Charles Hood.

As The Wellcome Collection in London opens an exhibition on the rise and fall of the mental asylum known as Bedlam, Miranda Miller reflects on the artist Richard Dadd, his time in the asylum, the conditions he faced and the art he created there.

This extract accompanies her novel The Fairy Visions of Richard Dadd, the second in her Bedlam Trilogy, which follows the progressive reforms of Dr Hood through the eyes of the mad artist. 


Miranda Miller



Richard Dadd painting the unfinished oval of Contradiction: Oberon and Titania

Richard Dadd painting the unfinished oval of Contradiction: Oberon and Titania

The historian Roy Porter – best known for his work on the history of medicine – referred to Richard Dadd as one of the most notorious lunatics of the nineteenth century, and when I was writing this book the most common reaction was a knowing ‘Ah, yes, and he murdered his dad!’ He did, in August 1843, but this awful pun should not be the last word on his tragic life.

Patricia Allderidge’s fascinating book The Late Richard Dadd (Tate Publishing, 1974) vividly describes his isolation and stoical determination to carry on working. I felt that curious twitching of my inner antennae that was the sign I wanted to write about him, but I was afraid the task was beyond me because I am not a biographer and because his life, incarcerated in Bedlam and later Broadmoor from the age of twenty-six until he died at sixty-nine, seemed unbearably sad. He was so interesting that I feared he would dominate my novel, and so I made him a minor character in Nina in Utopia.

Dadd’s work and long imprisonment continued to haunt me. I read everything I could find about him and decided to give him a novel of his own. On one of my visits to the Bethlem Archives I discovered that in 1857 Dr Hood had succeeded in moving Dadd and other ‘gentlemen criminal lunatics’ from the overcrowded dungeon-like criminal wing to a spacious, airy ward in the main part of the hospital. This improvement in his conditions seems to have coincided with Dadd’s best work, and I decided to focus on this.

A wonderful early photograph shows Dadd at this time, sitting in front of his easel where the unfinished oval of Contradiction: Oberon and Titania sits, waiting for the brush he holds to continue to bring it to life. He stares at the camera, at us, with recognition and warmth, looking more like an artist in his studio than a prisoner in his cell. Those clear eyes have not been incarcerated or institutionalized. He is a man of about forty with longish hair, a wide forehead and a greying beard. Instead of a uniform he wears a velvet or corduroy painting suit and a rather elegant shirt with a frill at the front. This photograph has helped me through many days when I found it difficult and painful to write about madness from his point of view. I have tried to dramatize his hallucinations without using psychological jargon, which, of course, did not exist at the time.

My admiration for Richard Dadd, working away year after year all alone, increased as he became more vividly alive for me. Although he was cut off from the art world he must have valued the encouragement of Dr Hood, the steward George Haydon and the head keeper Charles Neville because he entrusted them with his best work. This can be seen as a success story of art therapy avant la lettre.

In 21st century terms, what was the mental illness from which Richard Dadd suffered? We do know quite a lot about his symptoms. It is clear that there was a hereditary predisposition: of seven siblings, Richard, George, Stephen and Maria were all considered mad at the time of their death. Richard’s mother died a few days before his seventh birthday, and in the 1850s a doctor at Bedlam wrote that ‘at the early age of nine, being under the evil influence of a worthless maidservant, he contracted vicious habits of self-indulgence. An operation was performed but without any apparent benefit.’ At that time boys were often circumcised to prevent ‘masturbatory insanity’.

When he was twenty-six, as a gifted and promising artist Dadd was employed as a draftsman to accompany the recently knighted solicitor Sir Thomas Phillips on a grand tour of Europe and the Middle East, and his hallucinations and delusions were thought at the time to have been triggered by the excitement, heat and con fusion of these travels. Nicholas Tromans in Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum (Tate Publishing, 2011) has suggested that another factor might have been ‘poisoning from the mercury used in the water-gilding process that took place daily at Suffolk Street’ in the framing business run by Richard’s father Robert Dadd. On his return to London in 1843 his friends and family thought his behaviour was insane, but his father insisted that he was suffering only from overwork and heatstroke. He took his son to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics where Dr Alexander Sutherland said Richard must be ‘strictly attended to, not being allowed out of sight’. Robert Dadd insisted that he knew his son better than anybody else.

Richard’s medical record contains more information. These notes were made by Dr Hood in 1854, by which time Dadd had been an inmate of Bedlam for nearly ten years – astonishingly, earlier doctors there did not believe in keeping records:

For some years after his admission he was considered a violent and dangerous patient for he would jump up and strike a violent blow without any aggravation and then beg pardon for the deed. This arose from some vague idea that filled his mind, and still does so to a certain extent, that certain spirits have the power of possessing a man’s body and compelling him to adopt a particular course whether he will or not … He is very eccentric and glories that he is not influenced by motives that other men pride themselves in possessing – thus he pays no sort of attention to decency in his acts or words … He will gorge himself with food till he actually vomits and then again return to the meal. With all these disgusting points in his conduct he can be a very sensible and agreeable companion, and shew in conversation, a mind once well. Educated and thoroughly informed in all the particulars of his profession in which he still shines … he was once in a public place in Rome with the Pope, felt a strong inclination to assault him, but that on second thoughts the Pope was so well protected that he should come off second best, and therefore he overcame the desire. After he killed his father, his rooms were searched and a portfolio was found containing likenesses of many of his friends all with their throats cut.

In his quarterly reports to the Home Office Dr Hood described Dadd as ‘dangerous’. Tromans comments: ‘So far as we know, the sum total of treatments given Dadd by any psychiatrist (other than, presumably, occasional sedatives) was a course of iced water baths administered at Clermont in 1843.’

The Fairy Visions of Richard Dadd featuring the painting The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke.

The Fairy Visions of Richard Dadd featuring the painting The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.

In 1887 Dr Emile Kraepelin used the term dementia praecox for individuals who had symptoms that we now associate with schizophrenia – a word introduced in 1911 by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, deriving from the Greek roots schizo (split) and phrene (mind) and used to describe the fragmented thinking of people with the disorder. I am not qualified to make a posthumous diagnosis of Richard Dadd, but John MacGregor, in The Discovery of the Art of the Insane (Princeton University Press, 1993), David Greysmith in Richard Dadd: The Rock and Castle of Seclusion (Studio Vista, 1973) and Nicholas Tromans have all concluded that Richard’s illness would now be diagnosed as schizophrenia. Dadd probably smoked hashish while he was travelling in the Middle East, and some studies suggest that smoking cannabis can actually trigger schizo phrenia earlier in individuals who are predisposed.

Richard Dadd’s art, as Nicholas Tromans says, does not ‘fit the model of the obsessive pattern – or model-making of so-called Outsider (untutored) art’. Until the murder Richard was an insider, with a sound classical training from the Royal Academy Schools. Much of the work he did during his long confinement is quite conventional and not particularly imaginative, although it is the strangeness of The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke and his other fairy visions that interest us most now. Madness and art cannot really be explained. We are fortunate to have as much work as we do by this remarkable and ill-fated man.

Dr William Charles Hood was one of the great Victorian reformers and deserves to be more famous than he is. When he became Resident Physician and Superintendent of Bethlem in 1852 the Monro dynasty had ruled it, mainly in absentia, for 128 years. During that time there had been many allegations of neglect and ill-treatment. Dr Hood lived in the hospital with his wife and family, unlike earlier physicians who had only visited for a few hours a week, abandoning their patients to keepers, many of whom were corrupt and unkind.

Dr Hood made the hospital a far more comfortable place. He removed the bars from the windows, abolished restraint and allowed some patients to go on supervised day trips to Kew Gardens and Crystal Palace. He listened to his patients, sometimes believed their stories rather than the versions he was told by their relations and friends and personally selected the keepers. He observed that the criminal lunatics were kept in cages ‘more like those which enclose the fiercer carnivores of the Zoological Gardens than anything we have elsewhere seen employed for the detention of afflicted humanity’ and lobbied tirelessly to transfer Dadd, together with about twenty other male criminal lunatics, to the main part of the hospital.

In 1857, the year The Fairy Visions of Richard Dadd is set and when, thanks to Hood, Richard Dadd was moved from the grim criminal block to a ward inside the hospital, an article entitled ‘The Star of Bethlehem’ by Henry Morley in Dickens’s magazine Household Words describes Hood’s transformation of the hospital:

Within the entrance gates, as we went round the lawn towards the building, glancing aside, we saw several groups of patients quietly sunning themselves in the garden, some playing on a grass-plot with two or three happy little children. We found afterwards that these were the children of the Resident Physician and Superintendent, Dr Hood. They are trusted freely among the patients, and the patients take great pleasure in their presence among them. The sufferers feel that surely they are not cut off from fellowship with man, not objects of a harsh distrust, when even little children come to play with them, and prattle confidently in their ears. There are no chains nor strait waistcoats now in Bethlehem; yet, upon the staircase of a ward occupied by men the greater number of whom would, in the old time, have been beheld by strong-nerved adults with a shudder, there stood a noble little boy, another fragment of the Resident Physician’s family, with a bright smile upon his face, who looked like an embodiment of the good spirit that had found its way into the hospital, and chased out all the gloom.

Morley concluded that ‘thousands of middle-class homes contain nothing so pretty as a ward in Bedlam’ and that ‘as to all the small comforts of life, patients in Bethlehem are as much at liberty to make provision for themselves as they would be at home’.

Like another humane and compassionate man, his contemporary Henry Mayhew, Hood had a passion for statistics. He was a man of his time and class and had what we would consider a paternalistic attitude to his asylum and a condescending view of women and ‘pauper lunatics’. Immensely hard-working and idealistic, he accomplished a great deal in his short life.

Richard Dadd (1817–1886) was transferred to Broadmoor, together with his fellow criminal lunatics from Bedlam, when it opened in 1864. Richard was in Block 2, which was for privileged patients. He continued to draw, paint and design theatre sets prolifically, but most of his work was lost or destroyed. In 1877 a journalist described him as a ‘recluse doing the honour of his modest unpretending abode; a pleasant-visaged old man with a long and flowing snow-white beard, with mild blue eyes that beam benignly through spectacles when in conversation’. When he died of consumption Elizabeth Langley, who had stayed in touch with him all his life, was the only person to be informed of his death.

Charles Neville moved with the patients to Broadmoor as head attendant. His great-grandson gave Dadd’s The Child’s Problem to the Tate in 1955. Contradiction: Oberon and Titania was first exhibited in 1930 and The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke in 1935. Robbie Ross, Oscar Wilde’s friend and literary executor, was an early admirer of Dadd’s work. Somehow The Flight Out of Egypt turned up in the picture-framing department of the Army and Navy stores. Sacheverell Sitwell bought it there, and it was purchased by the Tate in 1947. In 1974 the Tate Gallery put on the first exhibition of Dadd’s work.




MIRANDA MILLER was born in London in 1950. After leaving university she moved to Rome, where she combined writing her first novel with a variety of jobs. Later she lived in Japan, Libya and Saudi Arabia. She has published four novels, a book of short stories and a work of non-fiction that examines the effects of homelessness on women.


Order your copy of The Fairy Visions of Richard Dadd now.



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