Saturday, 31 October 2015

A little bit of madness.

 Over the past month or so, I've written about a series of artists who might be considered distinctly odd.  Last week there was Géricault with his paintings of severed heads and other medical bits and pieces.  Then there was Girodet with his strange and humourless ideas about what constituted 'painting in the grand manner'.  Girodet insisted on painting at night, by the light of specially constructed lanterns, because he preferred nighttime to work in.  Most artists do their night scenes by day, using curtains etc so they can control the darkness and light, needing lantern light only as a necessary prop to a night scene.  Eccentric.  Arnold Böcklin was next, he seemed a little saner than the last two, but showed signs he was living under stress the older he got.  Then, closer to our own time there was Robert Lenkiewicz, who's lifestyle could certainly be summed up as eccentric.  They all produced work of a high standard but were they actually mad?

This is a question that's hovering in the ether at the moment, is artistic talent, skill,  that catch all word 'creativity', some kind of evolutionary buffer against mental illness - or even a sign of possible mental illness.  If we consider being a wild-eyed bohemian, dressed in rags, hair in disarray while mumbling over your work is a sign of  'creativity' then I suppose we might agree with the premise.  Doing outrageous things, drinking excessively, taking drugs are all things that today are sited as the kind of approach 'creative' people have to life.  Some of them like to pose as strange, 'it's my artistic freedom that makes me a little mad'.  They never want to be seen as completely mad, just touched by madness as if it were the latest fashion accessory.

Richard Dadd.  (1817 - 1886)  Self portrait.
 Of course we do have one case of a mad artist that gives us some insights into the question of whether artistic creativity is a buffer to mental illness, a sign of it or a cause of it.  This artist and his case are well known.  Richard Dadd.   Born in 1817 in Chatham Kent, he was one of seven children.  His family moved to London in 1834 when he was eighteen and his father gained work as a bronze sculptor and woodcarver, and it seems that Dadd met some of his fathers artist associates and gained some instruction in drawing from them.  At twenty he entered the Royal Academy schools where he made contact with a number of artists who later became stalwarts of the Victorian art world such as Augustus Egg, William Powell Frith, and William Bell Scott, and in their student days formed themselves into a group nicknamed 'The Clique'.  If all had gone well, Dadd would have joined them in their success.

 The details of what happened once he had left the schools are fairly well known, he took a job with his patron Sir Thomas Phillips to accompany him on what amounted to one of the last 'Grande Tours' of Europe and the Middle East.  During their time in Europe all seemed well, they travelled down to Greece, Turkey and then on to Cyprus and Beirut.  They took an extended tour of the Holy land before moving onto Egypt.  Here things started to go badly wrong.  Dadd, began to have headaches, behave erratically and become violent.  They began to retrace their journey and by the time they reached Italy, Dadd was worse, feeling an uncontrollable urge to attack the pope when he saw him make a personal appearance.  He was having delusions about being followed and spied on and it was all put down to exhaustion and sunstroke.
Insignificance.  A watercolour image summing up Dadd's view of an artists life painted in Bethlem Hospital.
He had become obsessed with the Egyptian god Osiris who he believed was talking to him, and giving him instructions to fight the Devil, who could take on any form.  He apparently took to staring at the sun for long periods of time because he associated it with Osiris.  They arrived in Paris and Dadd crossed over to England leaving Phillips and the rest of the group in France.  In England Dadd went directly to his studio in Newman Street  and continued to live for a while,  on an almost exclusive diet of hard boiled eggs and ale.  Because there were signs of mental illness in Dadd's brother George, (and subsequently three of his other brothers) his father took him to see a doctor in Harley Street who pronounced him insane.  His father agreed to accompany Dadd on a trip to Cobham (in spite of the diagnosis) on the 28th of August 1843, and after they had eaten, went for a walk in the surrounding countryside.   During this walk Dadd attacked his father with a knife, stabbing him to death, and then immediately left Cobham and went to Dover, boarding a ship for France.
The Fairy Fellers Master-Stroke By Richard Dadd

 He attacked a man in France with a razor, and was detained by the police.   In the meantime the Police in London had found the body of his father and had investigated his studio at Newman Street and discovered a number of sketches of his friends and family all with their throats cut.  In France the police had discovered on Dadd a list of 'people who must die', his father's name being the first on the list.  He was placed in five different asylums while in France and eventually taken back to Britain.  Obviously insane he was sent to the Royal Betham Hospital where he spent the next twenty years and under the auspices of Dr William Hood he did most of his well known work here.  The most famous of these paintings is 'The Fairy Fellers Master-Stroke' a complex painting made for Dr Hood's family, which took about eight years to mostly finish but not complete.  It is a 'fairy painting' of a type that became popular in Victorian Britain, inspired by Dadd's love of Shakespeare.  He drew numerous sketches and watercolour paintings throughout his life, and a handful of fully finished oil paintings which are all notable for their strange other worldly atmosphere.

So did painting and creativity save Dadd?  It certainly didn't warn anyone of impending mental illness as he'd been painting for years before the first signs appeared.  Did it act as a buffer against the encroachment of the illness.  Obviously not, but who knows, it may have slowed it down.  Probably Dadd suffered an acute emotional pain throughout his illness and possibly his painting helped him remain calm and occupied, and Dr Hood was a fairly far sighted person to have understood this so early in the study of mental illness.  In an essay on the painter  and 'The Fairy Fellers Master-Stroke', by writer Neil Gaiman he makes the point that in a series of photographs taken of the inmates of Bethlem Hospital in the 1850's only one is actually doing something - it's of Dadd, and he's painting.  Today patients are encouraged to paint pictures and this work is often shown in exhibitions of so called 'outsider art' and praised for its particular qualities.  Does the ability to paint have any effect on the life of a person like Dadd?  Apart from helping him get through the forty or so years of his life after the murder I don't think so.  Mental illness was just something that was going to happen to the Dadd boys, even the one's who weren't creative, and madness didn't effect all those creative friends Dadd made in the Royal Academy schools.  

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  1. I enjoyed this a lot. I felt sorry for the other people with Dadd on the Grand Tour! It all got a little bit grander than they were prepared for.

    Neil Gaiman points out that madness changed Dadd from a painter of conventionally pretty chocolate box scenes to the painter of the unforgettable 'Fairy Feller.' Perhaps that's what madness did for his art - he had nothing to lose and could paint what he liked. It would no longer lose him commissions or bring any kind of social snub - by being mad, he'd gone beyond that.

    I saw one of those 'Outsider' exhibitions with my partner. We didn't know that it was one, at first. We wander into a lot of galleries and see fairly predictable stuff. In this gallery, we were enthused - the art seemed somehow bigger, more original, more striking. It was only after we'd viewed everything in there several times that I discovered a little notice explaining that everything in there had been made by someone who was mentally ill.

    Madness as artistic freedom. What do you think?

  2. Hi Susan,

    To be an outstanding artist, you need the training behind the madness. It's why Dadd's work is still accessable today, because however obscure the meaning - the structure is sound. He could draw - so he could draw the extraordinary things in his imagination, and he could paint - so he could recore the otherworldly light and atmosphere he perceived around him.

    These things really do matter.

  3. Oh, completely. Many of the things in the exhibition I mentioned were a little amateurish, a bit wonky technically - but their freshness rescued them. But Dadd added training to the mix.
    I still think that, perhaps, his madness freed him from a lolt of self-censorship.

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