The art of Bedlam – Richard Dadd, Bethlem Museum, Jan 2016

Bethlem Museum of the Mind 1930s hospital administration building
Bethlem Museum of the Mind 1930s hospital administration building

This is the first time I have returned to the Bethlem Museum since attending its opening in January 2015. I have come to see a new exhibition on Richard Dadd (1817-1886), Victorian artist, madman and murderer – quite an epitaph.

I have brought my Mother with me, she lives around the corner and an invitation guarantees me a home cooked dinner so it is a win-win situation for me. It is great to be back, greeted by the imposing Cibber statues of Melancholy and Raving Madness. We are also greeted by Victoria Northwood, Head of the Archives and Museum and over a glass of bubbly we catch up on a wonderfully busy first year of the Bethlem Museum of the Mind.

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2015-11-10 18.38.25I quiz Victoria on the new Richard Dadd exhibition. Dadd was a Victorian artist, born in 1817 he showed an aptitude for drawing at an early age. An unremarkable beginning but his talent was recognised and he entered the Royal Academy Schools with a bright future ahead of him. In 1842 he left to travel in the Middle East for 10 months, but on his return his health deteriorated, he experienced paranoid delusions and psychotic episodes. In August 1843 he stabbed his father to death whilst walking in Cobham Park near Gravesend.

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Certified insane, Dadd spent the rest of his life in mental hospitals, 20 years at the Bethlem Hospital when it was based at the Imperial War Museum site, and the final years up to his death were spent at the newly built Broadmoor Hospital in Berkshire.

There has been much written about Dadd and this exhibition has been adapted from a successful exhibition that ran at the Watts Gallery in Surrey in 2015. There is a strong connection between Dadd and the Bethlem Museum, now sited in Beckenham, Kent on the site of the working Bethlem Royal Hospital. The museum has many of his works and manuscripts and when you enter the museum on the ground floor there is the Bethlem Art Gallery. The gallery works with patients at the hospital as well as staff and visitors on site to improve the experience of the hospital environment. I can think of no better place to view Dadd’s work.

It is the investment of the Heritage Lottery Fund, South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM) and the Maudsley Charity that has allowed the opening of the new Bethlem Museum and ultimately enabled this exhibition to happen. Having worked on the failed Heritage Lottery Bid at the nearby Bromley Museum I am acutely aware of the security arrangements that need to be in place to allow these type of exhibitions to go ahead. Negotiating loans for pictures like ‘Puck’ from the Harris Museum and Art Gallery is contingent on a secure environment, but it was interesting to hear from Victoria that although the museum was newly opened a number of security measures had to be added before loans were agreed. It was fantastic to hear how the hospital estates department stepped in to help. Here is a museum working, living and breathing in the very heart of an NHS hospital.

The exhibition and Dadd’s work is fascinating and I was surprised how his style varied greatly across the body of work on display. His penmanship is so delicate and intricate and you easily get lost in the detail. It doesn’t take long to forget where you are and what, in essence, this man was – a murderer. All I see is an artist, there is a lot to challenge your thinking here.

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Transcript of Dadd’s letter home from his travels

I sit with my Mother in a special ‘chill out’ area built into the exhibition space, and we read transcripts of Dadd’s letters home from his travels. His observations are captivating and you can tell he has an artist’s eye in the way he describes the scenes he observes.

If there is one criticism, I expected to see more of his work, there are famous notable omissions – the Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke for example, owned by the Tate. Having not seen Dadd’s work before I have a thirst to see more, but what is standout for me is the stunning picture of Puck, on loan from the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston. It is a mesmerising piece, Puck’s eyes have such mischief in them. I return to the picture a number of times, I begin to feel that it is actually a refreshing change not to be overwhelmed for once in an exhibition. Normally when I visit an exhibition I never get to see everything and I never get to read all the tables, I hit museum fatigue long before I get round to every object. I come to the realisation that fewer paintings actually makes for a refreshing change.

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It is not surprising that Dadd sought such solace and escape in his work once locked up in Bethlem, you can imagine what an enigma he would have posed in these early days of mental health diagnosis, a ‘madman’ who could paint and draw with such exquisite skill. Art therapy is a hot topic these days with ‘mindful’ colouring books in every newsagent, but Dadd’s work is no idle doodles, it is beautiful and so well observed. Maybe his incarceration did give him that time to create without an outside world pushing in.

It is not a revelation that a killer can create such beauty, the real story is in the way the hospital and successive members of staff – Alexander Morison, William Charles Hood and George Henry Hydon treated Dadd, as the booklet accompanying the exhibition states –

“..he was given by Bethlem Hospital: time, space, materials and opportunity.”

Dadd was supported and his art respected even to the extent of illustrating certificates given out to attendants who had demonstrated ‘humane care’. What is remarkable is not just the artist’s skill but that it was given a chance to exist in what must have passed for such rudimentary conditions in the early mental health asylum.

There is a quote on the Bethlem Art Gallery site which I think sums this up very well for me.

“Pills are ok, counselling is ok and it will get you back on the streets, but what keeps your mind alive is what you learn here. That’s what it’s about – keeping your spirit alive.” – Lee, Bethlem artist.

The Dadd exhibition runs for only two more weeks, it will be open on Saturday 30th January and the last Saturday will be on the 1st February. I highly recommend you go and take time to see ‘Puck’, he is stunning. When you have seen the exhibition, to really get a sense of the journey that mental health has travelled (and is still travelling) make sure to visit the permanent gallery on the history of mental health too. It will make Dadd’s story even more remarkable than it already is.


With thanks to Hilary Machell from the Harris Museum and Art Gallery who sent me additional information on ‘Puck’.

Some further reading on Richard Dadd –

Richard Dadd: the art of a ‘criminal lunatic’ murderer – BBC Website

Locked up in Bedlam, artist Richard Dadd was set free by fairies, by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian


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