The Blog

What Dadd's Victorian classic Can Teach Us About Mental Health Provision Today

I have often thought that among contemporary institutions - prisons and mental hospitals - you will find interesting art. Art often does not recognise the same mental health barriers that we maintain in society.

The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke is a great work of art. Painted by Richard Dadd, a man in a mental institute who was categorised as a criminal lunatic, it was purchased by the Tate Gallery in 1963. You can now see the painting as the mainstay of a new exhibition that opened last week at the Watts Gallery at Compton near Guildford.

Back in 1963, as a reform institute boy, I was very interested to hear that the Tate had bought this very expensive painting by a man who spent most of his life in an institution.

Committed in 1844 to Bethlehem (Bedlam) insane asylum for killing his father, Dadd, then aged just 27, lived the rest of his life there and in the newly opened Broadmoor.

Interestingly, by going to the Watts Gallery to see their new Richard Dadd exhibition I was returning to my reformatory days. That institute was but a mile or two down the road from the Watts Gallery. It was there I heard about Dadd and the brave decision by the then Tate - I'm not so sure they do brave now - to buy a painting by a criminal lunatic.

The Watts Gallery is a hive of creativity. It is a gallery housing the collection of the great Victorian painter and sculptor George Frederick Watts, it's an education centre, at times a theatre and a host for exhibitions of great note, like the Dadd show. It is also an outreach hub for bringing people who normally don't get a look in and art together.

For the last few years Watts have been running their Big Issues exhibition that unites artists from the community, prisons and schools. (How they came up with the title I have no idea. They certainly didn't ask me!)

The artist Watts had set himself up in Compton by Guildford, and with his wife had proceeded to build an artist village. Mrs Watts started a pottery and employed many local people in making pots. The Watts Gallery houses many of Watts paintings, some famous at the time for showing his commitment to social justice. He also commented on poverty and social problems, combining this with paintings of a heroic and romantic nature.

The artistic village that the Watts planned is now being brought back to life, and greatly enhanced. Art and education, exhibitions and the permanent collection of Watt's work combine to make a visit there incredibly buzzy. So much is happening in this small wooded enclave, surrounded by the hills of Surrey, that it suggests a lost England, one where art and society were wedded together.

The Dadd exhibition shows some of his very fine paintings and his light, though heavily detailed, drawings alongside plans and illustrations of Bedlam.

In an age when governments have shrunken state institutions for the mentally disturbed and leave many benighted souls to fill up prisons and the streets it is interesting to look back to a 'golden age' of mental health provision.

But of course it was no golden age. It was a time when the mentally ill were corralled and stockaded outside of society. I visited such places as a young man to see sick family members. It was a dereliction of civility. Care in the Community, which replaced the closed mental institutions, was a different form of dereliction. Now there are people who need safe asylums who are in our prisons and streets, and in and out of trouble because they can't quite make their mentality match civil society.

I have often thought that among contemporary institutions - prisons and mental hospitals - you will find interesting art. Art often does not recognise the same mental health barriers that we maintain in society.

Richard Dadd was a highly successful early Victorian painter, a former student of painting at the Royal Academy of Arts he later visited the Hellenic world and the Middle East. Yet something went increasingly wrong for him.

One day out for a walk with his father he killed him, claiming later that his father had turned into a devil. He escaped to France where he tried to kill a fellow passenger in a coach and spent a year in a French asylum. In 1844 he was transferred to Bedlam.

Through the miasma of mental suffering Dadd produced beautiful work - including his famous and painstakingly constructed The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke.

The exorbitant cost for this work 52 years ago was £10,000, the equivalent of 20 years wages for the average working man. There were complaints from the public and press about spending money on a 'nutter's' artful delusions. You wouldn't get a toilet seat that Tracey Emin momentarily sat on for that money these days.

For the most searing and graphic work that illustrates what was happening to Dadd in his mental turmoil find The View of the Island of Rhodes, painted in 1845. A minute figure stands on a cliff looking out over a country of barren rocks with only the odd weed or scrub for relief. For me is says that in the end you are your own prisoner in your own world of mind and thought. And if that mentality fails then the isolation, like the small figure on the cliff, is complete.

No one could get through to Richard Dadd, living out his time away from the public to whom he remained a threat. Yet he managed to paint wonderful pictures that enabled him to make a remarkable mark on the world.

The Dadd exhibition brings me back to the countless occasions I meet people in the course of my life who desperately need mental health support, but increasingly it is not available.

Once there were only draconian responses available when mental health gave way. Now it feels as though we may well have returned to those times. Victoria still seems to reign over much of our mental health provision, and its victims are to be seen everyday in the world of the street.

(The Art of Bedlam: Richard Dadd runs until November 1 at the Watts Gallery Artists' Village, Compton, Near Guildford).