The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke by Richard Dadd

The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke by Richard Dadd (1855-1864)

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is a very strange one.  It is Bosch-like in its depiction and I find it fascinating, part of the fascination coming from the story that comes with it.  The painting is entitled The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke and it was completed in 1864 by the English artist of the Victorian era, Richard Dadd, and now hangs in the Tate Britain.

The story of the life of the artist is quite a sad one.  Richard Dadd was born in 1817 in Chatham, Kent, fourth of seven children.  He attended The King’s School at Rochester and developed a love for Shakespeare and the Classics while at the same time beginning to display an artistic talent.  In 1834 his family moved to London and three years later Dadd gained admission to the Royal Academy of Arts.  Whilst there he won three silver medals for his draughtsmanship and during his first year began exhibiting some of his works.  It was whilst at this artistic establishment that he and six of his fellow art students founded an artistic group known as The Clique.  The group would have regular meetings, often in Dadd’s rooms,  at which they would show off their latest works.  In some ways The Clique was characterised by their rejection of “academic” high art in favour of genre painting. They held the belief that art was for the people and should therefore be judged by the people and not by its conformity to academic ideals.

In 1842, when Dadd was twenty-five, he travelled with his patron, Sir Thomas Phillips, on a Grand Tour of Europe and the Middle East. They travelled through Italy and Venice before journeying through Greece, Turkey.  They continued on through Syria by mule and finally arrived in Egypt where they travelled by boat along the Nile.   It was at this time that Dadd’s health started to deteriorate due to a combination of exhaustion and sun-stroke and he was starting to suffer with blinding headaches.  The two returned home the following year but on the return journey Dadd had begun to become disorientated and delusional and increasingly violent towards his patron.  The pair split up in Paris and Dadd returned to London.

Nowadays, Dadd would have been diagnosed as suffering from manic-depression which stemmed back from his time in the Nile Valley when he first became delusional and had a fixated fascination with Egyptian Gods and in particular Osiris.   Dadd had become convinced that he was being called upon by divine forces, such as Osiris to do battle with the Devil.  In Allderidge’s biography of Richard Dadd he quotes Dadd’s own words regarding the subject:

“….On my return from travel, I was roused to a consideration of subjects which I had previously never dreamed of, or thought about, connected with self; and I had such ideas that, had I spoken of them openly, I must, if answered in the world’s fashion, have been told I was unreasonable. I concealed, of course, these secret admonitions. I knew not whence they came, although I could not question their propriety, nor could I separate myself from what appeared my fate. My religious opinions varied and do vary from the vulgar; I was inclined to fall in with the views of the ancients, and to regard the substitution of modern ideas thereon as not for the better. These and the like, coupled with an idea of a descent from the Egyptian god Osiris…”

Dadd was now living back in London but his mental illness worsened so much so his father called in specialist to examine his son.  The specialist came to the undeniable conclusion that Dadd “was not of sound mind” and that he should be institutionalised.  However his father wanted time to think about this and decided to accompany his son on a trip out to Cobham which he believed would help his son.  The trip proved to be a disaster and culminated in Richard Dadd killing his father with a knife and a razor.   Dadd then hurriedly left the scene and went to Dover and took a ferry to Calais.  The body of Robert Dadd was found the next day.

Dadd travelled from Calais to Paris by coach and during this trip he attacked a fellow passenger and tried to cut his throat.  He was arrested and on searching him the French police found a handwritten list of people “who must die” and topping this list was the name of his father.  Dadd was brought out of the Clermont asylum where he had been incarcerated and sent back to England where he was to stand trial for the murder of his father.  He pleaded guilty to the charge and the case never came to trial.  Dadd, who was just twenty-seven years of age, was sentenced to be placed “in a place of permanent safety” at the Bethlem Hospital in the criminal lunatic department and there he remained for twenty years.  In 1884 he was transferred to Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital where he died two years later in 1886

It was whilst Dadd was in Bethlem psychiatric hospital that he completed today’s featured painting.  Maybe now having read about his tortured mind and his incarceration you can understand what made an artist paint such a strange picture.  The work was commissioned by George Hayden, the Steward of Bethlem Hospital, who asked Dadd to paint him a “fairy painting”, a popular genre at the time.  It took Dadd nine years to complete, what is considered to be his greatest work.    It is an elaborate picture painted meticulously.  It lacks any kind of horizon and in some ways resembles a tapestry.  It is awash with strange little figures most of who are concentrating on the central figure, the fairy woodsman who is the “fairy feller” in the title of the painting as he brings his axe down on a hazelnut.   This is a painting one can return to many times and see different aspects which were not spotted before.

So what does it all mean?  Who are all those characters Dadd has lovingly painted?  Dadd decided to compose a poem in which he described all the character in the hope that it would add meaning to his work.  He called the poem Elimination of a Picture & its subject–called The Feller’s Master Stroke and from it we are supposed to derive that nothing is random about the figures shown.  Every character has a roll to play.

The poem describes the action of the fairy woodsman:

fay woodman holds aloft the axe
Whose double edge virtue now they tax
To do it singly & make single double
Featly & neatly–equal without trouble.

And once the hazelnut has been split asunder,  the two halves would be used to build a chariot for his queen, Queen Mab:

She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep:
Her wagon spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers;
Her traces, of the smallest spider’s web;
Her collars, of the moonshine’s watery beams;
Her whip, of cricket’s bone; the lash, of film;
Her wagoner, a small gray-coated gnat,
Not half so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazelnut,
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love. . . .

The painting is fascinating with its large cast of characters which we see amongst the clutter of nuts and berries, and the tangle of grass and stems in the foreground.  Is it just a piece of madness painted by a madman – probably yes, but the we only need to look at works by Hieronymus Bosch and Dali and wonder at the state of their minds when he puts brush to canvas.