Faery Lands Forelorn

This is so unnerving to look at.  It's as if Hieronymus Bosch was caught whispering into the ear of Arthur Rackham:  mad, insinuating words that ended in a terrified shriek, shattering a gentle universe.

Bethlem Royal Hospital is the oldest psychiatric hospital in the world.  It had long been referred to familiarly as Bedlam.  Its walls were riddled with terrified shrieks.  In August, 1843 it accepted a new tenant:  Richard Dadd.  And while incarcerated within Bedlam's medieval walls, he painted.

He painted things that were bizarre and disturbing.  His subjects in the hands of other Victorian painters were benign:  rosy-cheeked and lace-winged.  Dadd, on the other hand, rendered them with a kind of detailed horror.  The realism was so intense, it was as if the hallucinations his schizophrenia wrought were standing before him, dancing on his skin – torturing him.  He laid his pain on this canvas, layers upon layers of clear oils, for nine years. 

Drawing from Shakespeare and English folklore:  stories of green mysteries, unnamed statues and abandoned cities, Dadd created a world that has yet to be fully explained.  He wrote a poem as a companion piece, but it only succeeds in drawing one deeper into the pool.

Behind a black web of weeks and seed pods, in front of a trickling stream of daisies – the only light in a world living in the corner of a grain of sand, the scented undergrowh of a stalk of grass – there is a clearing.  In the middle of a clearing is a hazelnut, awaiting The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke:

"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."

Muscular ballerinas, strange wizened figures, squat housefraus, liveried trumpeters and elegant fairy courtiers wearing jewels and feathers stand aloof, gossip, watch and wait.  There are only a few spots of color in this drab fairy-land:  red slippers, a long knitted yellow cap, russet tunics, a green wool dress.  Dadd writes of this world with such powerful detail it is as if he was pressing his face against the Looking Glass, staring wild-eyed:

"Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men's noses as they lie asleep:
Her wagon spokes made of long spinners' lets,
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"

He loved literature, legend, the supernatural, the fairy lands.  No doubt he once loved his father, too.  But the hallucinations told him that his father was the Devil – and he slashed his throat with a knife.

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13 responses to “Faery Lands Forelorn

  1. Thank you – that was brilliant.
    I hope to get to this exhibition before it closes – your post reminded me that I need to get my act together and get over to Dulwich.

  2. reminds me of this exhibition here in australia
    cunningham dax collection
    very interesting

  3. Fascinating, and beautifully written. And thanks, Jando, for the tip about the exhibition.

  4. The living things in the painting seem to have the life sucked out of them, grey and frozen. Seriously creepy.

  5. Brilliant. Such details..makes me wonder if he was schizophrenic at all..Thank you for posting this.

  6. The poem! The poem! I must find more.Interesting last name of his. Now that's ironic.

  7. I found the name ironic, too. Strange and disturbing. I wonder the same purplesque..

  8. It looks like a collage, not an oil painting–layers on layers, both in the work and in the artist's story–

  9. Jando/fox: AGH. I would give my any and all to visit that exhibition – you must go!
    cat: Have you visited this collection? I was surprised that any type of artistic therapy was permitted in Victorian-era Bedlam.
    Doug: Yes – there is something monstrous in those tiny creatures.
    purplesque/JP: He has generally been called schizophrenic. But there are some who have said that he was bi-polar. He was definately delusional – voices spoke to him. He believed he was descended from an Egyptian god. These symptons were first noticed after a tour he took of the far East…at the time it was called 'sunstroke'.
    pyrit: I've only found scattered stanzas of the poem; it's exactly like the painting.
    Peg: What made him stop after 9 years? What told him that it was complete? It could have gone on forever.

  10. Your second quote, beginning "Drawn with a team of little atomiesAthwart men's noses as they lie asleep…" was written by Shakespeare

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