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.