The Art of Bedlam: Richard Dadd

This exhibition has now closed

"The Watts is itself a rather Dadd-like venue: a gem of a gallery that you feel you have just tripped over in a dell deep in luxuriant countryside - hidden away, like the faery world in the undergrowth." - Sarah Wise writing for The Lancet journal

★ ★ ★ ★ - The Telegraph

Richard Dadd (1817-1886) was an exact contemporary of G F Watts, and their early careers had much in common. They were both students at the Royal Academy, admirers of the Parthenon Marbles and travelled abroad in the 1840s. As Watts was seen as the great hope of allegorical and large-scale public painting, Dadd was recognised as the most brilliant modern exponent of highly detailed imaginative literary illustration, with a special talent for interpreting Shakespeare. Sadly, Dadd's great promise was not professionally fulfilled after he fell into mental illness in his twenties, killing his father and being detained permanently at Bethlem and later Broadmoor hospitals.

Bethlem Hospital, a medieval foundation, was in Dadd's day in Lambeth (the building now houses the Imperial War Museum) and survives today in Beckenham, in the distant south-eastern suburbs of London. 'Bethlem' derives from the original name of Bethlehem and in turn gave rise to the colloquial 'bedlam', suggesting mad chaos. But at Bethlem, and indeed even at Broadmoor, Dadd's wonderfully original art thrived. Using the many drawings he had made while touring the Middle East in the 'forties, and referring back always to his beloved Shakespeare, Dadd's minutely executed paintings and watercolours emerged, almost miraculously, from a place associated – traditionally and perhaps unfairly – only with misery.

Our exhibition of Dadd's work, the most ambitious in decades, will tell his extraordinary story of genius, psychosis and eventual philosophical resignation to his fate. It will bring together some of the artist's most brilliant works, including his masterpiece, The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke, generously lent by Tate. Other highlights will include Dadd's series of Illustrations of the Passions, his own protracted interpretation – witty, strange and touching in turn – of the causes of insanity.

"The Watts is good for [intimate viewings of art works] - the space and freedom to get up close and personal in a way you couldn't in a major gallery." - Nancy Durrant writing in The Times