An early morning traveler passing the Earl of Darnley's magnificent Cobham Park in Kent comes upon the body of a well-dressed gentleman, his throat slashed, his chest ripped open. Nearby he finds a bloody spring-knife and an open razor "of more than usual size."
The dead man is carried to the nearby Ship Inn where the innkeeper recognizes him as Robert Dadd, who had arrived the night before with his son Richard, an artist of great promise. Richard is missing. His rooms in London are searched, the Channel ports are alerted. But, having hired a small boat, Richard is already in France. His freedom is short-lived; in a coach near Fontainbleau, he attacked a fellow passenger with a razor. Though badly cut, Monsieur M---- was able to subdue his assailant. French police, at the request of Dadd's family, took him directly to an asylum near Melun.
In London, the tragedy stuns the art world. Richard had first exhibited at the Royal Academy two years before when he was but 22. His sketches were being considered for a mural in the new Houses of Parliament. The young man's troubles began while painting in the Holy Land. Friends said it was sunstroke. Today, they'd have diagnosed it as paranoid schizophrenia. He complained of being stared at and became mordantly suspicious of everyone. He returned to London claiming to be under the influence of the Egyptian god Osiris who had employed him to seek and destroy "the Great Fiend." He retreated to his rooms, living on eggs and ale. Finally, a family doctor urged that Richard have a "keeper." As a last resort, Richard invited his father to Cobham, hoping the countryside would "disburden his mind." Less than 24 hours later, the elder Dadd was dead.
In 1844, under pressure from the Home Office, Richard was returned to England. He was adjudged insane without trial, and sent to "Bedlam," the madhouse in South London. A difficult inmate, he seemed at ease only while painting or playing his violin. Dr. Hood, the administrator, encouraged his art; "With all these disgusting points in his conduct he can be a very sensible and agreeable companion."
Word of the "late Richard Dadd" reached the outside. Dickens was among his visitors. A reporter from The World reported that Dadd was willing to discuss his crime "with sickening exactitude." Prison authorities withheld his paintings until his death in 1886. Critics claim Dadd's best work was done whilst in confinement. Today his paintings hang in the V&A, Tate and some of the world's finer private collections.
A photo of the artist while in prison, circa 1855.