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Art and Images in Psychiatry
June 2004

The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke

Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2004;61(6):541-542. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.61.6.541

On August 28, 1843, Richard Dadd (1817-1886), one of the most promisingyoung artists of his generation, lured his father, Robert Dadd, into a parkin Cobham, Kent, England. Believing that he was attacking the devil disguisedas "the person he had always regarded as a parent",1(p24) he attempted to cut his father's throat with a razor and, failingthat, stabbed him to death. He escaped to France, where he was arrested nearMontereau (southeast of Paris) after attempting to cut the throat of a fellowcarriage passenger; he had made his decision to attack based on his perceptionsof movements of the star Osiris (probably Sirius).2(p60) After being taken into custody, he confessed his crime and waseventually admitted to the Clermont Asylum, near Beauvais. A list of thosewho must die was recovered from him. In London, England, sketches of his friendswith a red line drawn across their throats, suggesting that they would becut, were found in his apartment.

Richard Dadd (1817-1886), English. The Fairy Feller'sMaster-Stroke, c 1855-1864. Oil on canvas; 54.0 × 39.4 cm. Courtesyof the Tate Gallery, London, England/Art Resource, NY.

Richard Dadd (1817-1886), English. The Fairy Feller'sMaster-Stroke, c 1855-1864. Oil on canvas; 54.0 × 39.4 cm. Courtesyof the Tate Gallery, London, England/Art Resource, NY.

His illness had emerged during the previous year. Because of his exceptionalskill at drawing, Dadd was commissioned to accompany the Welsh lawyer SirThomas Phillips on a 10-month tour of Europe and the Near and Middle East,departing in July 1842. In December, shortly before reaching Egypt, a countryDadd found fascinating, he had written to a friend that he had often "laindown at night with my imagination so full of wild vagaries that I have reallyand truly doubted my own sanity."1(p21) Leaving Egypt, from Alexandria en route to Malta, he was convincedthat Phillips was the devil in disguise and was playing a card game for thecaptain's soul.3 In Rome he was argumentativewith Phillips and experienced persecutory delusions. He had strong urges tokill the Pope, desisting only when he realized how closely the Pope was guarded.Refusing Phillips' advice that he seek medical help in Paris, he returnedalone to England, where his father consulted a prominent psychiatrist at StLuke's Hospital (London), Alexander Sutherland, about his condition. Sutherlandrecommended quiet and care; Dadd initially improved but then relapsed. Shortlybefore the murder, Sutherland found Dadd to be insane, dangerous, and notresponsible for his behavior and advised that he be put under restraints.Tragically, his father decided to care for him himself, and within a weekof the consultation he was dead.

When extradited to Rochester, England, for a court hearing in July 1844,Dadd freely admitted to the murder. Clearly insane, he was not brought totrial, so the McNaughton rules promulgated in 1843 were not applied. Instead,he was directly admitted to the criminal lunatic department of Bethlem Hospitalin St George's Field, Southwark, London, on August 22. His younger brother,George William, had been admitted to the same hospital with delusions theprevious year. Dadd revealed that he was influenced by Osiris, the Egyptiangod of the underworld and vegetation, and had received secret communicationsfrom him. He believed that he was being persecuted by the devil, that otherswere as well, and that his mission was to exterminate those under the devil'sinfluence.

Sir Charles Hood, the first resident superintendent of Bethlem Hospital,summarized Dadd's progress in a note dated March 21, 1854, reporting thatearly in his admission Dadd was impulsively violent and "would jump up andstrike a blow without any aggravation and then beg pardon for the deed."4(p125) Spirits who "have the power of possessinga man's body and compelling him to adopt a particular course"4(p125) seemed to control him. When speaking of his crime, Dadd becameagitated and unintelligible. Hood describes him as eccentric, paying "no attentionto decency in his acts or words,"4(p125) yet despite these attitudes "he can be a very sensible and agreeablecompanion, and show in conversation, a mind once well educated."4(p125) Subsequent notes during the next several years reported no change.In 1860, Hood mentioned his general civility with others but added, "[H]ismind is full of delusions."4(p126) In1877, when interviewed by a London newspaper, The World, Dadd's beliefs were unchanged; the reporter wrote that when mandatedby Osiris "to arise and slay all that he meets in his path,"2(pp71,72) Dadd said that "society interferes, and summons the aid ofthe law to hinder a devout believer"2(p72) from showing his obedience.

Although retrospective diagnosis is best avoided, the consensus frompublished reports1,5 is paranoidschizophrenia. Bipolar disorder has been proposed,6 buthospital records and observations during the 42 years of his confinement donot support it. His emotional outbursts in all settings were short lived,linked to delusions, and did not represent a persistent affective state. PatriciaAllderidge, former curator of the Bethlem Hospital Museum (written comunication,March 30, 2004) indicates that 1 brother and 1 sister (not 2 brothers as previouslyreported5(p67)) were diagnosed ashaving delusional disorders and institutionalized; there is no history ofpsychiatric disorder in members of the extended family. The question of Dadd'sdiagnosis will be discussed in detail in a forthcoming biography of RichardDadd by Allderidge.

Dadd was encouraged to paint throughout his hospital stay and, possiblywith the encouragement of Hood, began a series of paintings in 1852 to illustratethe passions. In the ensuing 4 years, he completed more than 30 paintingsincluding such representations as Hatred, Love, Murder, Treachery, Pride, Agony, Grief, and Melancholy. It wasafter immersing himself in these themes that at the request of George Haydon,the steward at Bethlem Hospital, he began The Fairy Feller'sMaster-Stroke. Haydon, an amateur artist himself, was aware that Daddhad previously achieved fame for his fairy paintings, especially Titania Sleeping and its companion piece, Puck,from William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Dadd began The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke sometimeduring the 3-year period between 1855 and 1858 and continued until July 1864,when he was transferred to the new Broadmoor facility for the criminally insanein Berkshire, England. On his arrival, he immediately painted a replica inwatercolor but renamed it Songe de la Fantasie, apparentlyacknowledging it to be a fantastic daydream. Moreover, he composed a rambling,sometimes incomprehensible 22-page poem, Elimination ofa Picture and Its Subject—Called The Feller's Master Stroke,as an aid to understanding and demonstrating that everything in the paintingis intentional. Seeking to understand the title, Allderidge1(p128) suggests that Dadd might be eliminating the painting from hismind or, aware of his fondness for puns, that the first word might be a playon such words as elucidation or illumination.

Much of Dadd's work shows no evidence of mental aberration; however,that may not be the case for this painting and another fairy painting, Contradiction. Oberon and Titania. Considering both paintings,MacGregor5(p140) notes the odd associationof subjects and ideas, shifting and flattening of the spatial plane, distortionsof the human form, and idiosyncratic and obsessive elaboration of the artist'sfantasy. He finds these features typical of the art of persons with schizophrenia.Although Dadd describes the pendants that trail from the Patriarch's crownand wind about the picture as representing "vagary wild, and mental aberrationstyled,"1(p129) he sees their flowingform as graceful.

The poem ends pessimistically: "You can afford to let this go. For naughtor nothing it explains. And nothing from nothing, nothing gains."1(p129) Has he gained anything from his endeavors?Painting the passions and engaging in his private emotional fantasy may nothave resulted in new insight, but he may have benefited from creative emotionalexpression and the integration of negative emotions.

The content of the painting described in the box suggests several themesthat may be pertinent psychologically:

  1. Delusional disorder. The Fairy Feller waiting fora signal to strike may be analogous to Dadd's waiting for the command of Osiris,but is there significance in creating the carriage for Queen Mab?2(p122) In Romeo and Juliet, she is identified as the midwife who brings forth dreams. While chidingRomeo, Mercutio tells us, "She gallops night by night through lovers' brains,and then they dream of love. . . . O'er lawyers' fingers, who straight dreamon fees. . . . [but] Sometimes she driveth o'er a soldier's neck, And thendreams he of cutting foreign throats. . . . "7(p47) What might Dadd dream if Queen Mab were to ride in a new chariot?The image of the Patriarch is similar to that of Blake's illustration of Godin his Illustrations for the Book of Job.8 This image is accompanied by quotations from Genesisand from Job (loosening the bands of Orion). Thus, it is associated with Creation.Dadd creates a world of his own, possibly related to his delusional beliefs.

  2. Romance. The Fairy Queens are from 2 plays thatdeal with love: one a tragedy, Romeo and Juliet (QueenMab), and the other a comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream (Titania). A love potion is placed in Titania's eyes so that she willfall in love with whomever she sees on waking (in this case, the donkey-headedBottom). In the end, all is happily resolved. Dadd also provides us with 2"wenches rather smart"2(p123) anda leering satyr hidden in the undergrowth beneath one woman's skirts. PerhapsDadd dreams to join in the games of love after so many years of isolationin the hospital.

  3. Childhood memories. The TinkerTailor game is about what the future might bring (what vocation?).Did Dadd reflect on his childhood with his father, an apothecary, and painthim?

Dadd's physicians most likely considered his art a diversion from hisdelusional preoccupations. One can only speculate about its psychologicalbenefit. He was less violent as he grew older; did his illness simply wane,or did his creative work play a role in this? His works include imaginarylandscapes and seascapes reminiscent of his adolescent drawings and earlylove of shipping.

The 20th century's focus on depth psychology and surrealism led to renewedinterest in Dadd's work and its acceptance within the realm of modern art.5(p141) The surrealists consciously exploredsubconscious imagery and imitated dream content as a form of artistic expression.Psychotic art may drive the person deeper into his or her illness and mayhave no therapeutic value. The question remains, is creative artistic expressionemotionally beneficial even when it provides no apparent insight into illness?Richard Dadd was a highly gifted painter and carried on with his vocation,despite his illness, throughout his life. The art world is enriched by hiscreativity.Article

Description of Painting Based on Dadd's Poem

The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke is viewedthrough a delicate network of grasses and flowers. It is "night's noon timehaply extra bright"4(p122) withgray light illuminating the painting. The figures are shown as if they werein a trance. The pivotal figure is the Fairy Feller (woodsman who fells trees)clothed in leather, standing with a raised double-edged ax awaiting the archmagician, a white-bearded Patriarch (in the center), to give the signal forhim to split a large hazelnut that might be used to construct Queen Mab'snew fairy carriage. A spellbound assembly of fairies, gnomes, and elves, joinedby some disinterested spectators, watch to see if he will split the nut with1 stroke. The Patriarch wears a huge hat with a papal-like 3-tiered crown"of subtle might"1(p125) with hisleft arm resting on a club to strike fairies. Its enormous brim twists offinto tendrils and flowers to join the surrounding vegetation. Along the rightbrim sits Queen Mab in her carriage drawn by female centaurs with a gnat ascoachman and Cupid and Psyche as her pages; Spanish dancers appear on theleft brim of the hat. In the lower circle, counterclockwise from the FairyFeller, are the hostler (stable boy), watching intently; a dwarf monk; a good-naturedplowman; "Waggoner Will"; 2 men about town; a clodhopper with a satyr's head;a politician; a fairy dandy making a pass at a nymph; 2 eavesdropping elves;a crouching, squinting pedagogue watching to see what happens; 2 ladies' maidswith bulging breasts and calves and tiny feet; a leering satyr just belowthe pedagogue's right arm, peering up the skirt of the maid holding the mirror;a tanner with a dairy maid; dwarf conjurers, one of whom is taking odds onwhether the nut will be split; and to his right, a weaver spider. In the upperhalf of the painting, Titania and Oberon stand directly above the Patriarch'shat, watched by an old lady. At the top left are a tatterdemalion (personin tattered clothing) and junketer (person who goes on junkets, feasts, andexcursions for pleasure) playing trumpets accompanied by a dragonfly trumpeter.At the top right are figures from the children's fortune-telling rhyme Tinker Tailor, which children sing while counting cherrystones, buttons, or daisy petals (found throughout the painting) to prophesytheir adult vocation: Will it be soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor, plow-boy/gentleman(?),apothecary, or thief (shown from the viewer's left to right)? (Dadd uses "plow-boy"in the poem, but the figure in front of the apothecary appears to be a gentleman.)The Apothecary stands at the top far right with mortar and pestle in hand;he is thought to resemble Richard Dadd's murdered father, Robert Dadd.

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