This highly finished and emotionally charged watercolour depicting Avarice was one of a series of about thirty Dadd made between 1853 and 1855 of ‘Sketches to Illustrate the Passions’ made after Dadd had been confined to Bethlem Hospital for murdering his father.
Dadd evolved the scheme to show genre-like images and the earliest utilized characters from Shakespeare whilst a number derived from historical prints after old masters. There is considerable circumstantial evidence to suggest that this project was suggested to Dadd by the pioneering physician Dr Charles Hood as a form of treatment. Given their subject-matter and the location of their execution, Dadd’s images are susceptible to multiple interpretations and have been the subject of a great deal of discussion. They represent perhaps the most important documented artistic project undertaken in a psychiatric hospital during the nineteenth century.
Richard Dadd was born in Chatham, Kent the son of a chemist. In 1834, at the age of 17, he moved with his family to London. Following his early artistic promise Dadd entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1837, where he won medals for drawing and painting; he was considered an outstanding student in a group which included a number of future celebrated painters including William Powell Firth, Augustus Egg and John Phillip. In 1842 on the recommendation of David Roberts, Dadd was employed to accompany Sir Thomas Phillips as artist and travelling companion on a tour of Europe and the Near and Middle East. During the latter part of the journey Dadd began to show the first signs of mental disturbance becoming increasingly watchful, suspicious and unpredictable. Dadd began to hear voices and began to believe that the Egyptian god Osiris was the supreme being controlling all his actions, and the source of his ‘secret admonitions.’ Dadd continued to work as a painter on his return to Britain, producing designs to decorate the new Palace of Westminster and completing several major paintings based on his travels in Syria.
On 28 August 1843 Dadd persuaded his father to accompany him to Cobham Park in Kent, where he stabbed him to death with a knife purchased specifically for the purpose. Dadd later explained that he had killed the devil in disguise and seems to have retained this belief throughout his life, talking objectively about the murder as an event for which he had no personal responsibility. Dadd was certified insane and committed to the criminal lunatic asylum attached to Bethlem Hospital at St George’s Fields in Southwark, south London, where he remained for the remainder of his life.
Despite his incarceration, Dadd continued to paint. A visitor in 1845 wrote of some recent drawings that they:
‘exhibit all the power, fancy, and judgment for which his works were eminent previous to his insanity. They are absolutely wonderful in delicate finish. They consist principally of landscapes – memories of eastern scenes, or wrought from a small sketchbook in his possession’
Louise Lippincott was the first to associate the series of drawings Dadd made depicting individual passions from 1853 with the work of the medical superintendent of Bethlem, W. Charles Wood, suggesting that Wood urged Dadd to complete a series of depictions of the passions as part of his treatment  Lippincott argued that Wood used the exercises to both assist in the diagnosis of Dadd’s mental state and provide a form of cure. According to the conventions of the period the key to understanding monomania was an acute analysis of the passions, the basic emotions, appetites, and needs that, with the intellect and the soul, comprised the psyche. Wood seems to have devised a project that would allow, in the words of the great nineteenth-century psychiatrist Forbes Winslow: ‘allow genius to search for an illustration of his own condition.’ As Lippincott has pointed all but a few of the passions Dadd drew were negative, suggesting that they were exercises in externalising his own understanding of each emotion.
The present drawing, signed and dated ‘Bethlehem Hospital London May 12th 1854’, is inscribed: ‘sketch to illustrate the Passions: Avarice.’ Dadd has depicted Avarice in the form of an elderly couple, clearly acting as money lenders. The seated man is shown with fists full of gold coins, a pair of scales, for weighing gold, placed prominently on the desk in front of him. Dadd includes a series of characteristically disquieting details, a black cat arched menacingly, a suit of armour looming in the background and the money lender’s leg twisted nervously round his chair. The old man is identifiable as ‘Simon Bore Clutch’ of ‘Clutch All House’ from a mortgage that lies across his desk. The mortgage – in a characteristically Hogarthian touch – is in the name of the Earl of Frigfarten and had been witnessed by ‘Griffin Goblin’ and ‘Integer Nonentity’. Dadd includes such details in a number of his depictions of passions to imply an internal narrative. A number of the drawings have a semi-autobiographical element, such as the depiction of Insignificance or Self Contempt, which shows an artist returning to his lodgings where a brass plaque announces ‘Crayon/Drawing Master.’ The drawing captures the disappointment of a painter with ambitions forced to subsist teaching amateurs and, as Dadd notes on the drawing: ‘Disgusted with the world – he sinks into himself and Insignificance.’
Here the scene is indebted to seventeenth-century Dutch painted depictions of ‘gold weighers’; one painting in particular by David Teniers shows a similar elderly couple and was engraved in London in the eighteenth century by Carrington Bowles with the title: Age and Avarice. Avarice, as a passion, was much discussed in the nineteenth century. In 1850 the popular author F. Somner Merryweather published Lives and Anecdotes of Misers; or the passion of Avarice Displayed.
Preserved in exceptional condition, Avarice is one of the last of the passion drawings Dadd completed. Viewed within the context of Hood’s programme of treatment, it offers remarkable evidence of both Dadd’s state of mind and mid-nineteenth-century attitudes towards mental illness. Dadd is now rightly regarded as a painter whose enforced withdrawal from society allowed him to refine a unique talent. His Sketches to Illustrate the Passions belong to a long tradition of imagery devoted to human folly, even as its unsettling details, and reliance on memory and imagination anticipate modern sensibilities.
- Patricia Allderidge, The Late Richard Dadd, 1817-1886, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1974, p. 96-7, no. 129, repr. p. 96.
- See for example Karen Stock, ‘Richard Dadd’s Passions and the Treatment of Insanity’ in 19:Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, no.23, 2016.
- The Art Union, vol.7, 1845, p.137.
- This plausible idea has been questioned by Patricia Alderidge who noted in 2008: ‘the fact that the reforming physician superintendent Sir Charles Hood was appointed to Bethlem Hospital in this year has led to speculation (and sometimes assertion) that Hood suggested the subject as some sort of therapeutic exercise, for which there is no evidence of any sort.’ See Patricia Alderidge, Richard Dadd (1817-1886): Dreams of Fancy, exh. cat., London (Andrew Clayton-Payne), 2008, p.44.
- Quoted in Louise Lippincott, ‘Murder and the Fine Arts; or, a Reassessment of Richard Dadd,’ The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal, Malibu, 1988, vol. 16, p.82.