A genius and a killer

By Alison Byles

The sun set slowly that august evening in 1843, making patterns on the ground in a pretty hollow in Cobham Woods. And there, as the light glowed red through the trees, Robert Dadd was stabbed.

Next morning, Rochester butcher Charles Lester was travelling to Wrotham in his chaise. As he journeyed through Cobham he saw an elderly man lying face down on the grass.

He thought the man must be paying the penalty for getting drunk at Strood Fair the day before. But as he got down from his carriage, Mr Lester noticed a cut on the man’s neck. He turned the body over and found two red stab wounds near the heart. A bloodstained knife was lying in the grass.

Of the murderer there was no sign. Robert Dadd had a shop in London at the time of his death. And before that he ran a chemist shop in Chatham High Street. He was an acclaimed lecturer in chemistry and geology but his shop was no ordinary pharmacy. He sold snuff, cigars, Scotch whisky, “fine, healthy leeches” and artists’ materials among the usual pills and potions.

The stock of artists’ materials, which he expanded when he moved to London, was probably kept in the interests of his third son, Richard. Richard, who was born in 1817, started drawing when he was 13 and showed great promise. Indeed, the Pictorial Times, a periodical of the time, claimed that no living artist possessed a more vivid or delicate imagination. He was known as a gentle man, invariably kind, considerate and affectionate. And his sensitive drawings of animals and landscape reflected this. Often corners of the countryside around Cobham were recognisable. It was an area he had known and roved since his boyhood.

Richard took especial delight in painting fairies — characters he could form with his mind and pen but without a model. In July 1842, Richard left England for Egypt, travelling with a friend of a friend, Sir Thomas Phillips. Letters he wrote home were lively and descriptive — the artist’s eye took in the Middle-Eastern colour as only an artist can.

But on the return journey, Richard deserted his companion in Paris. Nobody knew why, either then or later. When he returned home, he was a changed man. Gone was the bright smile, the cheerful voice, the ready and lavish praise of others. Instead, Richard was reserved, irritable and calculating. Many believed him mad. But his father would have none of it. A Dr Sutherland advised quiet and care. And Robert Dadd thought his son suffered from nothing more than temporary “heats of the brain”. He refused to have Richard confined in any way and was sure that calm family life would soon subdue his fits of temper.

On the day of his death, Robert Dadd found his son missing. Certain that Richard would be in the Medway towns he set out to look for him. Father and son met up at Strood Fair. Richard suggested they visit Cobham and the pair booked in at The Ship.

After a meal they went for a walk. Hours later when they still hadn’t returned, the landlord organised a search party. Nothing was found until Mr Lester, the butcher, interrupted his journey to Wrotham the next day. But still, no one knew where Richard was. Had he, too, been murdered in the night? Or abducted? Or had he killed his own father?

These questions remained unanswered until a young Englishman was forcibly stopped as he attacked a fellow traveller near Fontainebleau, France. Richard Dadd was identified and shipped back to England to face trial for the murder of his father. At last the gaps in the sequence of events on that August day were filled in. Richard, feeling suffocated by the care and protection of his father and friends, had cunningly escaped their surveillance.

Possibly, Robert Dadd’s appearance at Strood Fair added to his feeling of persecution. Whether he planned the murder in Cobham or committed it spontaneously, nobody knows. But afterwards, his movements showed the cunning of the hunted. He walked to the Crown Inn at Rochester and carefully washed his hands and face.

He had disposed of the murder weapon. And he removed himself from the country quickly and quietly. The court sentenced Richard to spend the rest of his life in an asylum. He was sent to Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckenham, and in 1864 he was transferred to Broadmoor where he died of tuberculosis at the age of 70.

During his confinement, Richard continued to paint chiefly in watercolour. His compositions and characterisations continued to reveal his state of mind, but more emphatically than before.

Many friends and art critics had claimed that his insanity showed itself in his work from the day he returned home from Egypt. In particular, they cited a cartoon Richard exhibited at Westminster Hall. He completed it m 32 hours of frenzied work.

Much earlier than that, his paintings and engravings of fairies had an air that could be interpreted either as mischief or madness. Whichever it was, his ideas had power and variety — from Titania Asleep to a series of more than 100 illustrations to Manfred and Jerusalem Delivered.

And the Pictorial Times admired his later works: they “are as admirable in design and execution as his earlier ones.” Art periodicals mourned his madness. The Art-Union of 1843 said “…although the grave has not actually closed over him, Richard Dadd must be classed among the dead”.

Although he is not among the best-known English artists, two of his paintings worked in the Bethlem Hospital fetched more than £9,000 at a Sotheby’s auction in March 1962. The Gardener, painted about 1860, went for £2,400 and Oberon and Titania, signed and dated 1854-8, for £7,000. So Richard Dadd achieved something of the fame he patronised, first as a King’s schoolboy in Rochester and later Royal Academy.

And that corner of Cobham Woods lost its anonymity. To this day, the tragic scene of the dead father and the mad son is remembered as Dadd Man’s Hollow.

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