Explore the famed faery painting of an artist dealing with mental illness in the mid-1800s

I just discovered a fascinating piece on Public Domain Review about Richard Dadd, a Victorian-era painter who is best known for the surreal depictions of faeries and other supernatural entities that he created while he was in asylum for having an "unsound mind" (likely schizophrenia), which resulted in him killing his father.

Among the symptoms of Dadd's illness – which sounds today like a form of schizophrenia – were delusions of persecution and the receipt of messages from the Ancient Egyptian deity Osiris. Dadd was commanded to kill his father (or the demon who it appeared to him had taken his place) and did so with efficiency in the summer of 1843, not long after returning from his tour. After an equally well planned escape to France, the artist was eventually admitted to the Criminal Lunatic department of Bethlem Hospital in Lambeth (now the Imperial War Museum) and it was here that he painted the Fairy Feller. According to the inscription on the back of the canvas it took him nine years to complete, although Dadd qualifies this claim with "quasi" ("sort of") which may mean he only worked at it on and off between 1855 and 1864.

It is an exhaustingly complex image, with a substantial cast of characters, none of whom are doing much with the exception of the "feller" himself who is about to hew a hazelnut in half in order to provide the diminutive queen of the fairies, Mab, with a new chariot.

This is his masterpiece, The Faery-Feller's Master Stroke, which was commissioned by the warden of the Bethlehem Asylum, as a means of "treating" Dadd's mental illness.

There's a lot more to Dadd's tragic story, and a lot to examine in his intricately detailed artwork. (Which I now know was also the inspiration for the Queen song "The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke.") His stunning work certainly deserves recognition on its own, but it's also an interesting look at the ways that mental healthcare has and has not changed over time. Nicholas Tromans, who wrote the article on Public Domain Review, also has a book out about the Artist and the Asylum.

Richard Dadd's Master-Stroke [Nicholas Tromans / Public Domain Review]