Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Dadd Is In The Detail

There’s a lot more to be said about Dadd’s 1857 chess painting The Child’s Problem, the starting point for this mini-series.

Be Warned. There are no chess moves in this post. It is, frankly, a Chess Free Zone. It is a detour before the next episode (with a blood-curdling near-chess experience at Broadmoor). But if Dadd's picture, and its mysteries, intrigue you, hang on in. It has attracted a fair amount of interest from art commentators, and we are going to check out what they say.

So, to get down to business. Look at Dadd's painting below, and ask: what is all that stuff in the background; what are we to make of the figure in the chair; and who is the boy?

The Child's Problem in black and white.
(Click on any image in this post to enlarge)

We'll start, for better or worse, with author Jennifer Higgie’s interpretation in the Spring 2011 issue of Tate Etc. She says:
“There are three women in the picture: an old one, asleep, while a younger one, trapped in stone, floats above her like a spectre. On the wall is a picture of a naked woman, her arms raised in supplication, which was used as a poster for the anti-slavery movement.”
"Three women"? I reckon that’s only about one third right, and possibly less.

To begin with the easiest: is that really a “naked woman” in the anti-slavery poster?

Patricia Allderidge shows that Dadd’s family was indeed sympathetic to the cause, and Dadd would surely have seen the poster before his incarceration. So far, so good. But in his picture Dadd paints in the text (my italics) : “Am I not a man and a brother”, which suggests he was recalling a “male” version; and although there was a “female” version of the poster it declares “Am I not a woman...”.

Here is a crop of Dadd’s painting, left, compared with the well-known "male" original on the right:

Dadd's eye for design has dominated his recollection and simplified the image. He makes the figure’s heavenward entreaty yet more emphatic. But Dadd’s caption clearly says it's a man, even if you might be sympathetic to Ms Higgie’s alternative, but surely mistaken, reading of the figure.

Next there’s the “woman trapped in stone”. Here Ms Allderidge points to two sources for Dadd’s image. The first is his own oval painting of a kneeling nude in “Evening”, a typical Dadd fairy-style fantasy made around 1841, before his incarceration. The second is a statue of “Narcissus” initially supposed to be by Michaelangelo (though that is now discounted). With due deference to Ms Allderidge, there is another possibility. For my money the attention that the lady pays to her coiffure makes a Hellenistic statue of Venus, also now in the V&A, a more likely candidate.

Here they are, left to right: The Woman in Stone; Evening; Venus.

The similarity of the poses is telling. However, there is a feature that sets “Evening” and “Venus” apart: their unmistakable femininity. By contrast Dadd’s bad-hair-day-lady looks like a chap-with-breasts-attached.

Rather dodgy gendering I reckon, and we'll find out why in a moment; but let's get on to the person in the chair, skipping the barely legible painting of a ship on the right save to say that Dadd was brought up in Chatham with its Naval Dockyards, and was forever painting boats. This one is a slave-runner, as the inscription on its bow indicates (see note below).

So, the "woman", the "old one, asleep" in the chair. Is that a "woman" (as Ms Higgie says) and the child's Governess, or a man and its Master?

We can do a poll of the commentators here: Ms Higgie, as we know, says it’s a woman, as does Madame Isaure de Saint Pierre in her novel based, imaginatively, on Dadd's life; Alison Smith in the TATE Watercolour exhibition catalogue stays shtoom; David Greysmith in his book sticks his neck out and says it’s a “he (or she)”; Ms Allderidge says it’s a man.

If only it were that straightforward.

To put things in context: Ms Allderidge comments that in the Asylum Dadd would have had to use male models, even when painting women. Criminally insane inmates were kept on separate gender-segregated wings, with meals probably brought to the wards, and were denied attendance at Chapel or the Asylum Ball (thanks to Colin Gale at the Bethlem Archive for this info). Perhaps then Dadd's memory of the specifics of female physiognomy had waned, along with his sureness of touch at rendering them in paint.

So, first the face - is that male or female? Well, here is another revealing comparison.

It's a reasonable guess that Dadd's 1854 painting of Lucretia - "female" - on the right, is based on the same male model as the figure in the chair (dated 1857), hook-nose and all. And like Lucretia, Dadd may have intended the seated figure to look like a woman, but it has regressed to the appearance of a man.

Now look at the figure's garb, and compare it to Dadd's 1842/3 portrait of Sir Thomas Phillips in Arabian costume (cropped below). Phillips was a major figure for Dadd's reputation as an artist. He was the patron who took Dadd on his tour of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa before the fateful patricide.

The figure on the left apparently wears a Victorian lady's shawl wrapped round its shoulders and peaked above the forehead, but surely it is based on the Arabian male's Keffiyeh that Sir Tom models for us on the right. The cuffs correspond as well. Dadd, it appears, has used artistic license to borrow the ethnic get-up of his one-time patron.

So, man or woman sitting in the chair? FWIW I reckon Dadd was led astray by his misremembered past and his gender-bent present: they made a shaky foundation on which to build a stable and convincing image of the female form. His vision wobbled. Man or woman? If it doesn't sound too arch: both.

Finally, let’s look at the last piece of the jigsaw – is the boy (it can't be a girl, can it?) in the painting Richard Dadd himself, as Madame de Saint Pierre has it in her souped-up novel?

Other commentators are silent on the matter, which perhaps says a lot. Here is an identity parade of the child (in the middle, and reversed for ease of comparison) with a Dadd self-portrait at age 23 on the left, and, another etching of himself, perhaps a year later, on the right.

Dadd in the middle? May be, or maybe not, as Mr Greysmith might have put it.

So, that's my deconstruction of The Child's Problem: autobiographical and self-referring; infused with faded memories and distorted perceptions; Dadd in the detail.

Enough. Now it is time to put the Child and his Problem to bed, because next time we have an exciting adventure at Broadmoor.

The inscription on the bow of the boat is given by Ms Allderidge as "THE BLACK FEREE. Remarkable Fast Slaver. Commanded by Captn S. Nigger. [?.]"

Jennifer Higgie, on Richard Dadd's The Child's Problem (1857). In TATE Etc. Spring 2011.
Alison Smith's note in the Catalogue to Watercolour , Tate Britain 2011.
Patricia Allderidge, The late Richard Dadd 1817-1886. The Tate Gallery, London 1974, also Richard Dadd. Academy Editions, London 1974.
David Greysmith,
Richard Dadd; the rock and castle of seclusion. Studio Vista, London 1973.
Isaure de Saint Pierre (ed. Anthea Bell), Richard Dadd - his journals. Aiden Ellis, Henley 1984 (originally published in Paris 1980).

Thanks again to Colin Gale at Bethlem Museum and Archive; and to Seani for his technical wizardry with the illustrations.

What Dadd Did
What Dadd Did Next
What Dadd Did Later
What Dadd Didn't Do


ejh said...

And is anybody else thinking "doesn't that child look a lot like Napoleon"?

Martin S. said...

There must be something in the hair.

Anonymous said...

The titles of this excellent series remind me of a joke.

Person 1: Ken Dodd died yesterday.
Person 2: Did he?
Person 1: No, Doddie.

With apologies,

Martin S. said...

Brilliant. Thanks Angus, I've been looking for some Dadd puns for the remainder of the series..