Saturday, 28 September 2013

On the possible identity of Dadd's trumpet-playing dragonfly

On 28 August 1843, Richard Dadd persuaded his father to take an evening constitutional in Cobham Park, Kent, and then stabbed him to death with a rigger's knife. Dadd fled to Dover and there hired a boat to Calais. While on the coach from Paris to Lyon, he attacked another passenger with a razor. Dadd's reason, as he explained later to the French authorities, was that he had been charged by God 'to exterminate the men most possessed by the demon'. He was sent to the asylum at Clermont, where he remained until July 1844, when he was extradited to Britain to stand trial for murder.

Dadd was confined to asylums — first Bethlehem Hospital and then Broadmoor — for the rest of his life. While in Bedlam, as the hospital was called colloquially, he painted many of his best-known works, including 'The Flight out of Egypt', 'Contradiction' and 'The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke'. This last is probably the painting most familiar to a broader audience. (Wikipedia hosts a larger image of it here, which is the source of the images below.)

Dadd created TFFMS over the decade spanning 1855 to 1864. It was still unfinished when he was moved the newly-opened Broadmoor Hospital*. He died of tuberculosis in 1886.

The painting now hangs in the Tate Britain on Millbank. I last saw it thirty-two years a short while ago. Several things strike me about TFFMS: it is crowded. claustrophobic...and remarkably small. At 54 cm x 39.5 cm, it is a shade smaller than an A2 sheet of paper, yet the figures on it are rendered in such detail that they include the fairy feller's fingernails.

The scene is one of anticipation. It is midnight. The woodman has raised his axe to split a nut, but appears to be waiting for a signal from the arch magician in the centre of the painting. Around him are gathered a disparate group of fairies, satyrs and others. There are even tiny figures along the brim of the arch magician's crown, including Queen Mab and her footman in a chariot drawn by two winged centaurs.

To explain the characters and, perhaps, draw attention to those overlooked, Richard Dadd wrote the poem 'Elimination of a Picture & its Subject—called The Fellers' Master Stroke' (1865)**. In it, he mentions this fine fellow with his trumpet:

Detail from the painting (contrast increased)

...Next to the Soldier on his right,
a Dragon Fly exerts his skill & might

Sounds the long notes ’long the long tube that wind
And in the fairy hollows echoes find.
To assist this gaudy long legged trumpeter
A tatteredemalion & a junketer
Holiday folk that tends upon,
Like a Postilion if you con
Each blows his brazen tube no doubt in tune
With Dragon Fly that rests his leg abune
The jutting stone on which they sit 

I was never convinced that the trumpet-playing instrument was a dragonfly. Dragonflies have shorter legs and generally don't hold their wings flat against the abdomen.

'But,' you might counter, 'the whole painting is probably not an accurate rendition of anything that has ever happened anywhere. It was made up.'

And I would say, 'well, yeah, but those figures are so detailed and obviously modelled on yer actual human form that it wouldn't be so odd if Dadd had used a real insect as a basis for the trumpeter. And if he did, it wasn't a dragonfly'

'Right,' you might respond. 'I'll just be over here.' After which, I might hear running footsteps, a car door slamming and tyre squeal.

So, I was stuck with this question that if it wasn't a dragonfly, just what insect was blowing up a storm on the trumpet? And then I bought Nicholas Tromans' 2011 book 'Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum' (publication details below***). In it, sections of TFFMS are reproduced at greater than original size. At 20 cm, the trumpeter's form is clear — it bears short. feathery antennae. So this is my hypothesis: It is neither dragonfly nor grasshopper, but a mosquito or cranefly. Of course, neither of those names scans as well as dragonfly nor are they as evocative. But I'm happier with that new identification****; I will have to wait until my next visit to the Tate Britain to confirm it. Hopefully that won't take another thirty-two years long while.

Tromans, Nicholas (2011). Richard Dadd: the Artist and the Asylum. London: The Tate Gallery.


* Where the inmate in the next cell was William Minor, whose life story is recounted in Simon Winchester's 'The Surgeon of Crowthorne'.

** From which are drawn many of the lyrics to Queen's song about the painting

*** It's an authoritative and interesting read

**** Until someone offers a better alternative


Anonymous said...

I never knew ... well, I never knew that I never knew SO MUCH!

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Anonymous said...

That's a relief!
I hate to think I had only been enjoying it