RICHARD DADD (1817-1886) Biography

Artist's Halt in the Desert by Moonlight (United Kingdom, 1800 - 1899)

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Watercolour on paper
Inscribed in French on the reverse (see Description)


36.80cm high
70.70cm wide
(14.49 inches high)
(27.83 inches wide)
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Thomas Birchall (1857)
Private collection (purchased in the 1950s as annonymous)
Discovered by Peter Nahum on the BBC Antiques Roadshow 1987
The British Museum Prints and Drawings department


Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition. A handbook to the water colours, drawings, and engravings, Bradbury and Evans, London 1857
Patricia Allderidge, The Late RICHARD DADD, The Tate Gallery, 1974, page 77, catalogue number 92 (whereabouts unknown)

Exhibition History

Manchester, Art Treasures of the United Kingdom, 1857, number 283

Description / Expertise

The inscription in the artist's hand on the reverse reads:
“Ici on voit clair de lune peigné des recollections qui existent dans la tête du peinteur, et des certains marques et lines dans la livre petit que je crois de n’avoir pas ete dans le possession du Sir Thos. Phillips. C’est sur le bord de la Mer Morte tout pres un petit rousseau, entre le Jordan Fleuve et les Montagnes sur le route a St Sabre.”

In the year of 1838, in the town of Newport in Wales, the mayor, a Mr Thomas Phillips, showed great courage by single-handedly confronting a Chartist riot. He faced the rioters with only a copy of the riot act and was shot twice before the rising was put down. As a result of the courage he displayed, and the blaze of publicity that followed, he was knighted. A solicitor by profession, he had decided to settle in London and take up his position at the Bar.

Being an experienced European traveller, he decided, before taking up practice in London, to make a long tour of the Mediterranean and Egypt. The Kodak camera not having been invented, he resolved to take an artist to record the trip.

Since Sir Thomas Phillips personally knew the Royal Academician David Roberts, whose dramatic views of the Middle East and Egypt were justly famous, he asked him to recommend a fellow artist of suitable skill, as a companion for the trip. Roberts recommended the son of a friend, who not only held several medals for fine draughtsmanship but who was also suitable as he was quiet of character, well-read and intelligent. This was the twenty-five year old Richard Dadd.

In July 1842 Sir Thomas Phillips, Richard Dadd and party began the long journey through Belgium, Germany and Italy; by boat to Greece and then on to Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Palestine and Egypt, where, after the extreme hardships of the interminable excursions on horseback between sea voyages, they took a fashionable and extremely comfortable trip down the Nile by boat. Phillips and Dadd congenially shared a cabin. They then set out on the return journey via Malta, Sicily, Italy and France. The trip had been exhilarating but tough going and Dadd had found it hard to find the time to sketch on the way as he could not draw from horseback and Sir Thomas Phillips kept his party on the move. Ultimately the adventure was to prove tragically traumatic.

It was in Rome that Dadd and Phillips had had a violent argument over religion; Dadd was inflexible on the subject and Phillips a liberal. Here Dadd, who was now possessed by the Egyptian deity Osiris, decided that Sir Thomas Phillips was the devil; and so was the Pope, whom he plotted to kill. His plans were averted when he came to the conclusion that the Pope was too heavily guarded. The party continued on their way to Paris, where the normally phlegmatic Sir Thomas Phillips became deeply alarmed and sought medical help for his companion. However, Dadd, in his deluded state, had already left and returned to England. He arrived towards the end of May 1843.

Augustus Egg, brother artist and old friend, knowing Dadd as one of the gentlest and most intelligent of their circle, was in deep shock on renewing his acquaintance. The artist, William Powell Frith, another close friend and member of their group, takes up the story: Never can I forget one fateful day when my brother artist, Egg, entered my studio, and with a face pale as death, told me that Dadd had returned home - mad! I could not believe it possible. I said so. Egg sat down; the tears stood in his eyes. "Yes", he said, "he is. His father says he must have had a sunstroke or something; I don't know - his father says he will be better soon; but certainly he is -" … Here Egg fairly broke down. He could give me no particulars, and shortly after went away.

With the Egyptian god, Osiris holding power over him, and evil spirits haunting him, Richard Dadd continued his mission to exterminate the men most possessed with the demon. Dadd's father had liberal religious views and after a family discussion on the subject he faced the same reaction as had Sir Thomas Phillips in Rome. Dadd saw his father also as the devil. On the 28 August 1843 he called on his father and insisted that they go for a walk at a favourite old haunt at Cobham where he would unburden his mind. It was there that he murdered his father first by trying to cut his throat with a razor, and then by stabbing him with a spring knife. Both instruments had been bought especially for the purpose. He immediately fled to France with his new passport, leaving by Dover, where he had hired a boat for 10. In France he was arrested, within two days, for attacking a fellow passenger in a diligence. He had been on his way to kill the Emperor of Austria. Under French law the authorities committed him, without trial, to a lunatic asylum, but in July 1844 he was extradited to England where he was committed to Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam as it had been known in the 18th century. It is now the Imperial War Museum.).

It was almost a year before Dadd was in any state to take up painting again. Some of his sketch books from the journey were brought to him and he began to paint scenes from his Middle Eastern journey. It was during this early period that he would have worked on The Artist's Halt in the Desert. Having been through almost two years of traumatic madness, incarcerated in a variety of unsympathetic institutions, it is extraordinary how this very scene, representing only a two hour encampment by the Dead Sea, had burnt itself so deeply into his mind.

Finally, we should return to the Eastern journey, to the precise time just after Dadd, Sir Thomas Phillips and party had ridden from Jericho to the Dead Sea, rested there for two hours after sunset and then across the Engaddi desert by moonlight to Jaffa. On the coast at Jaffa they boarded the steam-ship Hecate, where Dadd wrote a long letter to William Powell Frith. The letter shows a bright, talented 25-year old, given to punning; a facility he was never to lose throughout his tragic life.

Extracts from Richard Dadd's letter to his fellow artist William Powell Frith:

Hecate Man-of-War Steamer, lying off Jaffa, Nov. 26, 1842

I have some moments to spare now, which, if you please, I'll devote to the cultivation of your mind

It would puzzle you to recognize you old neighbour under the strange guise I have assumed. Ordinarily my dress has consisted of a cap of the country, called a fez, with two handkerchiefs, one white and one red, tied round it. I've beard and moustachios; a pair of large boots of Russian leather, which I can shake off and on, and which are worn outside the trousers, reaching halfway up the leg; and, added to this, a white blouse, which is generally stuffed full of little things for the convenience of travelling ...

From Damascus to Jerusalem and Jaffa the journey has been of a very singular kind, as we have had to put up with all sorts of filth and inconvenience to see an infernally rocky country that won't grow anything but big stones. This is a stretch [exageration], but still the bareness of the country in some parts is very striking.

If it is night when you arrive, the effects of light and shadow are something only to be painted, not described; for if I tell you that their dresses are picturesque and bright in colour - if I tell you that their faces are handsome and full of expression, that the old men look like patriarchs, that the young have almost feminine beauty, that the pipes are bubbling and the smoke wreathing about in fanciful curls, and on this the fire throwing a ruddy glare, you may indeed form a general notion, but you will certainly want the exquisite individuality of all around

At times the excitement of these scenes has been enough to turn the brain of an ordinary weak-minded person like myself, and often I have lain down at night with my imagination so full of wild vagaries that I have really and truly doubted of my own sanity. The heat of the day, perhaps, contributed somewhat to this, or the motion of riding is also another reason for this unusual activity of the fancy.

The horses that one gets here are but very sorry jades, generally speaking, and their paces frequently would puzzle Ducrow himself to adapt himself to the motions; they stumble, and unless you (the rider) are very cautious in the matter, you fly over the head like a spread-eagle. I have had two immersions in the water, and more falls on the ground than I can at present count up; notwithstanding, no ill results have ensued, and a good jolt is all that I have suffered in consequence

Then listen to wild sounds of the tabor, and see the strange dresses of these street musicians; see bubbling water, see bright green trees, dazzling dresses, stately camels, all shook up in such inextricable confusion that you lay down your reason and implore the passenger to hold you tight, lest you should indulge in any rabid feelings towards your linen. I don't care, Powell - I don't care, I say; you can't be wrong in staying your poor deluded steps in any part of this emporium of artistic wealth. I wish I had the gigantic powers of a Shakespeare, an Otway, or any other way, to tell you of the bigfeelings that the sight of these things generates in me. Grant me, oh, let me but have the power to embody the scenes that I have witnessed, and William Powell Frith shall own at least that his neighbour is fit for some other purpose than the cleaning of shoes.

We visited Nazareth, we saw the Sea of Galilee, we stayed at Tiberias, we sojourned at Carmel, we have seen the Holy City with all its sights, we have been to Bethlehem, and gone to Jericho, to the Jordan, the Dead Sea, and the convent of St. Saba, through the wild passes of Engaddi by moonlight. At Jericho our party, consisting of a jolly rollicking lot of midshipmen and lieutenants from the Hecate and Venom, were surrounded by a party of Arabs, mounted and armed in all the rich mode of their tribes.
... We, that is, Sir Thomas Phillips and myself, with one or two of the officers, rode into their circle, and then, oh! Billy, you would have burst with vexation at seeing the naked bellies and limbs of some of the fierce-looking people. One man had on a pair of boots whose antiquity was, or is, coeval with Abraham, the patriarch of his tribe; his trousers were of common cotton, and appeared at some time or another to have cottoned ... [here the letter is unintelligible] ... they were so shabby; his vest was a sort of sack open all down the front, and his stomach seemed particularly desirous of escaping the restraint of bonds; his hair was long and matted, wildly blowing about in the breeze; in his hand he held a long lance of reed, with two tufts of ostrich feathers thereon, and by his side was suspended a sabre of the Damascus form, but which was dressed in a very shabby scabbard of leather.

This was nothing as compared with the appearance of the sheik, whose black grizzly beard would make capital brushes, being as obdurate in semblance as his hard piercing eye of darkest brown; his turban was of worsted, or something that had been worsted in the chase for colour, if ever it had a chase for that. What nonsense! Never mind. He led us into the village, and there more of the motley crew were waiting for our reception. To show our confidence in him, he desired that we would enter a kind of courtyard where there was a large pool of dirty water, covered by a rude thatch, and supported on posts. Beneath this, on the margin of the water, he sat down, and his chiefs, or chief warriors, beside him, smoking and calmly eyeing the party.

On moving to depart, a request was made for the loan of baksheesh, another word for plunder, or unjust demands on the traveller's purse. The sum asked was five hundred piastres, but through the management of our servant one hundred only were paid.

You are perfectly silly if you imagine that you can imagine anything at all to compare with these people. Perhaps it seems an unnecessary thing to repeat this same thing, but say it over twenty times, and you may then possibly have some notion. Their romantic, erratic, latronatic, Arabic character was much assisted by the fire round which we sat at night on the borders of the Dead Sea. Three or four had been sent as a guard to protect us from any others that might be wandering near, and to see the naked villains walk up to the fire would have walked your blood up to boiling heat.

The moon rose after some time, and we, having stayed two hours, mounted and rode through the mountains of Engaddi. This, again, was rather rich looking to my eyes (diseased eyes), like the end of the world. Many parts was as the extinct craters of volcanoes; and some of the mountains had bent themselves in the most extravagant way.

Richard Dadd