In the 14th century, a London priory of the Order of the Star of Bethlehem was turned into a hospital and began admitting patients. Over the next century, Bethlem Royal Hospital of London became a dedicated psychiatric ward infamous for the cacophony of voices, cries, and screams that echoed from those within.
The 20–30 lunatics that at any given time resided within Bethlem’s walls ranged from quietly insane to violent and dangerous. In the 18th century, the hospital charged only a penny admission to peer at the lunatics, poke them with sticks, and generally torture them and laugh at their antics. As one of Europe’s first and most notorious psychiatric hospitals, Bethlem gave rise to the word “bedlam,” in addition to a number of fascinating stories.
Several interesting historical figures of note have spent some time in Bethlem, including the Victorian-era English artist Richard Dadd. Born to a chemist in the late summer of 1817, Dadd’s artistic aptitude got him to the Royal Academy of Arts by the time he was 20 years old. Over the course of his studies, Dadd met and befriended Sir Thomas Phillips, the former mayor of Newport, who in 1842 asked Dadd to accompany Phillips as a draftsman on an expedition through Europe to Egypt. Towards the end of the trip, Dadd went through a dramatic personality change, claiming to be possessed by the Egyptian God Osiris.
When he returned home in the spring of 1843, he was taken in by his family to recuperate from what was then diagnosed as sunstroke. Growing increasingly delusional and violent, a few months later he became convinced that his father was the devil in disguise and murdered him with a knife. Dadd fled for France, but was apprehended and brought back to England when he tried to kill a fellow traveler with a razor. When Dadd confessed to the murder of his father, he was placed in the criminal department of Bethlem.
While at Bethlem, Dadd was allowed to continue to paint, and it was here that he created some of his greatest masterpieces. Most notable among the works completed within the walls of the asylum is a work titled “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.” It was commissioned by the head steward of Bethlem, George Hayden, who had a fondness for Dadd’s depictions of fairies and other supernatural subjects in enigmatic genre scenes.
Dadd had always had an obsession with minuscule details in his painting, and while at Bethlem, this obsession intensified. In this relatively small painting, measuring 54 centimeters by 39.5 centimeters, Dadd’s nearly microscopic attention to detail led to a layering technique that rendered his painting almost three-dimensional.
Even after painting using a magnifying glass for nine years, Dadd considered it unfinished. In order to complement the painting and give it context, Dadd also wrote a poem titled “Elimination of a Picture and its Subject — Called the Feller’s Master Stroke.” In it, Dadd gives the name and purpose of every character that appears in the painting.
Decades later, the war poet Siegfried Sassoon donated both painting and poem to the Tate Britain collection, in memory of his fellow officer and close friend Julian Dadd, a great-nephew of Richard Dadd who died in World War I. It was here, in one of the four galleries of the U.K.’s national museum of British and modern art, that Freddie Mercury, lead vocalist of the English rock band Queen, saw the painting. From that inspiration came the song “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke,” found on the album Queen II. The lyrics were inspired by the complementary poem, and detail many of the paintings tiny figures.
So the next time you have some time, pull up an image of the painting, start the music, and watch for your favorite superstars of medieval English folklore — a product of insanity, all to the sound of rock and roll.
This episode brought to you by cacophony.