“Richard Dadd’s great painting The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke shows a leather-clad person, axe raised to cleave a hazelnut, perhaps to make a coach for Queen Mab, as Mercutio describes her in Romeo and Juliet. He is intently watched by a grotesque crew of beings of all shapes and sizes. Octavio Paz, in The Monkey Grammarian, says that the sense of the work is a terrifying anticipation. Time is suspended until the axe falls, and the axe is eternally about to fall. Dadd, says Paz, has painted “the vision of the act of vision, the look that looks at a space in which the object looked at has been annihilated”.
“Dadd’s life is a strange combination of violence and inaction. He was a successful young painter in the early 1840s when he accompanied a patron on a long tour of the Middle East, complaining that they never stopped long enough for him to draw what he saw. On his return he showed signs of mental disturbance. His father, who had a gilding business, went with him to Cobham, where the family roots were. They went on a walk in Cobham Park in the evening. There Dadd stabbed and killed his father – the attack was obviously premeditated, as Dadd had prepared his flight out of the country. In a coach in France, he attacked a fellow passenger with a razor, and was apprehended. He claimed to be controlled by demons, and that his father was not his real father.