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Rare work by Victorian painter who worked in mental hospital spotted on eBay

A watercolour by Richard Dadd, known for his obsessively detailed paintings of fairies and genres scenes, was tucked into a lady’s personal scrapbook

Dadd's watercolour of “a lady with minstrel”, dated 1874, when the artist was incarcerated at Broadmoor Hospital

A sharp-eyed British collector snapped up a previously unknown watercolour by the Victorian painter Richard Dadd (1817-86) on eBay for £200. The piece was part of a 31-page album, described by its sellers as an “1885 Victorian scrapbook or momento bk—albumen photographs, hand paintings, cards”, formerly belonging to the family of Elizabeth Rickards. Photographs on the post showed its contents, including pages of dried, pressed leaves, Christmas cards, amateur watercolours, albumen photographs of various British sites including Broadmoor Hospital and a “painting of a lady with minstrel—hand-painted and dated 1874”.

“Although it was not the best image, I instantly knew it was by Dadd,” says the collector, who wishes to remain nameless. Luckily, the album was offered under the “buy it now” option, so he was spared the agonising wait of a seven- to ten-day auction and the hope that nobody else would spot it.

Painted while Dadd was incarcerated at Broadmoor Hospital for murdering his father in fit of what was probably paranoid schizophrenia, the highly detailed watercolour depicts a standing woman wearing a pseudo-medieval dress and a vacant expression beside an equally dull-eyed seated man strumming a lute, with a verdant, mountainous, castle-topped background. It is signed: “Richard.Dadd.Invenit.July.1874”. Unlike most watercolours by Dadd, the colours are vivid and fresh as the piece was probably rarely removed from the album or exposed to light. While there were no other works by Dadd tucked away inside, among the vignettes that decorate the frontispiece, drawn by Miss Rickards, is a representation of Dadd in his hospital room painting at an easel.

How did Dadd’s watercolour wind up in the album? The eBay seller purchased the collection at Dominic Winters Auctions of Cirencester on 11 May 2011 as one of three photo albums included in “An archive of 19th-century material relating to the Rickards Family of Elm Bank, Leatherhead, Surrey” with “various loosely inserted paintings, letters and broadsides”. The collector says, “it seems likely that Elizabeth Rickards or her sister visited Dadd at Broadmoor, although a recent enquiry to the Broadmoor Archive about visitors to Dadd in the 1870s proved unfruitful. I have not been able to find a connection between Miss Rickards and Broadmoor, although I did discover that the chaplain for Dartmoor prison at about this time was named Clifford Rickards, so there may have been a family connection.”

The collector, who has never spent more than £1,000 for anything in his collection, says the watercolour is definitely not for sale and will remain in the album. “I’ve been a fan of Richard Dadd’s work for decades, but never imagined I would own one.”

Among the vignettes that decorate the frontispiece, drawn by the album's original owner, is a representation of Dadd (top) in his hospital room painting at an easel
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