Their way lay through a deep and shady wood cooled by the light wind which gently rustled the thick foliage … The ivy and moss crept in thick clusters over the old trees and the soft green turf overspread the ground like a silk mat. They emerged upon an open park with an ancient hall …
Mr Pickwick and Mr Winkle are the strollers here in Cobham Park on a summer’s day. Charles Dickens knew these woods – he walked there as a boy with his father when they lived in Chatham and he walked them again when he lived at his house, Gad’s Hill Place nearby.
Had Dickens or Mr Pickwick been strolling there on a summer’s day in August, 1843, they would have experienced the dreadful shock that Mr Abraham Lyster and his nephew, Charles, had when they came across a murdered man, much bruised and battered and blood soaked. A stiletto knife and a black-handled razor lay nearby. The victim was identified as Robert Dadd, at one time a chemist in Rochester, but recently a carver and wood-gilder of London.
The murderer was Robert Dadd’s own son, Richard, aged twenty-six, an artist of some repute. He had already fled to France. However, there he attempted to stab a stranger, was arrested, and brought back to London, but was found unfit to stand trial. Poor Richard Dadd was mad. He was committed to the Bethlehem Asylum. In 1863, he was transferred to Broadmoor where he died in 1886, having spent forty-three years in confinement.
He continued to paint. It was in Broadmoor that he produced his masterpieces: The Fair Feller’s Masterstroke; Oberon and Titania; Portrait of a Young Man; and Contradiction.
And Dickens was acquainted with Richard Dadd who, before his madness, belonged to a circle of artists all of whom were Dickens’s close friends: Clarkson Stanfield, Daniel Maclise, David Roberts, Augustus Egg, and William Powell Frith. It was Clarkson Stanfield who had recommended Richard Dadd to the Royal Academy.
Dickens did not forget the story of Richard Dadd. Years later on his walks through Cobham Park he always pointed out the place where the murder had occurred. Somewhat macabrely, he would act out the scene for his friends.
But the madness haunted him. He wrote that it was ‘the most dreadful visitation to which our nature is exposed.’ He was a great friend and supporter of Doctor John Connolly who advocated the kind and humane treatment of the afflicted. Think of Mr Dick in David Copperfield, who, after a spell in a cruel asylum, is taken in and cared for by Betsey Trotwood for whom Mr Dick is ‘the most friendly and amenable creature in existence.’ It is the brother who committed Mr Dick who is the madman. Mr Dick’s full name is Richard Babley, thought to be an allusion to Richard Dadd.
But Mr Dick who is obsessed by King Charles’s head? Surely there’s something of Charles Dickens himself in that conjunction of Dick and Charles. Dickens frequently referred to himself as Dick in his letters to Clarkson Stanfield, the same Clarkson Stanfield who knew Richard Dadd. ‘Vheels within vheels’, as Sam Weller observes.