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