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Sketch to Illustrate the Passions: Senility, by Richard Dadd – £31,000 at Bigwood.

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Incarcerated in Bedlam asylum after killing his father in 1843, artist Richard Dadd (1817-1886) was described by another Victorian painter and admirer William Powell Frith as "a man of genius".

Noted for his depictions of fairies and other supernatural subjects, he continued painting after his incarceration. And so when a powerful and mysterious sketch catalogued as "possibly by Richard Dadd" appeared at Bigwood (15% buyer's premium) auctioneers' sale in Stratford on June 30 with a £500-800 estimate, it caused a feeding frenzy among the trade. It eventually sold at £31,000 to Andrew Sim, who deals privately and through his father's dealership, Michael Sim of Chislehurst, Kent.

"It's a typically intriguing and quintessential Dadd," said Mr Sim of the work known by an abbreviated title: Sketch to Illustrate the Passions: Senility.

The 14 x 101/4in (36 x 26cm) sketch of a sinister, strangely postured figure dispensing what appears to be thin air from a box outside a tavern, was part of a series of at least 33 known genre pictures, each depicting a vice, virtue or human characteristic that Dadd produced while in Bedlam. Known as the 'Passions' series, the majority of these images are now housed in national art collections and museums. Roughly half are in the possession of the Bethlem Museum, with others held by the British and Victoria and Albert Museums. This particular work was known to exist, since it was documented as being sold at Christie's in 1870 where it was bought by a Mr Ryder. However, the image had never been reproduced and so, visually at least, it was unknown.

The work was offered at Bigwood after being consigned by a local vendor who was unable to say where it had come from.

Mr Sim said that the condition of the unframed sketch suggested it had been kept in a drawer. There was some foxing, but it was nevertheless in a decent state. Although it would benefit from a clean, it retained visible and fresh colours.

Like many of the 'Passions', the meaning of the work is elusive. "The extraordinary spider-like posture and menacing gaze of the central character are quite unforgettable," said Mr Sim. "I suppose he must represent Senility."

By Alex Capon