Millican Dalton: A Sublime Midlife Crisis
The relevance of a 20th century cave-dweller to environmental aesthetics.
Wednesday, 23 December 2020
At the mouth of the cave at Borrowdale, May 2020. Photograph: Lewis Eaton.
On a swelteringly hot day in the North Western Fells of The Lake District, the gaping mouth of a cave offered itself as a refuge and swallowed us mercifully into its cool damp interior. Caves are otherworldly places. This particular cave, set into the hillside of Castle Crag, allows you to peer out at the gently swaying trees and glimmering daylight of the outside world from a viewing point void of light and sound. The daytrip itself had been to seek refuge in The Lakes; an attempt at replacing the stagnancy of a locked-down city summer with a more welcome, less claustrophobic, kind of tranquillity. We spent a few minutes scrambling around on the siltstone, marvelling at the height of the cave walls and exchanging the obligatory comments about feeling small in big spaces. On leaving, I noticed a large, flat stone covered in scrawlings. At the centre in neat, deeply-etched letters read ‘Don’t Waste Words, Jump to Conclusions’ with dozens of smaller sections of writing surrounding this. Each gave names and dates, with many faded with age and dissolving back into the stone’s surface. It was from a frantic Googling during the car ride home that I came to find out we had happened across a sort-of pilgrimage place for hikers: the cave in which a man had lived out his summers for over forty consecutive years.
In 1904, at the age of thirty-six, Millican Dalton gave up his life as an insurance clerk in London in order to dedicate himself to The Great Outdoors. Having spent part of his childhood in Nenthead, the North Pennines, he found life and work in the capital stifling in comparison. From then on Dalton split his year, spending the summer months in the cave under Castle Crag and winters in a canvas hut in Buckinghamshire. Far from your conventional hermit, Dalton was an active and sociable member of the community. He organised camping excursions for the outdoors novice which included teaching hiking, rock climbing, rafting and how to forage for food. What I found extraordinary for the time was that these excursions didn’t exclude women, with one of Dalton’s advertisements for a mountaineering course stating his views bluntly: “Ladies are welcome to the camp. There is nothing new in ladies camping, the custom being at least 10,000 years old.” This rare indiscriminate approach led to Dalton forging a long-lasting friendship with geologist Mabel Barker, who over the years consistently recommended Dalton’s courses to women students and friends.
Dalton and Barker atop a needle, 1913. The Mable Barker Collection.
Ambivalence Is The Word
by Aubrey Prestwich | 30 January 2023
Black Square on White Ground, Kaisimir Malevich, 1913
© State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
‘Ambivalent’ is the new catch-all word wending its way through the halls of the Courtauld. In seminars, in lecture theatres, in all levels of BA study, in a diverse range of periods and geographies, the word has been uttered in every class I’ve been in for the first two weeks.
What, then, is ambivalence, and why is it such a useful word to describe art? It can be trite and stereotypical to quote a dictionary in the exploration of terms, but Oxford says that ambivalence is ‘the condition of holding opposite feelings’. Love and hate, agony and ecstasy. Art can hold the beauty and terror of the world in its grip, and scholars can describe this emotional dissonance with the term.
The complexity of experience inherent in living is reflected in art. Unresolved tensions, ideas, and ideals create a situation where those that seek to understand humanity cannot, and they navigate and interrogate this understanding in the visual plane. Take, for example, the work of early modernists: founding Bauhaus members, Soviet artists, and those navigating the aftermath of the war. Particularly, consider Kazimir Malevich and his formal experiments: shapes on white ground. Most famously, a black square.
In presenting these forms as the Last Futurist Exhibition of Pictures, Malevich posits that pictures can be condensed into a single, meaningful end goal. The work held spiritual, political, and philosophical relevance. What was art to look like under the Soviet regime? A new era of collective spirit must have a new type of art, and Malevich suggests that this art should be his suprematism. Yet, the shapes and their simplicity bring about strong emotion: it is not the abstraction that is important. It is the replacement of previous representations: the black square on white ground replaces the icon; the comrade replaces the tsar. Ultimately, this abstraction could not favourably resolve the ambivalence of the new regime: socialist realism was the preferred solution.
Malevich’s work is simply one sketch which uses this term. Ambivalence has also been used in lectures to describe the works of the Reformation in Spain and the Netherlands, the Enlightenment in England, and medieval church decorating schemes in eastern Europe. These topics are meaty, full intellectual meals that must be digested slowly. As lectures continue over the semester, I hope to explore these complexities. The term is useful, if overused, and I welcome its continued resonance.