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.
On Social Media and Art
by Aubrey Prestwich | 31 Oct 2022
We live in an age inextricably linked to the internet and, by extension, social media. Social networks run by Meta, Twitter, and TikTok hold incredible power that their users cannot ignore.
The art world has embraced platforms such as Instagram, whose parent company is Meta. Its influence can drive sales to the private market in both the big gallery and small-time craft market. Artists like Lisa Congdon have hundreds of thousands of followers and attribute their success, in part, to Instagram. Her folk-inspired, colourful motifs and hopeful phrase work is especially suited to the grid because it is compelling and easy to read quickly. Similarly, David Shrigley’s internally captioned, punchy acrylic works embody the whimsy of the artists on the platform. Each artist has shown in traditional gallery settings, has their own web shop, and reaches hundreds of thousands of people weekly. Social media is an integral part of their success.
Museums show off elements of their collection that aren’t on permanent display with clever captions. A recent post on The Clark’s feed pictures a painting of a toddler eating an apple captioned ‘Who, me?’. The Getty posts monthly zodiac-inspired artworks. The Met displays print works and photography on its story semi-regularly for screenshotting to use as a phone background. The institutions take on the double role of entertainer and educator, pairing this popular content with advertising for lectures, video conversations with conservators, and long-form, catalog entry-style captions.
The medium has greatly benefitted the art world in terms of access. Instagram and other platforms have borrowed the art world's language to describe their algorithms: liking, following, commenting, and sharing works enable users to curate their feeds. The imagery of the platform suits the way art is shared: it is principally an industry of looking and attention.
So, when Instagram initiated several changes to focus on video content, it was unsurprising that there was pushback from its users. Some artists and institutions were better suited to this change, but most experienced dramatic drops in engagement without commensurate changes in posting habits.
We are now a few months removed from the heart of the outrage, and it’s a critical moment to stop and look at what’s happened. Instagram rolled back many of the changes it had proposed. Influencers like the Kardashians got involved, and an executive at Meta filmed an apology. We’re in a moment of limbo. Artists have had to pivot or reassess their relationships with the platform. Well-funded institutions are still producing a variety of content; some have not visibly changed how they engage with the platform. Some institutions formed unlikely stars long ago and stuck with what works: who can forget Tim Pearce of the Carnegie Museum and his snail jokes?
The internet is a soup of emotions, extremes, and creativity. As someone who considers myself “chronically online,” I feel a lot of tension about my consumption of the platforms I use. I love learning from The Getty and the Tate and all the other institutions I follow. I love buying or sharing art from small makers in unexpected places. Yet, I know I am not immune to the influence of the shadow. I know the content I see results from the content I have already consumed, and my slice of the internet is not nearly as expansive as it could or should be. Critical interrogation of the media I consume is integral to being a good online citizen. Still, constant vigilance isn’t the reason I want to look at Instagram in the first place.
The future of social media is contested. This dialogue seriously impacts the art world and society at large. Although Instagram has responded to the needs of its users, the drama is still playing out. Our role as consumers and witnesses is to critically engage with what we consume and support the artists and institutions we care about. The rest is up to the ether.