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.
Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic
by Bella Bloss | 27 July 2022
Kiki Smith, Lilith, 1954, Bronze, (81.3 x 68.6 x 44.5 cm), Image Source: British Museum
The British Museum’s current exhibition, Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic, is a celebratory display of the influence of female Goddesses, Saints, Witches, Spirits and Demons from cultures and faiths all over the world, taking the viewer on a journey of over 5000 years of feminine power. These feminine powers are depicted in ancient sculptures, historical paintings, traditional masks, manuscripts, artefacts and contemporary interpretations that are dedicated to the magnificent figures of femininity.
The curators, Lucy Dahlsen and Belinda Crerar present an intimate look at an eclectic and diverse collection of figures and images such as the Greek Goddess Aphrodite, the Hawaiian Goddess of Volcanoes Pele, the Hindu Goddess Kali, Lilith from Jewish folklore, The Virgin Guadalupe, The Hindu Goddess Lakshmi, and the Chinese Goddess Guanyin, amongst many more. These beings and the artworks made of and for them present the ways in which the idealised figures inspired by women’s strength have been portrayed, celebrated and feared throughout history and the impact they have had on the multiple generations of women after them.
The exhibition is curated into six categories: Creation and Nature, Passion and Desire, Magic and Malice, Justice and Defence, Compassion and Salvation and Feminine Power Today. Each themed room collates the artworks and interpretations of the feminine figures from different cultures that define such qualities, including statements and observations about each pinnacle figure and the artworks from the five collaborators - Mary Beard, Rabia Saddique, Elizabeth Day, Deborah Frances-White and Leyla Hussein. These insights and considerations from vital female writers and historians elevates the exhibition experience.
This collection of works and figures in one space gives the viewer a look into how different cultures and periods in time view and represent the impact of privileged female knowledge and experience, how that was variously mythologised by predominantly patriarchal systems, how some cultures share similar ideas and beliefs, and how they communicate those beliefs through the female figures. The combination of ancient and contemporary works enhances the experience entirely when you see how consistent and strong the influence of feminine identities have been throughout history.
The cover image for this exhibition is Kiki Smith’s bronze sculpture, Lilith (1954). This crouching figure with her head turned to the viewer was cast from a real woman, her glass blue eyes reminiscent of ancient sculptures similar to the Roman Head of Augustus with human-like glass eyes that still seem to hold life, also displayed in the British Museum. Lilith is a feared woman in the Jewish faith, depicted often as a demon, as her story is that she fled the Garden of Eden to reside with Satan. Accordingly, the sculpture is in the Passion and Desire room, displayed as if she were crawling demonically down the wall. Smith’s intention with her display is to conceal Lilith’s nudity to refrain her from the gaze.
In the room titled Compassion and Salvation, the viewer is presented with the delicate porcelain figure of Guanyin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy. The Goddess is a guiding and caring figure, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, who appears when one is in danger. This exquisite and lustrous white porcelain figure from the eighteenth century is depicted with multiple arms surrounding her like a halo, expressing her ability to help and guide everyone. Although she is predominantly presented as a female figure, Guanyin has the ability to take on any form, allowing her to present as both female and male, young and old.
The final room in the exhibition is interactive, titled Female Power Today, inviting the exhibition attendees to reflect on the experience and to comment on what feminine power means to them. These comments and contributions, alongside a photo and the name of the commenter, become part of the exhibit as a projection of hundreds of written responses by attendees and the five collaborators that contributed their scholarly voices throughout, ensuring all voices are collectively and equally important.
The exhibition leaves an enduring impression on the viewer. It is an exceptional, one-of-a-kind experience, defining the strength of feminine identities in all forms. An educational, empowering and momentous encounter that elevates the role of the female in art and culture.
Kiki Smith, Lilith, 1954, Bronze, (81.3 x 68.6 x 44.5 cm), Image Source: Artsy.net
Guanyin, c. 1800, Porcelain, (41 x 20 x 11.50 cm), Image Source: British Museum