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.
by Federica Gubitosi | 22 Jan 2023
Museo Nacional Thyssen Bornemisza:
My girlfriend's favourites
What would happen if we looked at art and were not influenced by what we studied about it: what would stand out and why? So last week I was in Madrid for my birthday, my best friend moved there and, together with my friends we took the opportunity to spend a few days in sunny, happy Spain.
After the first busy twenty-four hours, we found ourselves free, without a precise destination, and it being my birthday, I was allowed to choose the next stage.
Whenever I am in a new place, especially on an intensely cold day and slightly hungover, I always find comfort in visiting museums, especially collections I already know, so the choice fell on the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum. As with many of the readers, my approach to museums and exhibitions is largely influenced by my studies: on a good day, big stress on ‘good’, I have a more or less precise idea of what I'm looking at, and if I slept well, I'm also able to place the works within their context. This often leads me, despite myself, to be less fascinated by the simple beauty of a work, and to think instead about the whole world behind it. If this is true for me, though, it is not necessarily applicable to my friends, who in life are professionals in other sectors. So it was incredibly interesting, and also frankly humbling, for me to visit an exhibition with people who were not really interested in the Picasso/Matisse feud or the whole span of Caravaggio’s reds.
The Museo Nacional Thyssen Bornemisza was born from the illuminated mind of Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and his son Hans Heinrich, and was acquired by the Spanish State in 1993. On the second floor, Old Masters are displayed ranging up to the beginning of the nineteenth century: from Jan Van Eyck to Rogier van der Weyden, whose delicate Virgin and child enthroned (1433) is a personal favourite of mine. The small panel depicts one of the main motifs of the Flemish painters: the Virgin in the church. Placed in a refined gothic niche, the Madonna embodies all the precision and attention to detail of these painters. Just as I was immersing myself in these soft thoughts on tenderness and was most likely about to get a divine call, my friend abruptly states: “Why is the kid so ugly?” - The question terrifies me, the snobbery inside me leads me to consider it below my knowledge, a snobbery I fed for five years of Art History classes and countless seminars on the most specific and disparate sub-themes, but then I think about it for a moment: the truth is that I don't know. They discovered me, despite everything, I'm not an authority in here either. There are now two options: show off the best Oscar-winning performance and make up a satisfying answer, or admit defeat and find out together. Thanks to my total lack of inventiveness at that moment and a mediocre lying face, I opt for the second option. Apparently during the Middle Ages, let's say from around AD 400 to AD 1400, the depiction of baby Jesus did not follow a realistic logic, which subsequently develops in relation to Renaissance anthropocentrism, but was linked to the idea of homunculus, a Latin word that means small man: essentially Jesus was born perfectly developed as an adult with small dimensions. The work, dated 1433, effectively embodies this current, and it is satisfying to continue our walk and identify the same characteristics in each work, eventually arriving at a sort of reverse ranking: The 10 ugliest baby Jesuses in the museum.
Museums are spaces of comfort for me, they make me feel at home and at peace, so it is refreshing to walk through them with your loved ones, to stop in front of your favourite pieces as if you were gifting them a little piece of you, and in return discovering new insights together by finding new angles and preferences. The lower floor is more my scene, I secretly hope to avoid another homunculus disaster, Modern Masters and twentieth century art is more comfortable to my eyes, though it is here that my inner student often misses the magic and focuses on the context. Once I read that bigger canvases create a more intimate relation with their viewer, as their size feels embracing and attractive, and you are immediately drawn to almost penetrate them. This is particularly true for non-objective art in my opinion, colour field painting specifically. I am not surprised when we all find ourselves drawn toward Rothko’s Untitled (Green on Maroon) from 1961.
Critic Robert Rosenblum described Rothko’s practice as a ‘critique of the sublime’, and this painting makes these altisonant words feel like the phrase everybody had on the tip of their tongue. Sublime is the atmosphere it creates, a melancholic, bittersweet feeling that keeps you company throughout the day. As we walk through the Abstract Expressionists, I think that I like the idea of almost promenading through a museum as you would through a pretty street, enjoying the atmosphere and casually stopping in front of the works that really strike you, as you would in front of a particularly nice window. My friends want to enjoy this, as they would any other space, they don’t feel the pressure of having to absorb information in every artistic setting like I have come to do. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of art school students’ expeditions to exhibitions, we are three or six, or twenty little explorers looking for the absolute truth. But we have to admit that it sometimes happens to become almost a job: we are constantly looking for inspiration, a confirmation or denial of our personal theories or trying to remember everything we know about a specific context or artistic movement that we read about during a class six years ago. I do love those expeditions, they are eighty percent of the reason I do what I do, but I was reminded how important it is to remember to enjoy beauty without reading too much into it, even if that is the way we are used to, even if this information helps us to better understand and appreciate an artwork, sometimes it’s just so easy and peaceful to be carried away by the look of things, by their immediate impact on us.
Our tour is coming to an end as we approach a crowd favourite, Salvador Dalí’s Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second before Waking (1944), with this beautiful weaving of colours, sensations and surrealist symbols I feel the visit has been fruitful, easy, fun and...and my friend is now crying. Didn’t I spend the last one thousand words or so saying how drama-free a museum visit with your non-Art History student friends is? I might have to rebrand my whole piece. There are some images, some shapes or colours or juxtapositions of elements that just touch a certain something in us, conscious or not. We often spend endless pages defining masterpieces and their authors, looking for the traits that make them appeal to almost everyone. What if the answer is that the extent of their reach lies in their attractiveness to all. Perhaps they solicit those elements that unite us, our shared humanity. It doesn’t have to be explained or learnt, it is art’s most immediate essence and works quite well on anyone.
In conclusion, I am not suggesting that you go and visit the Thyssen Bornemisza in Madrid, or I mean I am, as its collection is incredible and you won’t regret it, but mostly I suggest you visit your next exhibition with people with different perspectives from you. Sometimes we are way too caught up in our personal way of seeing and interpreting art, that we forget it is an immediate visual experience and all its translations are valuable and important.
The reader must be informed that I willingly left out the many “tell me about this painting” questions as those are not fun, and don’t resonate well with the cool image I gave of my friends, so call yours and get to your nearest exhibition.