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.
Fly in League with the Night: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
by Madeline DeFilippis | 19 December 2020
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s first major survey exhibition awaits behind closed doors – before we enter, Tate Britain sets the tone. Walking around the anteroom, various text plates explain how Yiadom-Boakye is different to most contemporary artists. Despite initially learning to paint from life, she now paints from her imagination, something that the exhibition credits her talents both as an artist and a writer. Indeed, the name of the exhibition comes from Yiadom-Boakye’s own poetry:
At Ease As The Day Breaks Beside Its Erasure
And At Pains To Temper The Light
At Liberty Like The Owl When The Need Comes Knocking
To Fly In League With The Night.
She views painting as communication, and her writing becomes a secondary quality of her visual work, both as inspiration and endnote. Sometimes her writing informs her painting, and other times her titles bookend the story she tells through her figures. This gives her work what the curators call a ‘timeless’ quality – but these figures take on their own identities and characteristics for each viewer. One figure lives in the 1920s, another looks like an embodiment of the 1960s. It’s a totally subjective experience and entirely more enjoyable for that reason. It also reflects the ways in which history informs Yiadom-Boakye’s practice: she claims that the history of painting is crucial, as there is much to be learned from previous artists.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Black Allegiance To The Cunning, 2018
© Sheldon Inwentash and Lynn Factor
The black experience is a central thread throughout the exhibition, first introduced in the anteroom. Yiadom-Boakye states that ‘blackness has never been other to me’, and rather than ‘placing’ Black figures into the canon, she is interested in asserting that they ‘have always been here’. She refuses to be defined by an understanding of blackness as ‘other’, rather her ‘invented realm’ is a space in which these figures are allowed to exist.
The anteroom also introduces the playlist, available on Tate’s Spotify account under the name ‘The Sound of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’. It was created in order to immerse the audience in the ‘private worlds’ which her figures inhabit. From Jazz icon Miles Davis, pianist Bill Evans, pop star Prince, Motown legend Stevie Wonder, and singers Nina Simone and Solange (among many others), this playlist permeates the entirety of the exhibition. The ‘mood’ of the paintings and the sounds of decades of Black music coalesce to give a tangible dimension to Yiadom-Boakye’s world.
The exhibition is a curatorial feat, with paintings loaned from the Pinault Collection, Arts Council England, Fondation Louis Vuitton and galleries Jack Shainman and Corvi-Mora among others. Many works look as though they’ve just left the artist’s studio, without frames that are so often relied upon to legitimise a painting. Some are small, up-close portraits, while others are large full-figure canvases which take up whole walls. Figures are set against unidentifiable backgrounds and do not follow a chronological thread from the artist’s early works in 2003 to ones creates during the 2020 pandemic. A personal favourite of mine was Daydreaming of Devils (2016), which depicts a figure standing in a dancer’s pose, almost nude except for his underwear and a fox scarf around his neck. The colours beautifully outline the figure, enhancing his strength and poise as he looks away from the viewer. Quite a few of Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings have animals in them, including a small yellow bird and a fox. What are they doing there, if not to interrupt our daydreaming and force us to ask, ‘What do they mean?’ I also thoroughly enjoyed Yiadom-Boakye’s female figures. Some, like Penny for Them (2014) Later or Louder or Softer or Sooner (2013) were in profile and captured the figures in moments of pensiveness or in quiet glee. The exhibition brims with intense emotion, with each painting bringing a new reaction from both the painted figure and the viewer.
Fly in League with Night: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is open at Tate Britain until 9 May 2021.