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.
Notes on art, history, and appreciation driven by the heart.
by Sara Blad | 30 January 2021
Rembrandt’s Old Woman Reading in Drumlanrig Castle. Photo: Dogwoof.
From the title of Oeke Hoogendijk’s documentary, ‘My Rembrandt’, one might assume that the movie is about Rembrandt, the artist. Instead, the movie is about the lengths that people and institutions will go to purchase, care for, and identify a Rembrandt artwork. This is a movie dedicated to people’s passion for Rembrandt’s art.
Jan Six X standing in front of Rembrandt’s Portrait of Jan Six. Photo: Dogwoof.
These passions often lead the collectors whom Hoogendijk interviews to talk as if their Rembrandts are living beings. Thomas S. Kaplan admits that he kissed a Rembrandt the moment he held legal title to it: ‘When I first saw her, in the flesh, I went up to the painting, took it by both sides of the frame, and I kissed her on the lips’. The Duke of Buccleuch talks about the woman in Rembrandt’s Old Woman Reading (1655) as if she is a part of his family. Hoogendijk’s camera trails the Duke and Rijksmuseum Director Taco Dibbits as they try to find a suitable spot to hang her in his monumental castle. The Duke explains: ‘We want her in a space that is close and comfortable and where she can read her book while we read a book as well’. Occasionally, the Duke thinks the old woman is about to look up from her book, as if to share an interesting fact or funny comment. Anecdotes like these demonstrate collectors’ intimacy with these objects, underscoring the emotional power a Rembrandt painting still holds centuries after he put brush to canvas. These quotes may feel like spoilers, but these written words are no match for the emotional cadence with which these collectors describe the effect of their paintings.
The Duke of Buccleuch reading with Rembrandt’s Old Woman Reading. Photo: Dogwoof.
One of the most interesting conversations in the documentary is between Jan Six X and his son, Jan Six XI, an art dealer and art historian. Six X describes an imagined reality explaining the difference between two Rembrandt etchings of his ancestor, Jan Six I. Six XI complains that his father is making assumptions about Rembrandt’s thought process, rather than looking at the objects and trying to understand only what can be scientifically substantiated. Six X retorts: ‘You look at it scientifically and as a non-art historian, I can say what I like’. This one argument teases the documentary’s central tenet: art appreciation and art history are intimately connected but not the same thing. Hoogendijk dedicates her documentary not to Rembrandt’s life and artistic practice, but to the journeys his artistic creations have made and the lives they’ve touched along the way. And these journeys become part of the works of art, as people’s imaginations reinvent these objects time and time again.