Glimpses into the garden from across the canal first alerted people to Gerard Dalton’s 30-year art project, his neighbour tells me. I'm early to meet the curator who will tour me around the self-taught artist's house, so it's here I learn that Dalton was an Irish immigrant to London who moved into the house next door in 1983. From the point of his retirement until his death earlier this year, he devoted himself to making the beguiling sculptures, models and paintings that now fill almost every square inch of his ground-floor flat and canalside garden. The conversation makes clear I’m visiting a beloved community asset; the posters in almost every window on the terrace for ‘Gerry’s Pompeii’ conveyed as much before I arrived.
When Sasha Galitzine, who is coordinating the campaign to conserve Dalton's work in its original location, arrives, she takes me to his flat via the canal bank that connects the back of every house on the terrace. The bank is lined with a small army of three-foot-tall figures painted grey, white and black with curious red rings around their eyes and decorated with imitation gems for medals or jewellery, backdropped by colourful tiles and curiosities set into a bright blue wall running along Grand Union Canal. In Dalton's garden, serried rows of cast-concrete sculptures resemble playfully embellished naval figureheads and feature historical heroes or antiheroes including Lord Nelson, Anne Boleyn, Oliver Cromwell, Hercules and Dalton himself. It’s no surprise to hear that this history-obsessed artist was fond of visiting Kensal Green Cemetery, a ten-minute walk up the canal.
The interior offers further evidence of a life lived through the practice of art. Every room of the flat, from bathroom to backroom, is filled with dozens of models of historic buildings made out of plaster, boxes and gimcrack souvenirs. A miniature Buckingham Palace dominates the bedroom, sitting next to St Paul’s Cathedral, Syon House and other royal residences. Galitzine lifts the roofs of these dollhouses to reveal scale furniture constructed from recycled materials: a four-poster bed decorated with a Foster’s lager logo and coloured silk; miniature rooms wallpapered with pictures cut from books. The walls of the flat itself are busy with Dalton’s near-psychedelic paintings, created by recolouring cheap reproductions of neoclassical portraits (as well as photographs of the artist) in flat planes of bright, overlaid colour. Shelves and cabinets are overcrowded with figurines repurposed as busts of the kings, queens, generals and movie stars Dalton admired, from English kings to Charlie Chaplin.
The overwhelming sense is of having entered a deeply idiosyncratic but fully realised imaginative world. The first statue made by this Irishman, according to an interview with Dalton recorded prior to his death, was of the Fenian poet Leo Casey, but the majority of his model buildings are occupied by English royalty and, with the notable exception of a dozen ‘Great Titans’, most of the statues in the garden depict figures from Britain’s imperial history. Dalton was one of the tens of thousands of Irish men and women who escaped poverty by settling in northwest London in the decades after the Second World War. His fascination with the pomp of British history (which was not uncritical, with Galitzine explaining his antipathy to Cromwell) offers an illuminating counterpoint to the Irish republicanism that flourished in the expatriate communities of nearby Kilburn and Kensal Rise. The way that this narrative is framed by any future museum will be crucial to understanding the cultural significance of Dalton’s work, perhaps even offer a different version of how the intertwined histories of Britain and Ireland were popularly understood after the latter’s independence.
The mission to preserve this collection comes with ethical dilemmas inherent to curating so-called outsider or outlying art, compounded by the fact that Dalton showed the work to only a few people during his own lifetime and complicated by its situation within a Housing Association property. If those shaping Dalton’s legacy can navigate questions of class and identity, and avoid the fetishisation of work created without a formal education and outside the artworld’s economies, then Gerry’s Pompeii might offer visitors an example of how art made for art’s sake can also tell new histories and hold communities together.
Online exclusive published on 18 December 2019