Adam Dant: A wry eye on the city

Adam Dant's detailed drawings poke fun at cosmopolitan life

When I meet Adam Dant, it is in the art gallery of an East London antique shop because his Shoreditch studio, a former sweetshop turned minicab office which he has occupied since 1991, is being pulled down. His reaction to the forced move is almost indifference: “It’s a disturbance, more than a tragedy. You can’t be too sentimental about places like that.” He is surprisingly animated on the topic of local redevelopments, the abrupt transformation of once derelict neighbourhood yards and lorry parks into “a real El Dorado”. He once chose the area for the traditional printers and lithographers dotted along Redchurch Street, but these locals have long since left. If Dant misses anything, it is the sense of community dissolved by pop-up shops and Airbnb, by which endless newcomers leave the streets in eternal transition. Still, it is just one more symptom of a constantly evolving city, and Dant has watched and recorded similar changes closely over the past three decades, using his wry observations to fill a series of themed maps, published last year in Adam Dant’s Maps of London and Beyond.

Though his work makes space for change, stylistically Dant inhabits the practices of his historical predecessors as a framework for recording the world around him in ways that are entertaining and lightly edifying. In Sloane Square, he observes the typically West London landmark over several days, capturing “the different types of people that might pass your table — models, fitness enthusiasts, 1970s film directors, dealers”, and cataloguing each inside the border. He is both Hogarth, exposing the city’s street cries, and Bruegel, zooming in and out of lively vignettes that, pieced together, infer grander narratives. Each character is placed in a levelling throng of little people, “not fashionable in an age where it’s all about the individual”. But Dant is no Dante, and the decentralised entanglement of detailed threads captures “what can be delightful in the contemporary world” to uplifting effect.

As with all Dant’s drawings, the work rewards close inspection. We find that just a brush and bottle of ink is enough to build complex, imagined worlds that resist straightforward, linear reading. It could be a tough sell in a world of ever simpler statements and “insta-gratification”, but, as Dant points out, “People sit through 16 hours of Game of Thrones. Why can’t they stand in front of a painting for at least ten minutes?” His recourse to the past in the present moment requires the artist to be almost impervious to contemporary tendencies and Dant is suspicious of the conceptual artists who “make something and then ask their audience to post-rationalise it”. His art is not made for our free interpretation, but projects his own perspective in a manner that is unapologetically diaristic.

Modus Vivendi was produced for the Soane Museum in commemoration of the Entente Cordiale of 1814. It fits firmly within a tradition of acerbic cross-Channel caricature, and Dant, who commissioned the painter Jean-Baptiste Marot to draw England as seen by the French, completes the reverse with a slew of stereotypes, including protesters, mime artists, snails and suppositories. As the art world globalises, pulling off ever-greater feats of homogeneity with each flavourless art fair, Dant’s work is steeped with a highly referential, almost anachronistic cultural specificity. Though the work is functionally commemorative, it doubles as satirical commentary. Dant produces almanacs, maps and other documents, but his works remain in the realm of fine art, unbeholden to practical purposes, from which they “veer off, as other imperatives take their place. That’s where it becomes interesting.”

In 2015, Dant was assigned to be the country’s Official Election Artist, and produced several works that now hang in the parliamentary collection at Portcullis House. With political impartiality a part of the brief, he chose to move his focus off the candidates and onto “the people, what their expectations where and how they allied themselves with certain individuals”. Imagining an affinity to Goya sketching the Peninsular War, Dant was excited to get “in the thick of it”, inviting chance encounters that led to charmingly anecdotal insights. The above detail from his large drawing Government Stable features several of these — the impenetrable press scrum within which Nigel Farage was permanently submerged, reimagined here as a sculpture carved in alabaster; a pair of anti-hunting, Labour-supporting Welsh students dressed as foxes and badgers; the conference room chairs found at UKIP’s manifesto launch; and Brian May fronting his Common Decency campaign on the Brighton Pavilion bandstand. Underpinning the inexhaustible visual density is an imagined architectural space built around a central vanishing point, a “traditional armature” that lends “an orthodoxy to the construction of the drawings”.

As he prepares to sign a lease on a studio in Spitalfields, Dant is entering a new chapter, although in some sense nothing will change. His work pokes fun at cosmopolitan life and the ways in which the past and present jostle and jibe with each other. He’s unlikely to run out of material anytime soon.


Prints of Adam Dant’s works are available from TAG Fine Arts. His “Maps of London and Beyond” is published by Batsford Ltd, £30, and “Living Maps: An Atlas of Cities Personified” by Chronicle, £26.

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