The Many Maps of Adam Dant
To celebrate the launch of his latest book: Adam Dant’s Political Maps, Drake’s visited the artist in his Shoreditch studio. Adam’s work will also be on show at the Drake’s Savile Row shop from 13th July-17th August.
Saint Blaise is the Patron Saint of throat ailments. On the 3rd of February each year, at St. Etheldreda's Church on Ely Place in Holborn, there’s a ceremony - the Blessing of the Throats - where a priest supposedly rids supplicants of their suffering by using two lit candles, joined by a ribbon, placing them on either side of the neck. Bronchitis be gone! Also, Malaria once lurked in the bogs, marshes and wetlands of Essex and Kent. Romans dreaded the southern swamp and visitors, up until the 19th Century, often complained of an awful “marsh fever” enveloping them. Oh, and Edward the IV’s brother, George Duke of Clarence, was drowned in a vat of wine in the Tower of London. Maybe not the best way to go.
All of these facts - or at least interesing historical tidbits - were a mystery to me until visiting Adam Dant: artist, master mapmaker and someone who appears to be a bottomless well of knowledge regarding the curios and past and present peculiarities of Britain and beyond. Dant’s studio reflects his signature style of draftsmanship and broad (very broad) interests. It’s housed in a working Ashkenazi synagogue down a cobbled side street in Shoreditch, the smell of lunch wafting in from nearby restaurants. There’s a green velvet bench, antique chairs, a bookshelf stuffed with copies of Walks in London Vol. I and Vol. II; The Seige of London; Covent Garden Market and Drawing People. A faded McDonald’s map of Rome is pinned to one wall, and an enormous and mind-bogglingly detailed fantasy depiction of his own making is propped against another. “This is the Texas State Capitol building,” he says, gesturing towards it, a million expert applications of ink and patience. The room is painted a soft green and yellow and is lined with images of notable Shoreditch figures, as rendered by the artist. “I should introduce you,” he says. “This is Jack Shepherd, a famous 18th century highwayman.” I nod. “And this is the playwright, Christopher Marlowe, and then this is the botanist, Nicholas Culpepper.”
“I never studied history,” says Dant, who did study at the British Academy in Rome and has neat, swept back hair. He’s wearing a Drake’s shirt, tie and unmatched tailoring, a colourful pocket square poking out from the chest pocket of his tweed jacket. A pair of bright blue glasses are placed on the table in front of him as he leafs carefully through a binder containing some of his favourite maps. “I’ve had lots of experience with archivists and researchers, so I’ve been taught how to do proper academic research. Maps are good, because the geography already exists, you just have to reconfigure it. I’ll come up with the concept and then meld the reality to my will.”
“It’s kind of intuitive, really,” says Dant, regarding his love of the form. “Maps leave lots of room for invention.” His style has been compared to Hogarth by the Guardian and the FT, while the Tate quotes him as saying that his work is, “underpinned by subversion, dressed up in traditional clothes.” He’s conjured up maps of viral London — a chronology of disease, plague and pestilence in the capital; the shipping forecast, “it’s this funny British thing, isn’t it? They don’t have anything else like it elsewhere.” A timeline of British monarchs according to their drinking habits. “Queen Victoria used to put whisky in Claret!” And the boom of gig economy delivery apps, which he compares to The land of Cockaigne, a paradise from Medieval myth where lucky people lie under trees, already roasted chickens falling abundantly into their laps. “Gorillaz, GoPuff, they all feel like a modern version of that," says Dant. "We can sit on the sofa and a can of coke or some parsley is brought right to you.”
Dant’s latest book compiles some of his favourite political-leaning maps, many of which were inspired by his time as the official artist of the 2015 general election. Armed with a sketchbook and a backstage pass into the blizzaro world of the campaign trail, he visited hedgehog sanctuaries in Kent with Nick Clegg, had a few frosty encounters with Nicola Sturgeon in Glasgow and knocked on doors in Thanet with Nigel Farage, soaking up the absurdity surrounding our leaders, those who wish to usurp them and the circus surrounding the British political system.
“I learned that, post Miliband eating that bacon sandwich, politicians and their aides are terrified of being photographed, or even drawn, with any sort of food,” says Dant. “Also, David Cameron would have his aides roll up his shirt sleeves and iron them in place, to give him that authentic working man look. And the last thing you want, as a politician, is to be photographed outside of an exit sign… for obvious reasons.”
With the book now published, Dant is beginning to think about fresh projects away from politics. A potential map of Hong Kong ghost stories has been swirling around his head for a while. “It’s something that I’ve been mulling over,” he says. “I’ve got a few different ideas."
After just a short while spent in his company, that hardly comes as a surprise.