An interview with Adam Dant, the twenty-first century’s Hogarth, by William Cash.
Adam Dant: The Triumph of Debt
Helen Macintyre Art Advisory
Derek Johns Ltd
12 Duke Street St James’s
SHOW EXTENDED: 18th November 2008-10th January 2009
Sponsor: London & Capital Charitable Foundation
Media Partner: Spear’s WMS
‘This used to be a sweet shop,’ says Adam Dant as he takes out a Dickensian-looking key and scrabbles open the lock of a heavy, peeling door in Club Row, Shoreditch, where he has his studio – 50 yards or so from his home.
His studio is certainly not a bustling human factory of assistants and mass production, in the manner of Warhol, Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst. The space is sparsely furnished with a plain wooden desk, rickety old chair, electric fire, strange William Morris-esque scarlet wallpaper on the ceiling and a wooden ladder leading up to an attic. Rare books on 18th- and 19th-century architecture, borrowed from the London Library, are piled up on a desk in a corner.
Dant’s studio has the feel of an unheated 18th-century tailor’s cutting room, a shoemaker’s studio or a cabinet maker; the type of place one could imagine a young Blake or Hogarth – who was born in a small house in Bartholomew Close, off Smithfield meat market in the City in 1697 – renting.
Dant moved to Shoreditch long before it was fashionable (‘because it was cheap’) and rattles off the address of where Shakespeare lived and worked close by, and the local church where Elizabethan actors were forced to worship because they weren’t considered respectable enough to pray with anybody else within the City walls.
His street used to be in the middle of what used to be known as the infamous Old Nichol Street Rookery, which, Dant explains, was one of the most notorious slums of 19th-century London. Houses had no drainage or sewerage, pigs and cows roamed in cramped back yards, the streets were polluted by the rank smell of boiling tripe, melting tallow, or stewing cat’s meat. When these traditional trades moved out, street thieves and prostitutes moved in. Dant clearly enjoys this historical proximity to poverty and crime.
‘Now Shoreditch has become trendy, with luxury apartments, clubbers and bankers taking over,’ he muses as we walk through the streets towards lunch. ‘When I first came here, you knew everybody – from the street cleaners to the woman who ran the tea shop. It was one of London’s last real communities. I think it’s past it now.’
Although Dant was brought up in Cambridge, where his father was a heating engineer for the NHS, he is now very much a Londoner. Like Hogarth, Dant showed artistic precocity as a boy. Just as Hogarth spent four years as an apprentice to a Westminster silver-plate engraver, learning how to inscribe metal with a razor-sharp engraver’s tool known as a burin, so Dant spent several years learning the art of woodcutting, print making and engraving.
To make ends meet as a student (surplus to his scholarship allowance), Dant did freelance woodcutting work, ranging from making menus for an Indian restaurant to book illustrations while also cramming his notebooks with Zola-like scenes from City and Mayfair life where he worked for several years as a manager at Agnew’s gallery.
Dant loves his Shoreditch studio’s proximity to the sprawling metropolis of the City, and the financial markets, and landmarks such as St. Paul’s, and usually walks everywhere. When he began publishing his celebrated daily newspaper called Donald Parsnips Daily Journal, which was Dant’s homage to the spirit of satirical pamphleteering and the birth of printing, he used to get up at 6am to produce his morning edition – 100 copies of each, photocopied and then handed out to strangers or interesting-looking characters in the street, from commuters outside Liverpool Street to bankers in Mayfair. His witty, caustic, idiosyncratic newspaper was a London freebie paper years before they became standard fare outside tube stations.
‘I used to walk every day from Shoreditch to Mayfair, through the City, through Lincoln’s Inn Fields, through the bustle of London, encountering lawyers, stockbrokers and financiers and I just drew what I encountered, from the high life to the low, and then drew it for publication the next day. I liked the fact that I cut out the middle man – my newspaper was delivered direct to people on the street.’ I would say: “Can I present you with a copy of Donald Parsnips Daily Journal?”’
Dant began his career as a pamphleteer in the tradition of Addison and Steele whose publications such as The Spectator were delivered to coffee houses in the City. Parsnips carried the self-styled description: ‘Of The Now; For The Then Now; With Thorough Referrals To The Other’. ‘I would boldly walk into cafes and coffee shops and simply hand the paper out to anybody I thought might enjoy it,’ says Dant. ‘I liked surprising people.’
Parsnips never made any money, of course, but it was an important development for Dant as it drew attention from art critics and newspapers who thought it was eccentric and interesting. The Independent gave him a column to continue Parsnips, which he also went on to publish in Berlin, Paris and New York.
Dant says he has been a compulsive drawer for as long as he can remember. Aged eight, as a young boy at a rough Roman Catholic school in Cambridge, he recalls being asked to decorate the entire school play set for a production of Alice in Wonderland. His early influences came from being dropped off at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge by his mother when she went to do her weekly shopping. ‘I remember spending hours looking at the Egyptian collection and I also loved old books. My favourite was The Three Musketeers by Dumas. I also read a lot when I was young.’
Dant’s work shows the influence of his reading of Voltaire, Pope, Swift and, above all, Borges. He has a scholarly regard and understanding for architectural detail and the tradition of woodcuts and print-making.
He gained first-class honours in graphic design at Liverpool School of Art, as well as a post-graduate degree in fine art printmaking at the Royal College of Art, followed by a stint in Baroda, India, where he worked with one of the great Indian masters of Indian woodcutting. He also studied in Berlin (on an Erasmus Scholarship) and Paris. ‘I used to enjoy making words up for the French and founded my own academy for the improvement of the French language,’ he recalls. ‘We had 40 members. It was at a time when the French language was under threat. We invented the word “ropain” which was used to describe a croissant that was bigger than any other, like a super croissant.”
It was Dant’s inventive wit and unusually literary background that made him the perfect choice for a commission by WMS to illustrate the feverish goings on inside London’s hedge fund offices, private equity houses, private banks and law offices. Dant relished the challenge of sitting around in various hedge fund offices and banks, just observing what was going on around him as financial markets yo-yoed precariously and perilously over the spring and summer of 2007.
Just as his remarkable, huge, ink-on-paper work, Underwriters, set in the main atrium of Richard Rogers’s Lloyd’s building in the City, close to his Club Row studio, catches the spirit of insurance as a voyage into the waters of the financially unknown (inspired by the Lloyd’s of London crisis of the 1980s), so Hedge Heaven and Hedge Hell are inspired by the recent banking credit crisis, the Northern Rock banking collapse, the wildly volatile financial markets and hedge-fund blow-ups which have threatened to end the Golden Age of London’s wealth revolution which WMS has feted, celebrated, tickled and harpooned – with the help of Dant – since the magazine was founded in 2006.
Hogarth experienced much the same financial frisson in London over the autumn and winter of 1721 when London’s markets went into free fall with the The South Sea Bubble crisis. In the summer of 1720, investors and brokers risked huge sums on speculation that The South Sea Company’s trading routes (transporting slaves from Africa to the Americas) would procure vast riches.
Hogarth skewered such moral folly in his famous series of prints, The South Sea Scheme. Hedge Row W1 is, of course, a fiction; but just as Hogarth took his details from Marriage à la Mode or Gin Lane from real life, and immersing himself in the rich, heaving, licentious fabric of 18th-century London life – notebook in hand – so has Dant in exactly the same manner. No digital cameras, no assistants, no trendy hi-tech studio. Just an artist in a corduroy jacket sitting under three trees in Berkeley Square with his pencil. Watching.