Adam Dant, Artist
This is Adam Dant standing in Boundary Passage, just off Shoreditch High St, with his hands placed protectively upon two Napoleonic cannons from the Battle of Trafalgar which are set into the pavement here to serve as bollards. Adam explained to me that each one has a cannon ball welded into the top and these trophies became the model when more bollards were required. Replicas were cast in different sizes and proportions, and today they are to be seen everywhere in London, yet among all the hundreds that line our city streets, these two are special because they are the real thing, though I wonder if anyone who walks through Boundary Passage today is aware that these are spoils of war.
Adam, who lives and works nearby in Club Row, specialises in the arcane and amazing, producing all kinds of ephemera, drawings and prints that exist somewhere between satires and celebrations. His subject is the diverse absurdity of culture and history. It is not Nonsense exactly, but Adam delights in serious craziness that pokes fun at our contemporary media by proposing charismatically strange alternative perspectives. He came here to this corner of Shoreditch fifteen years ago, wishing to be within proximity of printers, not just for practicalities’ sake but because he has great affection for the culture of small-time old-school printers, as he recalled fondly,“There were a lot in Redchurch St then, I used to get plates made at ‘Holywells’, they used to make bromides too. ‘Foremost Grinding’ next door used to sharpen the blades for guillotines and there was the ‘Old Nichol Press’ where I could typesetting done.”
Visiting Adam in his beautiful studio on two floors of a tiny old workshop in Club Row, I walked straight in off the street, passing through a battered cane blind, to discover a scruffy yet cosy little room with a fireplace at one end and a drawing board that filled the entire wall at the other. All conveniently illuminated by the morning sun through the wall of translucent glass that comprised the street frontage. In one corner was a narrow desk, beneath a steep staircase, and at the centre of the room, floored with boards at eccentric angles, sat a small couch with a low table piled with history and art books. As I sat down, I cast my eyes up at the appealingly garish painting on the ceiling, hand painted to look like wallpaper that looked like nineteenth century plasterwork.
I felt I met a kindred spirit in Adam Dant because for five years he published a daily newspaper under a pseudonym, “Donald Parsnips’ Daily Journal” in an edition of a hundred copies that he distributed free each day. “I was making lots of pamphlets and maps and handbills at the time, I think I was impressed by the history of the City of London, especially the birth of the press and the unfettered pamphleteering tradition. I got up at six each day and used the available time before I left for work to write it, so if I got up late it looked a bit scrappy. I printed them at Frank’s photocopy shop in the Bethnal Green Rd and I’d hand them out as I walked between here and Agnews in Bond St, where I worked at the time. This was before all the free newspapers. It was the strategy of the fine artist, confounding people with preposterousness.” Quickly, Donald Parsnips took on a life of his own as Adam was invited to recreate the project in Berlin, Paris, New York and Cairo – where he produced a special edition written by hand on papyrus leaves.
The purpose of my visit was to ask about Adam’s print “The New Street Cries of Spittelfields, shewing a small selection of the local trade and life with their respective cries, barks and toutage, for the benefit of the curious visitors.” He showed me the oldest print of “The Cries of London” dated 1660 recording the cries of the street hawkers of the city, apparently inspired by an earlier French version, and a set of playing cards of London cries from 1745, before he unfurled his print, based upon his own observation of contemporary life in Spitalfields. I realised what a gift this notion was for an artist because the street life of Spitalfields remains vivid today, even if the trades would be unrecognisable to our predecessors.
Here in Adam’s print you will find, The Wifi Worker, The Japanese Hairscruffer, The Pizza Leafleteer, The DVD Hawker, The Belly Piercer, The Hen-night Girl, The Phone Unlocker, The Internet Cafe Man, The Cause Braceleter, The Loft Mouse, The Night Trolleymen, The Wedding Videoer, The Late Postie, The Shirt Shredder and The Bendy Bussenger.
There is an undeniable romance to the illustrations of the street cries of old London whereas Adam’s print is inflected with a different spirit, that of his own gentle satire. He made the print in 2005, but now that we no longer see so many hen nights in Spitalfields and the bendy buses are being taken off the road, the world has already moved on. I have no doubt that it will be only a few more years before people look at Adam Dant’s print of “The New Street Cries of Spittelfields” with its border of bagels, and sigh for the lost days of DVD Hawkers and Wifi Workers.
Cries of London 1754
The New Street Cries of Spittelfields 2005