Maps of London and Beyond by Adam Dant

Patricia Cleveland-Peck reviews this fascinating book

Quite simply this is one of the most remarkable books I have come across. It is a large format handsome tome which features over 40 of Adam Dant’s original and distinctive maps – which in fact are far more than conventional maps as they incorporate unusual, sometimes unexpected narrative threads.

In the first maps, Stories of Shoreditch Old & New, Stories of Clerkenwell Old & New and Stories of Hackney Old & New, the narrative is historic; the districts are depicted on individual maps as they were in Tudor, Georgian, Victorian and Modern times, thus allowing the viewer to follow the changes. Each map is visually attractive and meticulously drawn and, as well as streets and squares, includes images of little figures, animals and buildings. A series of numbered annotations beside each map enables the viewer to identify the characters and places.

It is not only Dant’s drawing which is outstanding but his choice of subject and the wit with which it is presented which makes this book so special, for example in the Shoreditch map we encounter not only Christopher Marlowe committing murder but the Great Train Robbers planning their crime.

Thus we are introduced to Adam Dant’s basic modus operandi.

While a historic narrative is simple to follow, Dant has many more innovative and intriguing themes to illustrate. For The Plan of Shoreditch in Dream Format he took pamphlets to cafes and pubs and asked local residents to write down their dreams to see if they formed part of the sleeping consciousness of the area. Another map sees Shoreditch as New York, the two linked by the theme of gentrification. Characters ranging from Shakespeare and Dickens to Barbara Winsor are featured and coffee houses, industries, shipwrecks, London riots, folklore and language are just some of the topics covered.

Visually all the maps are impressive but some, especially those depicting the London squares; St James’s, Soho and Sloane, are truly beautiful works of art. The detail is astounding; people in cafes, shop signs, urban foxes, taxis, dog walkers, joggers, lovers – all London life is there. Dant however is not just a great artist and draughtsman, he also has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history and lore of London and the talent to present it in an original and witty way. In Argotopolis the map is accompanied by 3 pages of London slang.

This is a book to be poured over, it repays close scrutiny; for a few maps it takes a magnifying glass to reveal all the diminutive details and Lilliputian writing. I can imagine children enjoying this – some of the maps are indeed like games or puzzles. As well as the maps and their texts the book contains an interesting interview with Adam Dant by the Gentle Author, writer of the lauded Spitalfields Life blog. This book is a gem, the perfect present for anyone who loves London or anyone new to the city. Certainly it is one to treasure.

Maps of London & Beyond by Adam Dant is published by Batsford in conjunction with Spitalfields Life at £30
ISBN 9781849944649