For the best part of a month a huge rhinoceros has been squatting in my studio. The beast takes up most of the downstairs floor. The dog refuses to cross the threshold and if I’m ever to get started on the drawings for my imminent exhibition, The Gilded Desert (And Other Allegories of the Beau-Monde), then someone has to be off “on safari” very soon.
The African savannah is anything but “gilded” for the rhino nowadays, judging by the work of Tusk, the conservation charity for whom I am decorating one of 21 rhino sculptures that will appear across London in the autumn.
Tusk’s London Rhino Trail will help to raise money to protect various endangered animals from the threat of poaching and to maintain the habitats on which they depend.
My rhinoceros is titled AD’s Rhino and recreates Albrecht Dürer’s 1515 woodcut. The famous German printmaker never saw a rhino in the flesh and based his depiction on a written description of the animal. Back in the 16th century an artist had to imagine what a rhino looked like on account of the animals’ very recent appearance on the European scene. Imagine if we had to do the same now because of their recent total disappearance.
The seven big sepia ink drawings I’ve been creating over the summer form an exhibition on the general theme of the comforts of wealth. Pictures of St Tropez, St Moritz and St James’s etc. They depict the domain of the wealthy and manifest the predictable opprobrium that is often generated by displays of good fortune. High living has throughout history prompted the creation of all manner of analogies and allegories to caution the poor souls who find themselves in such morally perilous circumstances.
Artists such as Dürer, Brueghel and Frans Floris couldn’t help but insert distant crucifixions, Nativity scenes and random martyrdoms into their sketches of Alpine and Flemish panoramas. As if the landscape was the poorer without the presence of an overarching biblical context. Today the focus of any discussion on the subject of personal riches seems to include a mandate for the righteous dispersal of such that would put early Christian tenets about entering the Kingdom of Heaven to shame.
The “gilded desert” of my exhibition’s title was a phrase coined by the designer May Morris in 1917 to describe the newly gentrified environs of Chelsea, previously London’s bohemia. The idea that a neighbourhood without artists, without creation or people making and doing things is a barren wasteland is as appealing an idea as it is a questionable one. Isn’t a guiltless life of constant comfort and leisure where we can take time to appreciate the “finer things” something to be sought after?
The terrace of the Colbert café in the heart of the gilded desert’s Sloane Square is the closest the Dant family will get to the Cote d’Azur brasserie experience this summer, thanks to my selfish need to make the most of my atelier before the arrival of the wrecking ball. Following on from Chelsea’s former incarnation as an artistic nursery, my own neighbourhood of Shoreditch has, since its grubby, interesting days, adopted the mantle of being London’s Eldorado for plutocrat property developers.
My own status as a resident artist is now akin to being the last of the rhinos with the imminent destruction of my studio to make way for my landlady’s son’s ghastly architect-designed pied à terre.
The cherry sorbet served by Colbert and the glorious spectacle of Chelsea’s haut-monde trottoir are summer treats to inspire the flagging spirit, but as with many artistic projects there is sadly no substitute for solitary labour.
The shocking idea that solitary labour might be more than an exercise in banal contemplation is a realisation that has been a fact of life for me ever since I was picked out of a class of seven-year-olds at primary school as “the one who could do art”, and sent up a ladder to paint the sets of the church’s production of Alice in Wonderland.
This formative task came back to me the other week while I was speaking to the priest who has been assigned to the parish of my old school. He had conducted my uncle Michael’s funeral service at the family church in Kirtling, Cambs, and to my horror recounted the names of former teachers who were still to this day doing their duty and possibly numbered among those who had “sent me up the ladder”.
Uncle Michael, himself a former teacher and priest, was possibly the family member who, in his irascible disdain of people in general, most encouraged my artistic endeavours. I’ll always remember his coming to meet me on my return from studying printmaking in India and telling me: “Look at their faces when you tell them about your experiences abroad – you really have to forgive them for not being remotely interested.”
I hope that the presence in London of faux rhinos can inspire a commitment to the real thing, just as I hope, as an artist, that new descriptions of the world of allegory might take us beyond annoying cliché and the usual over-familiar tropes.
Adam Dant is a Jerwood Drawing Prize-winning artist
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