An Eye for Boats,
A Sense of Place:
The Art of James Dodds
by Bill Mayher (WoodenBoat magazine)
After a couple of months of living in London, I was walking along a street filled with art galleries in the heart of the city enjoying the random splashes of color, seascapes, and naked ladies that one sees on such a ramble, when my eye caught sight of a large canvas in a gallery window depicting a wooden boat under construction. The details set down by the artist were remarkably clear: ribbands and sawn frames standing out in sharp relief, several courses of planks already spiked into place, a steady march of floor timbers forward climaxing in a powerful stem. Clearly it depicted a boat being built right. Just as clearly, from the balanced scale and proper bevels of the work shown, the artist must be a boatbuilder.
Few things look so good as the sight of a wooden boat in frame, and living abroad as I was in a sprawling city far from the Coast of Maine, few things could bring me back home with such a nostalgic jab as the sight of this painting. When I went inside the rest of James Dodds’ work was equally evocative. There were boats under construction, there were painted boats floating free on large canvases. There were bow and stern sections shown in profile. There were boats coming straight at the viewer.
And each boat or boat section had a haunting authenticity about it. Instead of a shiny fresh, on the ways and ready for launching in early May paint job, the artist chose to show boat paint the way it looks after a month in the water or even a full season. Wind burnished. Pickled by salt and sun. Intimate. The patina of Wabi Sabi, the elusive Japanese aesthetic that acknowledges (as Robert Powell writes) three simple realities: “nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” Or as Andre Juniper adds “if an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi sabi.” This melancholy thing, this longing, this not exactly rational long desire may seem initially counterintuitive to those of us who also like our boats shipshape and Bristol fashion. But, if we stop and think about it, maybe it was this very element of bewitching allure (after so much plastic and chrome) that led many of us back to wooden boats in the first place. Especially the old ones on cradles at the weedy edge of some boatyard yard or other, dozing through the seasons waiting for a young kid (or for that matter some old guy) with more energy than sense to bring them back to life with a kiss of sandpaper and a dream.
Looking at the paintings of James Dodds for the first time one is struck by the literalness of the work, the sheer specificity of plank on frame built outward by the practiced hand of a man whose obsession with the form and structure of boats had taken him out of school at fifteen and into a shipyard apprenticeship. Slowly, however, the force of his artistry begins to gather beyond this initial impression. In a striking and mysterious piece of visual alchemy, what once seemed specific now glides toward the abstract. Parts, once distinct, become a whole. A lyric buoyancy emerges. Our consciousness fuses with our unconscious. The eye and the mind’s eye become one. We float free into a watery realm of pure boatness, and discovering what a pleasant realm this is, decide to stand back from the painting and look for a good long time. Possibly, if we pony up the dough, for a lifetime.
Given the power of James Dodds’ work and my specific interest in wooden boats, it seemed natural to want to meet the artist. When an agreed upon weekend came around, my wife Caroline and I turned up in Dodds’ hometown of Wivenhoe, Essex, a seaside village set along the banks of the tidal River Colne and quickly set off to see the sights. It wasn’t very long before we discovered that Jamie (as he is known locally) had planned the day ahead with characteristic thoughtfulness and precision. Fittingly enough, before we would see paintings, we would see boats. To accomplish this to full advantage, Jamie had invited Shaun White, a noted shipwright in the area, to come along with us. The tour started on the Wivenhoe waterfront at the Nottage Institute, an organization whose operations include a smallcraft workshop on the ground floor featuring a half-dozen clinker-built skiffs under construction, and whose upper floor houses a small display of models, paintings and ancient photographs of historically noteworthy local craft.
Wivenhoe is a town with a long maritime history. On its banks once stood a half-dozen shipyards and Wivenhoe seamen, sailing everything from rugged fishing smacks in the 19th century, to crewing on America’s Cup J-Boats into the 20th , were legendary for their skill and grit. One local hero, a boat builder, sea captain and smuggler named Philip Sainty, whose fleet-footed vessels so regularly sailed away from government revenuers that he and his crew were bailed out of prison by a former cavalry commander at the battle of Waterloo, the Marquis of Anglesey, so they could build the Marquis a fast sailboat to compete in races at the dawn of British yachting in the 1st quarter of the 19th Century. The 113 ton cutter yacht PEARL that Sainty built in 1819 was no disappointment to the Marquis. Sainty, making good on the outside, as it were, subsequently built a great shipyard at Wivenhoe and, his smuggling career, overlooked in the end by the local vicar, is memorialized by a prominent stone marking his grave in the village’s Anglican churchyard. Such was (and perhaps still is) the regard for maritime speed over law and order in Wivenhoe.
Walking along the strand within two blocks of his home, it was clear why Dodds had chosen to settle there. Like Essex in Massachusetts, where so many of the great Gloucester Grand Banks schooners were built, the narrow estuary of the Colne possessed a surprising maritime energy still faintly palpable a century after its heyday at Wivenhoe when dozens of vessels were built each year in its shipyards and as many as twenty of the greatest steam yachts of the Edwardian era wintered over in mudberths along the banks of the estuary. It is a town where the proud captains of these fabulous vessels had a bow-windowed, second-floor room for their exclusive use at the waterside pub, the Rose and Crown Pub, to talk of varnish and velvet and the transformative effects of auxiliary steam. A town where these same captains could watch the progress of the faithful tides, see swans fly wing to wing along the river’s glistening course, and (as they walked home to a line of proud little houses still known as Captain’s Row) hear at dusk on a spring evening with a sliver of moon rising over the saltings, the curlew’s call.
After climbing through Wivenhoe’s crooked streets and noting its high ratio of snug and ancient public houses (throwbacks, one assumes, from the days when hundreds of fisherman and riveters, working up a thirst along the waterfront, drank in twenty-nine different establishments), we set out on a tour of surrounding towns, each with its own slice of maritime history, boatyard, or restoration project underway. Besides the rugged, plumb stemmed, smart sailing smacks that had done their work as dredgers and seiners in the boisterous waters of the English Channel, the North Sea, and the treacherous Thames Estuary itself, Essex was the home of many of the famous Thames Barges. Locally built by the hundred in late 18th and 19th Centuries, these eighteen wheelers of their day, plied the Thames bringing hay and foodstuffs to London, before steam power rendered them obsolete.
Because James paints traditional craft in various stages of construction or reconstruction, and because Shaun White had had a hand in much of the shipwright’s work in the area, we were treated to a fascinating tour of East Anglian traditional vessels by two men who are as knowledgeable as they are enthusiastic. Details of interest were clicked off spontaneously, stories and legends sprung forth with ease. Between them there was nothing about the working vessels of the region that Shawn and Jamie didn’t know by heart or, quite probably, by hand.
Nothing in their carefully thought out preamble, however, prepared us for the saga of the 1st Class deep sea smack PIONEER. Heroic in her working life, heroic in her recovery and restoration, and heroic in the many linocuts and paintings done of her by James Dodds, PIONEER stands as a unique and powerful testament to the seafaring history not only of Essex, but of England herself. She was built across the Colne from Wivenhoe in the town of Rowhedge 1864 by the well known builder, Peter Harris. Originally something close to 53′ in length, she was cut in half and stretched out by the addition of another 11′ amidships to accommodate a wet well in 1889. By then wet wells were a crucial innovation. Sealed off fore-and-aft from the rest of the hull, with sea water circulating via 1?” holes drilled in the planking, shellfish and even fin fish could be kept alive for the London market, thus allowing smacks to go ever further afield on trips of ever longer duration.
The work was brutal. When they reached the grounds, a smack crew of six would generally set a half dozen dredges over the windward side at one time. The dredges were 6′ at the hoeing edge and if working in, say 35 fathoms of water, crews paid out as much as 90 fathoms of 2′ warp to get the towing angle right. Because the dredges would fill with rocks if towed for more than an hour at a time (and the rocks then had to be broken up with chisels to get them out), the crew continuously hauled back on windlasses with two men working the spokes and one man holding turn. Faced with such imperatives, if the wind served and the fishing held, for days at a time the men didn’t sleep at all, or until their vessel finally turned for home.
By the 1890s 1st class smacks like the PIONEER were not only fishing along the Channel and French coasts, they were traveling 112 miles to the Terschelling Banks off the Frisian Islands of the Dutch Coast on 12-day trips. Because oysters are best fished for in the bad weather months (those months with the Rs), the skills called for in handling vessels with 50′ booms in the teeth of a North Sea winter forged some of the most talented seamen in history and landed them summertime jobs as deck crew on the huge sailing yachts of the Victorian rich. Finally, however, due to a series of misfortunes – shipwrecks, shellfish poisoning, World War – the fishery went into a remorseless decline, with the PIONEER finally subsiding into the mud off Mersea Island, her rotting bones, showing at low water, a last reminder of an heroic time.
The PIONEER’s story would end there if not for the outlandish intervention of a handful of romantics led by the intrepid Rupert Marks and two talented shipwrights, Shaun White and Brian Kenell who decided she needed, of all things, rebuilding. Amazingly they managed to not only levitate her out of the sucking mud, but to get her backbone and ribs in more or less one piece onto a flatbed and up to Rupert’s farm for the precise measurements that would go into her rebuilding. An integral partner to this effort was James Dodds who throughout the process did a series of linocuts documenting various stages of the process that materially helped to publicize and fund the project as work moved along.
The saga of the PIONEER is important to the life and art of James Dodds and therefore to our purposes here. Without it and other projects, the maritime history of the Colne and Blackwater estuaries would have slipped into the mud along with its hulks, leaving only a few musty reminders on the upper floor of the Nottage Institute in Wivenhoe. PIONEER’s restoration shows how deadly serious James Dodds is about boats. For him they are not simply beautiful objects floating on the sea. From early on by such close association with their physical presence and their history, they inspired both his fierce work ethic and his sense of place. For Jamie, boat’s aren’t just a summertime thing. They resonate to his winter core as well.
An old waterfront hand as a boy growing up in the nearby seaside town of Brightlingsea, sailing with his chums in a winklebrig and camping out on the barren islands of the threading estuaries, at fourteen Dodds got a chance to go as mate on the Baltic Trader, SOLVIG, and it changed his life. School had never worked for him. He was dyslexic and fidgety and needed to have his hands engaged in work not quadratic equations. When his mate’s job was up, he told his father he wanted to quit school and take up a shipwright’s apprenticeship at Walter Cook and Son, Maldon, an ancient yard that, in that era, specialized in rebuilding traditional smacks and barges. The year was 1972. His father, a well known professional illustrator and artist thought the shipwright’s trade sounded like steady money and gave him permission to drop out of school and take the job.
At first Jamie commuted over two hours each way to Cook’s. Later he lived aboard vessels tied up at the yard. The pay was meager. Eight £s a week for the first year with each year after that a one £ raise. Jamie’s first job was to rake the beach free of rubble where the boats lay for work at low water. Not exactly glamour stuff. After a while he earned the right to do a shipwright’s work. Paying his dues the old fashioned way Ð no instruction, just the chance to watch. Only then the chance to do. It was an enduring education and to this day he goes about a task with the measured thoughtfulness of a boatbuilder. Years later, Martin Newell a poet and fellow townsman of Wivenhoe would write of Jamie’s apprenticeship in the narrative poem “Shipshape:”
In this old shed and that old shed
The sound of saw and adze was wed
To mallet, hammer, chisel, file
And sanding, sanding all the while.
Old boys who knew these waters here
Worked hard, spoke little, drank their beer
Knew every inlet, creek, and quay
From Burnham up to Brightlingsea
Told Jamie Shipwright yet to be
“I shan’t say nothing. You watch me”
No more than that and graft concerned
Since this is how the craft was learned
In bits and bats and splintered wood
Until at last the boy made good.
At nineteen, upon the completion of his apprenticeship, Dodds decided to attend art school, first in Colchester, then at London’s Chelsea College of Art, and lastly at the Royal Academy. Seven years in all. As one of his first teachers, the artist and critic William Packer was to note years later, he was mature and focused and particularly open to instruction. “What he wanted from us, in all humility, was all that we could give him, so long as it related directly and practically to helping him along his path.”
While in art school, Jamie had let his artistic imagination take him down many roads. He explored abstract expressionism, he did a large tribute to the shipworkers in Gdansk that hangs conspicuously at the University of Essex, but when he broke free from the imperatives of academe, he returned to his roots, taking up as his subjects boats and the maritime towns and villages of his home ground in East Anglia. He has worked steadily on these subjects ever since.
His boat portraits reflect a shipbuilder’s knowledge of their structure as well as a practiced mindfulness in the way he applies paint. For canvas, he chooses fine linen; it best displays his brush strokes. After applying two layers of rabbit skin glue as a conservation measure, he adds two layers of white lead and then paints a coat of burnt umber over the entire surface. Besides creating a dark ground to build upon, burnt umber has the effect of sucking the oil out of the paint and establishing the weathered look we spoke of earlier as wabi sabi. Using white chalk on the matt finish of the burnt umber, as well as battens and chords to get his sheer line and planking runs eye sweet – just as he had learned at Cook’s Shipyard so many years before – his preparation achieves a level of precision rivaling that of many naval architects. Little wonder his paintings of boats come out looking so much like boats
After this set-up work comes the colors, each one applied with care and then sanded, sponged off or scraped down with a curved Hudson’s Bay skinning knife employed specifically for the purpose. It is this layering and sanding and scraping that gives his work its muted luminosity, that and the dark ground of the burnt umber and the surprising use of the actual estuarial mud of the River Colne and the River Blackwater. Unlike the impressionists whose white ground and thin layers of pigment allows the light to bounce through, with Dodds, the strong colors – the reds, blues and yellows he chooses – are absorbed by the burnt umber ground to glow forth from the pigment itself. Rather than timeless shimmering, his paintings catch a defined moment that evokes on canvas a specific history of fish hauled over the side, of rough launchings through the surf off a shingle beach, or some other evidence of the hard, skillful maritime work of former times.
The story of how Jamie came to use local mud sheds further light on the artistry of this practical man. The way he tells it, Country Living, the upscale magazine was doing a photo shoot of Jamie at work at an easel set up along the shore. With nothing to do while the fussiness of the shoot proceeded around him, Jamie nervously dabbed his paintbrush in the ooze of fresh mud clinging to his boot and doodled on the canvas. When several days later he tried to sponge off the mud, he discovered it was permanently affixed. Knowing all along as he says, a painter “is little more than a dauber of various colored mud” he went with the flow as it were and to this day, Wivenhoe and Brightlingsea mud provides important texture and hue to his pictures.
Beyond the visual tactileness of his paintings and their elemental authenticity, is the art of them. These boat renderings are not portraits in any sort of photo-realist tradition; they are paintings. “My intention,” he says, “is to understand as much as I can about a process which seems to avoid definition at every turn. I enjoy the physicality of things involved in the art of doing, be they figures or boats. They relate to my sense as an artist that when wrestling with the material, I’m brought closer to spiritual fulfillment. Making pictures is an act of faith. It’s getting to a place where you know what you are doing but still are open.”
To achieve such openness takes hard work and in the case of James Dodds, an ability to shift from one project to another to keep from getting stuck. So Jamie doesn’t just work on big oil paintings of boats. Sometimes when he hits a hard spot, he finds himself working smaller, as if going back to some individual essence – a shackle, an anchor or a deadeye – will show him the way forward. Beside these small oils is the series of linocuts of most of the seaside towns of Essex he has been turning out for decades. Employing convex or, more recently, concave views, he is able to capture the architectural and maritime history of a place by an ingenious merger of past with present. Thus Wivenhoe is shown as it looks today in the foreground, with shipyards now long gone trailing off at each edge. In others nighttime at one edge merges into the light of day at the other. The linocuts are powerful records of then and now in the region and each is a strong artistic statement in its own right. They are also monumental pieces of work that, in an epic of foresight and follow-through, take as many as four months of working in mirror image to complete.
And so we come full circle. James Dodds boatbuilder, painter, printer. One set of skills building on the next, and then circling back ’round again. Or as Martin Newell continues in “Shipshape”:
In this old shed and that old shed
The artist’s early years were spread
In level, line and cut and curve
This certitude would later serve
In art where his material
Was rather more ethereal
And as he turned to print and paint
His line much finer – though not faint
The years with adze in hand returned
To steady what he later learned.