Elly Robinson 1998

“On the Beach”
Aldeburgh Festival catalogue for 1998

James Dodds is a man with connections; not only with his own subconscious hopes and fears as an artist, which, with his unique and powerful vision and craftsmanship, he communicates to us, but he also connects to the sea, the East Anglian Coastline and Aldeburgh in particular.

The spirit of the place began to work its magic on the impressionable young James through the evocative music of Benjamin Britten, to which his father, Andrew turned for atmosphere and inspiration while illustrating Crabbe’s verses: “Peter Grimes” from “The Borough”. Little did he realise what a powerful effect the music would continue to exert over his son; it would be the key to unlock the door to release James on his lifelong quest — to resolve the struggle to achieve a balance between the physical and the spiritual.

Lured by the Siren call of the sea (sailing away on a Baltic Trader at fourteen — if only at weekends), James became an apprentice shipwright at fifteen. Using traditional hand tools and timber, for four years he learned to rebuild and restore Thames sailing barges and East Coast smacks at Walter Cook & Son’s Shipyard in Maldon, Essex and in the process acquiring an affinity with the sea, boats and wood that would serve him well in his later career as a painter and printmaker.

His second apprenticeship was to take twice as long, beginning at Colchester School of Art in 1976, continuing at Chelsea and concluding at the Royal College of Art as a painting student.

These eight years afforded him the time to acknowledge his roots on the shores of East Anglia and to integrate what he had learned as a shipwright into his work as an artist. In his final year at the Royal College, still haunted by the Britten music, James decided to get to grips with the Peter Grimes at last and produced his first series of powerful and poignant linocuts to accompany the Crabbe poem. These fourteen prints were used by him in his first beautifully produced small press book printed at the College. His professor, Peter de Francia wrote:

“James Dodds is a painter whose ideas and whose work have been moulded by seascapes, the elements, and themes of timelessness. More specifically, the Suffolk Coast, ships and nautical folklore form the basis from which many of his concepts derive. He has made splendid illustrations to “Peter Grimes”. In this sense he is an artist whose work has a strong regional setting. His imagery is terse but never bleak. In the words of one of Crabbe’s poems, they enable us to see “the tide’s reflowing sign.” In doing so his work becomes both moving and remarkably memorable.”

The series of fourteen linocuts formed the backbone of James’ first solo exhibition after leaving college, aptly entitled “Peter Grimes”, which took place at Aldeburgh’s Gallery 44 to coincide with the 37th Festival in 1984. The linocuts were used to illustrate the Festival catalogue in following years. The show, needless to say, was a runaway success. The BrittenPears Library bought an entire set of the linocuts for their collection at the Red House — and Peter Pears attended in person! He was treated not only to the prints but also to powerful paintings, in which James explored his eternal theme of the struggle to achieve a balance; an obsession that continues to inform his work.

One painting: “Carpenter Wrestling with an Angel” (also developed by James into a linocut) now in the collection of Bill Birtles and Patricia Hewett — is typically symbolic of the artist’s quest to dig into his subconscious and make visible the invisible. Using archetypal figures in a dynamic composition he depicts the struggle between the physical, workaday world of the carpenter (or shipwright) and the embodiment of the spiritual, an Angel. He later wrote:
“My intention 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 act of doing, be they figures or boats. This relates to my sense as an artist that when wrestling with the material I’m brought closer to a spiritual fulfilment.”

This timeless struggle for balance has been the concern of artists, with whom James empathises, for centuries. Rembrandt, Delacroix and Gauguin tackled it in their paintings “Jacob Wrestling With An Angel” as did Breughel with Icarus, which was the subject of James’ thesis at the Royal College. The craftsman’s skill provides the means for his exhuberant son to fly too high and fall, although the father advised the middle way, but an artist must nevertheless make a leap of faith into the unknown or remain earthbound. Another painting in this show: “Leap before you Look” was inspired by the Auden poem which has become James’ mantra.

Until Peter Grimes emerged during his final year at the Royal College, James had turned his back on what he was later to acknowledge as a unique experience — his apprenticeship as a shipwright. He had lived in fear of the practical skills acquired during those formative years would “drown his passion.”

It was not before he had spent some years out in the wide world as a painter — at a distance from the influence of both shipyard and art college — that he had the confidence to follow his feelings, to allow himself to value and draw on his understanding of the shipwright’s trade and put it to good purpose in his painting. In his maturity he could review the course he had steered through life and accept and make the connection in his work.

He chose painting, as opposed to sculpture even though he had all the requisite skills for this fear of upsetting the balance of skill and passion. Over the following years he was driven to produce paintings, with an acknowledging nod to Stanley Spencer (in particular his “Shipbuilding on the Clyde” series), that drew directly on his experience as a shipwright that included; “Floodtide”, “Sail the Wide World Round” and “Rigger Aloft with a New Flag”.

Based on these paintings, James went on to produce a delightful and very accomplished series of nine twocolour linocuts that positively celebrated his youthful memories of shipwrighting, full of incident, humour and authentic detail in condensed compositions that echo the lines of a boat’s hull.

When he later stumbled across the poem: “The Shipwright’s Trade” from Kipling’s “Rewards and Fairies”, he at once recognised that it would not only be the perfect complement to his images, but would also be an ideal way of collecting them together in a new book. What with his practical printing and design skills and his lifelong love of literature it was a natural progression in his career as an artist to produce his own books.

Among his collection of old printing presses (which includes an 1880’s Wharfdale, and a 1950’s “Western” proofing press on which he prints his large linocuts) is an 1890’s treadle platen press: “the Jardine”, after which he named his own small press and on which some of the books are printed.

The 1990 show was another sensational success, integrating paintings, prints and the new book. A balance had been struck and part of the struggle was over.

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the production of “Peter Grimes”, the Aldeburgh Festival commissioned a new opera from the composer Nicola LeFanu and librettist Kevin CrossleyHolland: “The Wildman”. This news was of immediate interest to James as it was to be based on the Wild Man legend. Anything to do with mythology, especially the Green Man, was dear to his heart, and this was not even just a piece of his favoured folklore, it was set in East Anglia!

The story tells of a maritime green man caught in the fishermen’s nets at Orford, six miles down the coast from Aldeburgh. He was imprisoned in the castle, horribly mistreated but fortunately escaped back into the sea. It had much in common with the Peter Grimes tale, being the story of an outsider who “invokes fear and hostility in stout Suffolk hearts”. Crabbe described Aldeburgh’s inhabitants as:

“A wild amphibious race
With sullen woe displayed on every face;
Who far from civil arts and social fly.
And scowl at strangers with suspicious eye.”

This was an obvious must for a new book for the Jardine Press, so James commissioned Allan Drummond to rewrite, in verse, the saga originally recorded in 1200 by Ralph of Coggeshall in the Chronicon Anglicanum. An early representation of the green man can be seen on the font in Orford church, a frequent venue for some Aldeburgh Festival events.

For the new book: “Wild Man of Orford”, James created a series of nine woodcuts — an appropriate medium for such an ancient legend. The prints have a starkly beautiful and timeless quality; James was thoroughly at home with the subject matter, in sympathy with the hero, (in an East Anglian Daily Times review of the book, Ian Collins praised the powerful woodcuts and by happy accident identified James as the original Wild Man in the flesh!) as well as working in the medium of wood.

Another aspect of James’ affinity with wood is demonstrated in an earlier linocut: “Pollarding an Oak”, depicting a balance being sought between man and nature in the management of trees. Starkly beautiful, it was commissioned by Chris and Juliet Hawkins, a Suffolk couple very much involved in tree conservation, and later reproduced in the Jardine Press book: “East Anglian Poems” by Kevin CrossleyHolland, “Wildman’s” librettist.

Paintings in the show included the poignant: “Journeys Never Made”, “Sirens” and “Back to the Sea Again”.

In “On The Beach” we are treated to a stunning range of James’ new work, in which he continues to explore the themes that have obsessed him over the years — those of balance, harmony and a kind of mythology. But for the magnificent linocut: “Aldeburgh Beach”, the title could have been; “On the Edge”! In the “Beach” linocut, his ever present concern with balance is evident — between black and white, night and day, past and present in the shape of the late Catholic church tower and the ominous silhouette of Sizewell B on the very edge of the print.

James is never very far from a beach, or the edge of the East Anglian landscape at least. He is now living in his birthplace of Brightlingsea, but until recently lived in the house he built for himself in Wivenhoe, now his studio, a place with many similarities to Aldeburgh, particularly in its history as a fishing village and its current cultural leanings. His delightful and most satisfying panoramic linocut of “Wivenhoe Past & Present” certainly achieves a harmonious balance of time and space. Happily, this image appears as appropriate endpapers in the latest and wonderful Jardine Press and Festival Books publication: “Wild Man of Wivenhoe”.
The Wild Man returns; he has been landed again by local fishermen, further down the coast at Wivenhoe, just in time to catch the tail end of the twentieth century. He was patently spawned by his Orford antecedent and written in exceptionally hilarious verse that sparkles with saltiness by the Independent’s own wild poet, Martin Newell. Accompanying the text are nine linocuts by James in which monsters from his dreams, whether drunkards or dragons, appear in the familiar fishing village which now serves as the University watering hole. In his review of the book, Hugh Brogan says:

“James Dodds’ linocuts are so true to the look of the place… if you want to know what Wivenhoe was like in 1997, this little book will tell you.”

As if on misunderstood outsider were not enough, a third candidate for the part appears in the person of Billy Budd who tells his own story in “Billy’s Song”, a broadside produced by James on his Jardine Press. James commissioned David Charleston to write the poem in commemoration of “Billy Budd, Foretopman” by Herman Melville. Again James is inspired by the same stories as Britten.

Out of the depths of James’ subconscious, yet more wild men come to the surface; from his dreams comes the powerful linocut: “Wild Man of the Sea” with his compelling and deeply penetrating gaze, and from his continuing concern with mythology comes “Past Present and Future” with his three heads sharing four eyes.

James carries on the tradition of drawing from his dreams — which are after all, messages from the subconscious — for the paintings in this exhibition, hence “Field of Dreams” and “Detective’s Raincoat”. Here he continues his quest to make visible the invisible with bizarre chases involving invisible detectives wearing very visible raincoats.

James’ fascinating and powerful work is leading him into new and exciting uncharted waters, where his next connection awaits. As Roderic Barrett wrote in 1993:

“In these paintings James Dodds gives only what has meaning for him, and for this uncommon gift we should be very grateful.”

Elly Robinson