Elly Robinson 2001

From “Shipshape” 2001

A Conversation with James Dodds

When I opened Printworks in 1988 (a gallery specialising in printmaking), I’d been aware of James Dodds’ wonderful work well before I met him. I was convinced by the power and integrity of the work that he was not only an exceptional artist but also one of considerable maturity. When he later appeared in the gallery I was under the illusion that he must have been the artist’s son. (Coincidentally, his father, Andrew had taught me illustration at St. Martin’s in my previous career). No wonder I made such a mistake – James had lived two lives already; one as a shipwright and one as an artist. Thus began a working relationship which has lasted through several shows of his work and even the production of books together. Now, thirteen years later, my admiration and respect for him as an artist continues to grow. I was delighted to be asked to interview him for this publication and on a cold May morning we sat by the fire at Printworks’ new home (which is my old one) and got down to business.

ER: We’re sitting here looking at your latest terrific linocut: Pioneer (a deep sea Colne Smack built in 1864), showing “planking up” in progress – and if I may say so – it’s another classic JD curvilinear composition. Where did this rounded composition come from?

JD : I admire the rounded figures and compositions of artists like Breugel, Spencer, Picasso of the 1920’s and 1930’s, as well as Léger, William Roberts and Diego Rivera. They all have a social and political aspect as well as strong graphic composition. The idea for a circular composition is not new – it goes right back to the earliest picture making where the composition sort of leads back into itself – as in my Pollarding an Oak, where the ploughed field leads back into the picture. It owes a lot to Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus – which incidentally was the subject of my RCA thesis.

ER: . . . and your main subject matter, boats, are also rounded containers.
JD : That’s right, I like that link. As a shipwright, you have to have a very keen eye for a “fair” curve and how things fit together in 3D – in a watertight way. I even found myself, while working on this print of the Pioneer, putting my eye down onto the lino and looking along the line as you do when you’re “fairing” the edge of a plank. .

ER: So “fair” means . . . ?

JD: Well, if you have a curve with little lumps and bumps – it’s not “fair”. You want a curve that is continuing, even and flowing. The viewer’s eye is held and made to move effortlessly around the picture.

ER: Which must be why I find your work so satisfying in a graphic sense.

JD: It’s the solidity of things, their physicality and how they are put together that interests me and it’s what I like to convey in my work. In a way it’s taken me a long time to get around to making pictures of things I know so intimately – to find the balance between knowing how a ship is built and reinterpreting it into a picture. The shipwright in me always wants to put twelve planks on each side of a clinker boat but visually it might be wrong – it could be better to have not so many planks.

ER: Like cartoon characters having only three fingers?

JD: Yes. It’s taken me nearly thirty years to be able to show a boat simply through an artist’s eyes rather than a shipwright’s, but that shipwright’s knowledge now informs the artist. They are now more balanced, like the balance between the head, heart and the hand – a state of grace, hopefully.

ER: Balance: that’s a key word for you . . .

JD : Yes – in my painting and print The Carpenter wrestling with an Angel I was trying to resolve this struggle, a balance between black and white, positive and negative space in the linocut.
ER: It seems to be no mere coincidence that you should be working in relief printing, where you are still physically engaged with cutting into wood and lino.

JD: Certainly the tools are very similar. If you are working on a plank, you are working with the grain of the wood. As a shipwright, the choice of timber is fundamental to getting the plank to bend properly. I used to very much enjoy carving the name boards and carved work on a barge’s transom or bow rails.

ER: Now we’re talking lettering; typography is another of your many talents – which leads us on to your delightful books. Do you think that having an illustrator father was an important factor leading to your own interest in making books? Didn’t you have a book project at the Royal College?

JD: In my final year at college there was a Folio Society book competition and George Crabbe’s Peter Grimes was on the list of texts. By this time I had been at art schools for seven years and was really missing the area that I came from (the call of the running tide as it were) and Peter Grimes is very much of the East Coast – my spiritual homeland, so it appealed. Curiously, my father had worked on a project illustrating the poem for television to accompany Britten’s Sea Interludes, (music that is now a part of me) – but I don’t think the work was ever finished. Anyway, it was through Peter Grimes that I discovered the wonderful letterpress workshop at the Royal College and I produced my first ever linocuts – fifteen in all as illustrations for the poem. I had been commissioned to do illustrations for Hervey Benham and the National Trust at the age of nineteen while I was still a shipwright, but used my father’s medium of pen and ink. At the time, shipwrighting was a way of asserting my independence from that artistic background.

ER: What do you mean? I’d thought that the reason you wanted to be a shipwright was: a) you had always been attracted to the sea – running away to sea at the age of fifteen etc. and b) your parents thought you should get a “proper trade” behind you. Was it your choice to be a shipwright?

JD: I think so. I was quite disruptive at school. I was already working weekends and holidays on a Baltic trader called Solvig. I got wind that Walter Cook & Son in Maldon were looking for an apprentice and one thing led to another.

ER: How old were you then?

JD: Fifteen in 1972. I think my parents were quite relieved that I would be independent, that I would be applying myself to something and have an income – £8 a week to start with.

ER: And you did that for how many years?

JD: Four years – including a year in Southampton at the Shipbuilding Industry Training Board.

ER: You got formal training too?

JD: That was quite good in a way, having left school with no qualifications, except in art. That course made me realise that I actually enjoyed – and was quite able to learn – mathematics when applied to a practical problem. When it all suddenly began to make sense to me I realised that I wasn’t quite as stupid as I’d thought. It sparked off a new interest in education and led to my wanting to go to art school.

ER: Art had been lurking under the surface all along?

JD: Yes, I suppose so. I’d been going to drawing classes and had illustrated three of Hervey Benham’s books while still shipwrighting. I went to Joyce Pallot’s evening class in Colchester and another in Maldon with a Mr Tate who had taught my father as a schoolboy. Mr Tate’s other interest was perfecting homemade Guinness, which at fifteen, had a profound effect.

ER: So how did you actually make the transition from the shipyard to art school?

JD: My apprenticeship finished when I was nineteen. I thought; “well, I’ve got this training which I can always fall back on, so let’s try something else”. My father said I would be better off staying in the boatyard as it’s very hard to make a living as an artist – which only made me want to go all the more. I also got an award from the Hervey Benham Trust to go to art school.

ER: And there you studied painting – were you never tempted to follow in your father’s footsteps and do illustration?

JD: Having a father who is also an artist can be quite inhibiting – a big shadow. lt was important for me to go into an area that was not his – so painting it was, and later linocutting; the first prints were for Peter Grimes. The pen and ink illustrations I did for the National Trust were cutaway drawings of wind and watermills – perspective drawings to scale, almost as time consuming as the big linocut panoramas but the perspective in these is a bit wild and not too measured.

ER: To be able to do that shows not only incredible patience but also intelligence. It’s a shame that because you were dyslexic, you thought you were a bit thick.

JD: Well, maybe that’s why I got into publishing books – as some kind of compensation for not being able to spell. Ironically that’s what we sometimes do – over-compensate for our disabilities, or our talents for that matter.

ER: Well, you’ve cracked it. Especially in typesetting, where you have to do it upside down and back to front.

JD: In a way my whole art education was back to front. At Chelsea I started off painting very hard edge abstracts – even those were black and white to start with. Gradually I took on more, such as a bit of colour and decoration and eventually more figurative elements, certainly ending up more traditional than when I started. At that time in art education, people were getting rid of life models and you weren’t taught any painting skills at all.

ER: Who was teaching you at Chelsea – what were your influences?

JD: Ken Kiff was there; I got on well with him in my final year at Chelsea – in fact he wrote my reference for the Royal College. He was a very good tutor in that he always left you feeling enthusiastic. With previous tutors I’d felt I had to emulate the way they worked, but I didn’t have to for him. He appreciated my work and could see something interesting in it. So I wouldn’t say he influenced me directly, although he interested me in things which I felt could be better expressed figuratively. When I started at Chelsea they had a strange system of dividing the rooms into different styles of painting, and because of my shipwrighting and the feeling that my work was built rather than painted, I’d been placed in the constructivist’s room. Eventually I found that rather limiting, so I went into the “oddball” room and went my own way. There was a resurgence of figurative work then; in 1979 a big influence on me was a Narrative Painting show at the ICA in which Ken Kiff was included. Also I saw a wonderful Beckmann show at the Whitechapel, and I became aware of Peter de Francia’s work – then Head of Painting at the Royal College. It all made a case for applying to go there. I felt, as I do now, that I was just beginning to do what I wanted to do.

ER: Beckmann was a great influence?

JD: Until I saw Beckmann’s work in the flesh, it had been the graphic aspect rather than his expressionism that had appealed to me. His colour and the balance between black and the colour doesn’t come across in reproduction.

ER: Your subject matter then was mainly mythological?

JD: Well, there is a sort of personal mythology that is hard to get to the bottom of that had connections with Ken Kiff and Beckmann. My books have been concerned with East Anglian mythology – Wild Man of Orford, Peter Grimes, Black Shuck, and even the most recent one, the Knock John Ship story, is a sort of myth in Brightlingsea – where I was born and now live.

ER: The Shipwright’s Trade wasn’t – it’s a Kipling poem, but it was where you made your first rounded images.

JD: Yes. There were two pictures called Maldon Shipwrights and Springtide which were probably the first in which I bent the perspective around. (All the prints in that book had been paintings first). I was perhaps trying to get as much in as I could and make it feel like that enclosed world was encapsulated in the pictures. People say its like a sort of fish-eye lens, but that was not what it was all about.

ER: It’s coincidental.

JD: Yes. A lot of artists deal with just horizontal perspective but there is a vertical perspective too, and together they create a round shape. After all, our eyes are round and we live in a round world – there aren’t any straight lines in reality.

ER: And your figures are always foreshortened to fit in with your perspective.

JD: My figures have always been chunky and round. The legs of my figures are quite foreshortened, you’re looking down at the top of their feet. In this recent linocut, Pioneer, I’m looking from a very close viewpoint, which I like.

ER: You’ve always been closely involved with the physical aspect of building a boat – how it feels.

JD: Yes. Scone was about physically bending a plank by steaming it – that was almost three pictures in one. The work is so heavy that shipwrights always work in pairs and I worked with David Patient for the last two years at Cook’s shipyard. David now runs his own yard where I have since worked when needs must. It was David who taught me to appreciate the shape of a well-made boat or a well wrought hook or tool. Whenever I have gone back to shipwright work (usually three months at a time) I have usually also been planning a linocut in my head, of whatever was going on at the time in the yard. For instance, Shipwright’s Yard was the year I caulked the deck of the Baltic trader Queen Galadriel and in Winter Refit I made her a new topmast and a windlass for the barge Xylonite – it was a sort of diary, in print. There is also a kind of personal narrative, or progression in my paintings.

ER: I call that authenticity.

JD: Ken Kiff had his personal narrative (although I don’t think he would like that to be taken too literally), a “sequence” of numbered works, like a musician would have opus numbers – and saw it as a kind of journey or progression. Incidentally he made some wonderful woodcuts too.
ER: You’ve talked about creative influences – any others?

JD: There are things like the importance of place and belonging to a place, which our society seems not to value. Stanley Spencer dealt with universal issues within a personal context in his home town, and of course his wonderful Shipbuilding on the Clyde murals were an influence.
ER: How about political influences?

JD: Along with the sense of place there’s the issue of things taking time. Those big panoramic linocuts take three months to cut – it’s a real commitment and a kind of act of faith to produce them, like the skill and faith of the boatbuilders – that their craft will float. As in my father’s farming background, you plant your seeds and you nurture them. The last thing you do is go out and sell the fruits of your labours; whereas in our society it’s all the other way round – marketing the idea first, getting the money and then producing something . . .

ER: No integrity.

JD: . . . or they find someone else to do it, cheap labour in the third world, and then cream off the profit. It all misses out the spirituality of the journey of making something – missing the real point.

ER: Quite.

JD: Our greedy “must have now” society has made us into more like hunter-gatherers than farmers.

ER: Which can’t be said of your work.

JD: No. It’s hard work and time consuming. For the linocuts I draw directly onto the lino with white paint and push the line back and forth with pencil and pen ’til it all works, ’til it’s shipshape, and only then do I start the cutting, which can take up to three months. In a print like Early Morning Tide (which I wanted to do to celebrate 100 years of Walter Cook’s yard) I tried to encapsulate this transition of time. It has a sense of completion – the old and the new. It shows the old way of working on blocks only when the tide is out and the new way of working nonstop on a floating dock.

ER: Most of your panoramic linocuts are concerned with the passage of time – for instance Wivenhoe Past and Present, and Brightlingsea Past and Present.

JD: Wivenhoe came about through applying the Ôshipyard’ compositions like in Early Morning Tide – condensing the space and time. I was holding on to the elements of the place that I like and reconstituting them. When you remember a place, you often put it together from memories of different times, not a snapshot of one second. This comes back to the political aspect of my work. I think the artist has a social responsibility and should be a part of the community. I want to use my linocuts to further certain causes, including conservation, the preservation of skills and the character of the place. In Wivenhoe and Brightlingsea the shipyards were the heart of the place, providing employment and character. Now Wivenhoe is becoming a dormitory town and in Brightlingsea the shipyard was sold for a vast sum to a developer for weekend apartments and a marina. They should be working shipyards and communities.
ER: The prints have all the answers – so why do you paint?

JD: After all, painting is what I studied at college. I find the two activities complement one another – ideas go back and forth. The linocuts are about limitation, focusing on the subject matter, stylisation and simplification, controlling black and white, where I make an idealised world in print. The paintings require a different approach, where I seek a state of grace. They are more personal. Colour is more expressive of feelings and can deal with all the shades of emotions and dreams. The subject matter and application are more varied and where I try to resolve my inner conflicts. The linocuts do not give me enough space for that – but I have great hopes for the new wood and colour linocuts of single objects that were firstly the subject of paintings. Instead of three months cutting and a day printing it is the other way round. It’s an experiment and perhaps closer to the activity of painting. Blue Boat is taking me to a place less inhabited by heroes, letting go of a narrative, where less is hopefully more.
ER: Full circle?

JD: Well, a part of a lifelong voyage. After leaving college I was adrift, at sea for many years, and now I feel more that I’m on course, at the helm.

Elly Robinson