Esther Freud

Foreword to Messum’s catalogue April 2018

I became intrigued by James Dodds some years ago when I first read ‘Tide Lines’, the book about his life and work by fellow east coast citizen, Ian Collins, the two of them born ‘in an elemental region that has far more sky and water than earth.’ I was a judge of the New Angles prize, in the middle of writing my own Suffolk novel, immersed in the poems, stories, and images of East Anglia, but this was the book that touched me most. The quiet drama of Dodds’ life, the romance of it, the search for a story that he needed to tell, the satisfying culmination of finding it. In the years since, I have often leafed through its pages, admiring the detail of the lino prints, the beauty of the Essex landscapes, and above all, the paintings of the boats. The boats are Dodds’ masterpieces – his models – each one as different as a human sitter. Glossy, dilapidated, sturdy, elegant, we see them whole, aged, clothed, in disarray, stripped to their skeletal construction. He shows us the insides of them, the colours, chosen, and those that have evolved. He shows us what he sees, and makes it possible for us to see it.

Now I find myself standing in his Wivenhoe studio. It is minutes from the house he shares with his wife Catherine and their two grown children, on the site of an abandoned ship yard. He tells me that where we are standing now is the exact spot where for centuries great ships were built, sailing out along the river Colne, and off around the world. The walls are hung with paintings for a new show. All boats, oil on linen, apart from one self portrait, and a series of small heads.

It’s thirty years since he last painted a portrait – and he found, when he returned to boats, he was looking at things differently. The colours were altered, his technique had changed.

These pictures, all made in the last seven months, ripple with vitality. They are luminous, restless, as if they might dart away to sea, and I find myself glancing towards the door where there is an actual boat that he and Catherine sometimes row along the river to find a place to have their lunch.

James Dodds tells me about the inspiration for each painting. A Friendship Sloop was found in Maine at the time of his last American show, another in Truro near to where his son is studying art – a faithful recreation of the 1854 Pilot Cutter, Vincent. There is an Essex Oyster smack that was rebuilt last year, and the Colchester smack, Shamrock he sailed as a boy. He likes to paint small, working boats, examine the way they have evolved, how they have been affected by sea conditions, adapted, improved upon. He is obsessed with their structure. He thinks of a Stubbs painting, a horse, suspended – Stubbs, apparently took apart a horse to see how it was made. But Dodds doesn’t need to take apart a boat, because he’s seen their insides, fitted them together, sailed and repaired them. He knows their history, can see the Viking influence of a boat from the Shetlands, the stout build and smooth hull of one from Hastings, how its shape is suited to the short seas of the English channel. He appreciates how the sharp, fine clinker hulls of the traditional East Coast are suited to the long Atlantic swells.

It seems inevitable that James Dodds should find his forte painting pictures of boats, but that was not always the case. For a long time he was searching around for the story he wanted to tell, big stories, world stories, and then in 2000 he was offered a solo show at a gallery in Colchester, and unable to decide what to produce, he was advised by his old friend and fellow artist, Helen Napper: Paint a boat.

He hesitated. A boat was too simple. Too easy. Who would want to buy it? But all the same he began. And there it was – The Blue Boat – a gleaming suspended miracle of craft and art, the red slither of its interior, a glimpse of safety.

The sea has always been a large part of James Dodds’ life. He grew up in the coastal town of Brightlingsea, learned to sail early, found himself a weekend job as a trainee mate on a Baltic trader aged fourteen, sailing out of West Mersea and depending on the wind direction up and down the coast to explore a river course from North to South. During school holidays he sailed across to France and Holland, and when school was finished, with one O’level in art which he took early, he was apprenticed to a boat builder in Maldon for which he received £8 a week.

‘With that first boat, it felt as if I was building it on the canvas. The two sides of me, the builder and the artist, one focused on art and colour, the other on practicalities. The artist was waiting to see how it would evolve, the builder was telling me – I had his voice in my head: “There are twelve planks…” He laughs. ‘If I can stop thinking, the hard thing about painting is that it’s easy.’

Outside his studio there is a commemorative plaque to the old shipyard. There is a lino print detailing how it used to be. He points out to me where each building once stood and how he has adapted it, including the parts he liked best, and as we talk, his square workman’s hand trails fondly over the inscription: Cooks Shipyard Site. Reproduced by kind permission of local artist James Dodds. He nods towards his house to show how very local he is, and I think of a story in ‘Tide Lines’, of how, as a boy he was overheard telling a stranger that his father, the illustrator Andrew Dodds, was in fact a shipwright. He wanted his father to be like other fathers, he wanted him to be part of the community, so he could be too.

There are three working fishing boats docked against the quay of the old yard. The Lily Grace. The Twilight Star. ‘That one,’ he points to the Lady K, ‘has been cockling in the Wash. They’ve claimed squatters rights,’ he grins. ‘That’s good.’ And we walk back across the newly developed dock, past the one remaining boat builders’ shed, towards his home.
Esther Freud
Novelist