Frank Whitford 2001

From “Shipshape” 2001

In every remaindered dictionary of art the term ‘provincial’ can be found between ‘parochial’ and ‘piddling’. This must reassure those national critics convinced that every artist who chooses to live outside London (or, at a pinch, Glasgow) paints nothing but landscapes, cats, or flowers, and thinks the clock stopped with Impressionism. After all, how can any painter, sculptor, installationist, or maker of video films possibly be successful away from the constant galvanising charge of metropolitan life? And how can any artist produce work of anything but minimal significance unless he or she is fully up on the latest developments in New York or Venice (California)? The inevitable product of rhetorical questions like these is globalised art, the visual equivalent of a Big Mac or a sweatshirt by Tommy Hilfinger.

Yet some of the greatest art was made by people who were in every important sense provincial. Cezanne, for nine years out of place and unsuccessful in Paris, produced his best work after he’d returned to Aix-en-Provence, where he was born. Van Gogh found his own inimitable voice far away from the French capital, in Arles. Gauguin did the same, though at the other end of the country, in Brittany. And, to jump a year or two, Chagall’s most characteristic (and authentic) paintings were shaped by vivid memories of the Vitebsk shtetl.

The list of English artists who failed to benefit much, if at all, from the supposed advantages of London life, is also impressive. It includes Crome, Cotman and the other watercolourists of the Norwich School as well as Samuel Palmer. Stanley Spencer is, of course, in a prominent place on the list too. Even while studying at the Slade he would return every night from Gower Street to Cookham, and then spent most of the rest of his life in the then small Thamesside village relocating Biblical miracles there.

I don’t know whether James Dodds commuted daily from Essex to the Royal College of Art when he was a student there in the early 1980s, though it was clear that the shingle beaches and choppy seas of East Anglia were always with him, even on Exhibition Road. Only later did I learn that he’d once made abstract compositions (of the hard edge variety). This came as a surprise because the paintings and prints I’d seen at the RCA seemed to be part of a seamless, unchanging whole with his home in Essex, his earlier life as an apprentice shipwright, and his love of Crabbe’s poetry and the music of Benjamin Britten. Already as a student Dodds was that rare and entirely agreeable phenomenon, an artist single-minded enough to pay no attention to all the talk about fashion, metropolitan taste, the irrelevance of skill, and what it takes to get one’s name in the papers. He concerned himself entirely with what he knew best, had experienced directly, and what had moved him (even if he did transform it with the aid of symbols and allegory now and again).

Dodds was also brave enough to work in a widely unregarded, and in some quarters despised, medium: linocut. True, Edward Bawden, also born in Essex, had long since been known for his quite wonderful linocuts, but Bawden’s example and influence weren’t enough to purge the medium from the whiff of plasticine and other primary school equipment. It would be a shame if we were to come to James Dodds’s technically amazing linocuts with the same prejudice, for, good though his paintings can be, most of his prints are, for me, outstanding.

Some of the best linocuts are the most recent. They show places Dodds has known for most of his life. Cromer Beach, Southwold, West Mersey, Brightlingsea, and the other titles of these startlingly large panoramas might mislead you into thinking that they’re topographical, picturesque views intended for the passing tourist trade. You’d be wrong. Within each tightly controlled, tonally balanced composition is an entire world of sea and shore, boats and tractors, church and houses, and, in the case of the superb Aldeburgh Beach, night and day as well.

If you live somewhere in East Anglia you might think of Dodds as a local artist. But ‘local’ is as misunderstood a word as ‘provincial’. Dodds’s work in every medium is so memorable because its immediate inspiration is local but its appeal and significance know no limits at all. Dodds’s depiction of every Winkle brig, anchor and swivel is informed and animated by enough knowledge and personal engagement to make these objects transcend their function, just as they liberate the pictures of places from every geographical restriction as well. I wish I could get in the word ‘universal’ somehow, but like ‘provincial’ that’s usually misunderstood as well.

Frank Whitford