Ian Collins 2001

From “Shipshape” 2001

In the multi-media art of James Dodds the connecting thread is not a straight line but an arc — an impulse both to move forward and to return to beginnings. A curving motif may also be discerned within each picture: the bow of a boat, the curl of a wave, the arching of figures entwined or engrossed in creative labour. The sea, which smoothes and rounds everything, albeit with great trauma and drama, is the artist’s main backdrop and constant inspiration.

The crescent coastline of East Anglia and Essex is dotted with small ports which James is now portraying in panoramic linocuts. Each bending, fish-eye view plays with space and perspective and embraces time, spanning a day or a century. Displaying the overwhelming dominance of the North Sea, these settlements appear to be perched on the end of peninsulas, half-way to becoming islands. Each one seems isolated and somehow enchanted — with a unique accumulation of architecture, craft, culture and folklore. Such vernacular treasures have been built up over countless generations, but they are easily overlooked and very easily lost. These are the things James Dodds celebrates and seeks to save.

The study of Brightlingsea is also a record of the artist’s family history. Here he was born in 1957 and here, in the wider Walton area, he can trace his ancestors back to the 13th century. Looming over the scene is the shade of William Pannell, James’s great-grandfather, who married a local girl and became a leading force in his adopted town. A classic Victorian entrepreneur, he set up a grocery shop and supplied the victuals for yachts. He acquired sprat-curing business, a sail-making loft and chandlery and became a director of the Aldous shipyard. He owned boats, built houses — his own from the ballast of a ship called the Oliver Cromwell, another that James now lives in. Serving for many years as chairman of the council of the thriving port, he donated the Hard to the town in 1898. The octagonal structure now at the end of the hut-lined promenade was once his summer house.

William Pannell was the benevolent patriach, a provider of homes and employment for an extended family. Lively debates ensued when his youngest daughter, Pollie, married a socialist railway clerk named Tim Foster, who ended up as the station master at Brightlingsea. Their three daughters, of whom James’s mother, Wendy, was the youngest, grew up in station houses at Hatfield Peverel, Marks Tey and Harwich. James feels a great affinity with his grandfather, who fought at Gallipoli, and who, as a Brightlingsea councillor during the Great Depression, oversaw a job-creation scheme building the promenade over the saltings. “He was an energetic and practical man,” James says. “He kept bees and goats and had a wonderful workshop. After his death I used to go in there and admire it all — there were jam jar lids nailed to the ceiling with jars screwed in full of nails, and lights on cotton reels that travelled up and down on a wire. The whole thing rested on old railway sleepers.”

The Depression also spurred an influx of Scottish farmers into eastern England — among them the Dodds family, who left a dairy on the Forth to work tenant farms around the Crouch, then at Great Totham and finally at Weeley. English landlords resented the immigrants turning their unyielding land into profit, so some got together to force evictions — alleging unmet rent (there being no records for cash payments). Grandfather Dodds fought the case all the way to the High Court, then died leaving his widow beset by bills. A formidable woman, who worked herself and and family with a Calvinist conviction, she cleared the debts and bought a farm outright. James is named after the eldest son, who piloted a Halifax bomber throughout the war, and aided the Berlin Airlift, only to die after the war in a routine flight over England. His father, Andrew, was the youngest of eight children — the seventh son and the first in the family with an artistic talent. When his mother accompanied him to an interview at Colchester School of Art, she warned against admitting to useless ambitions as a painter. (“Say you want to do something practical — like becoming an architect’s assistant.”) Andrew retired as deputy head of the Department of Art and Design at Suffolk College in Ipswich and continues as a book, magazine and newspaper illustrator. In many drawings for the Radio Times, he made his mother the model for Doris Archer; his sketches for the Eastern Daily Press, showing scenes of London or East Anglia, have appeared each week since James was born.

But for James, the eldest of four children, growing up in Brightlingsea was not an easy affair. His school days were marred by dyslexia and disruption and he was determined to leave at 15 to become a shipwright — with only a solitary O level in art. James wished his father, who had read him books like Treasure Island and Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, was involved in the business of boats like the dads of so many of his classmates. As a young boy he had learnt to sail a Winkle Brig with friends, camping on Ray Island behind Mersea and launching out on early morning ebb tides to explore the myriad creeks of the Colne and Blackwater estuaries. Later he spent weekends aboard the Baltic trader Solvig and helped to crew the Aldous smack Shamrock. Fact and fiction merged in this watery world — Ray Island was Baring-Gould’s Mehalah and Ransome’s The Secret Island was set on the Walton backwaters. James has always loved stories and his later work as an artist would float on a powerful narrative current.

So James fled school for a four-year shipwrighting apprenticeship at the Walter Cook & Son boatyard in Maldon. He assisted veteran boatbuilder Alf Last but was soon drawn to the rough and tumble of outdoor work, pairing up with David Patient, who now runs his own yard. He also took evening classes in drawing, but was intoxicated less by art than by the tutor’s home-brewed beer. Having shocked his landlady, he went to live on a barge. Then came a year at technical college in Southampton, where he tried his hand at welding, electrics and plumbing, and lofted out a boat. “I realised at that point that I enjoyed learning,” he says. “Mathematics suddenly made sense when you had a formula for working out the square meterage of timber needed for a floor.” After a final year at the Maldon yard, he was ready to switch to art school.

At 19 he was the same age as other entrants to Colchester School of Art, though with a completely different training. “Looking back I think that becoming a shipwright was the best qualification I could have,” he says. “It has become my subject matter. I continually draw on those times, but I was still very lucky to get into art school.” He continued to use his practical skills during his foundation year, living with his father who was then tenant of the National Trust’s Bourne Mill. That 1591 structure began as a fishing lodge, its Dutch gables recalling the Flemish weavers who made good in East Anglia. While renovating the mill mechanism, James and Andrew tried to get the wheel turning before letting the water in. The plan worked too well and too quickly — father and son were trapped like mice in an exercise wheel as the cycle went faster and faster. Eventually James grabbed the shaft and was left suspended, while Andrew ended up in the water at the base of the halted wheel.

Seven-year labours followed in London art schools, first at Chelsea and then at the Royal College. He reversed the conventional artistic journey, starting with hard-edged abstracts and gradually moving to the traditional, figurative world — especially when the passion for his boat-building past returned as an obsession. In his year off after Chelsea he and his first wife, Liz, bought Clipt Bush Cottage in Stoke-by-Nayland, an ancient and derelict dwelling set in a glorious landscape. So James became a builder. Entering the Royal College — as one of 12 MA students accepted from 400 applicants, and with a bursary to boot — was therefore a shock. But he much admired the teaching of Ken Kiff. “He always left you enthusiastic and feeling you had something valid to say,” says James. He appreciated the way Kiff worked things out through the practice of painting rather than by exploring external concepts in pigment. A quotation in the artist’s obituary in the Independent (February 17 2001) still appeals: “I like the idea of the ‘working reason’ as opposed to the ‘speculative reason’.”

Given his wood-working skills, sculpture would have been an obvious pursuit, but James deliberately avoided it. (“I felt it would limit my creativity. The work would have been all about my training rather than my imagination, when it needs to be both.”) Instead, he swapped planes and chisels for knives and gouges — for linocutting, a school craft which had been turned into a pre-war artform by the East Anglian master Edward Bawden. Tired of college life, he built a studio in his wild garden during his last year at college and produced a series of 14 prints to illustrate his own edition of Peter Grimes, the savage poem of coastal Suffolk written in 1810 by George Crabbe and scored as an opera by Benjamin Britten. Book, linocuts and paintings were presented at an Aldeburgh Festival exhibition — in a virtuoso one-man show manned by the man himself. That successful formula has been regularly repeated.

Despite the problem of dyslexia, he had always been absorbed in books, and especially by those with a nautical air. When a student he had illustrated two texts by Hervey Benham, Stowboaters (1977) and Codbangers (1979), and later an immensely technical tome Building the Wooden Fighting Ships (1984). Line drawings gave way to linocuts, first as new versions of his paintings, but slowly each subject found its proper medium and he drew afresh on lino. “A hand-cut image suits a hand-cut boat,” observes James. From linocutting he graduated into fine-press printing — buying for £80 a treddle platen press of around 1890 from Colchester’s Holmwood House School (on which many children had perilously printed their sports day programmes). Eight strapping friends took a day to transport the fragile but hugely heavy cast iron machine to the Dodds studio. Made by Jardine of Nottingham, the relic proved the making of a fine-edition press — also providing its name.

The Jardine Press, which began with The Wanderer, a translation of Anglo-Saxon verse by Kevin Crossley-Holland, has to date produced almost 20 books. Most have a marine theme, from Kipling’s The Shipwright’s Trade to The Alphabet of Boats (from ark to the Scottish yacht zulu, by way of dhows, feluccas, hoogaars, quffas and xebecs). He also acquired an 1880s Wharfedale and a 1950s Western proofing press, but tired of the exhausting toil entailed in hand-made editions. It could take three months to set a 32-page book, with each lead-type letter placed in back-to-front order on painstakingly-justified pages. The process became too painful when a completed page — a week’s work — fell into a jumbled heap on the studio floor. Now the titles are printed commercially, but quality remains the key.

Shipwrights always work in pairs and much of James’s artistic career has also been about collaboration. When his marriage broke up, and he moved to Wivenhoe — inevitably to a house and studio he built himself — he found new creative partnerships. One of his most successful Jardine titles had been Wild Man of Orford, retelling with Allan Drummond the 12th century tale of a merman netted on the Suffolk coast and cruelly tortured before escaping back to sea. In Wivenhoe he met the pop poet Martin Newell, one of whose collections of verse had been a skit on local life and on Dylan Thomas called Under Milk Float. James and Martin put the two together in Wild Man of Wivenhoe — tracking a student who is initiated into the rowdy and bawdy life of a bohemian enclave, disappears down the river and then returns as a professor and part of the establishment. The comic volume was more than slightly autobiographical.

In Wivenhoe James also felt part of a creative community. In Stoke-by-Nayland he had often called on the artist Joan Warburton, who along with Lucian Freud had been among the first students at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing run in Dedham and then in Hadleigh by Cedric Morris and Lett Haines. But the little port with its back to Colchester thronged with creativity — including Richard Chopping and Dennis Wirth-Miller, whose frequent guest and painting companion was Francis Bacon. His great friends and confidantes became the bird sculptor Guy Taplin — whose carved swans appear in a Dodds painting — and the stained-glass artist Robina Taplin. There were many adventures after a first meeting in The Greyhound. Robina says: “I’d seen the Peter Grimes prints in someone’s house and been bowled over by them. They reminded me of my childhood, of the Radio Times illustrations, of something I had always loved about England. I’d imagined Jamie as an old chap, a real master of his craft. I was amazed to meet this young man.” Guy agrees, and adds: “I saw a painting which went back to the era of Christopher Wood but he is also making his mark in the present. We have had a lot of fun…”

Domesticity beckoned. After marrying the bookbinder Catherine Clark — now a mainstay of the Jardine Press — the wildish man of Wivenhoe disappeared downriver, settling back in Brightlingsea. He still keeps separate work spaces in his old haunt — a painting studio set well apart from a print workshop, music playing in the former and book tapes in the latter — and he is teaching his children Douglas and Mary to love the journey by water in the family’s new 16-foot clinker boat.

Just as physicality and practicality are central to the art of James Dodds, so is this overarching arc — a moving forward and holding back — which may be a heroic effort to square the circle. Creating new work, he is also striving to conserve the past, being active in pressure groups fighting to save the shipyard sites of Brightlingsea and Wivenhoe. He says: “To sum it up, I feel as an artist the importance of expressing the community I come from. The boat-building community is as singular as the artistic community and I love doing linocuts of the people I used to work with. Sadly, it’s all vanishing. Shipyards are worth more as building plots for houses than as places of work where skills and communal spirits are kept alive. Money makes money and we don’t make things any more. We’re in danger of producing only dead dormitory towns for London. I can’t see how it is sustainable.

“The feeling of belonging to a place, being part of the rhythm of the tide and the sea. This, and the spiritual contemplation of making things, is what really matters. It’s something you can’t own but which is part of you. This is the sense of enduring value I try to put in my work.”

Ian Collins

Ian Collins is the author of A Broad Canvas: Art in East Anglia Since 1880 (Black Dog Books). He comes from a long line of boat-builders on the Norfolk Broads but, ever since trying to open a tin with a chisel during a school woodwork lesson, he has steered well clear of carpentry.