Ian Collins 2004

Foreword to Messum’s Catalogue 2004

James Dodds, already our premier marine artist, launches his first solo exhibition in Cork Street in the wake of a Shipshape touring show which lately completed a much-cheered national voyage with a mooring at the National Maritime Museum.

James (born 1957) displayed an early aptitude for art – but still more for the great East Anglian craft of boat-building. From the family home in Brightlingsea, on the north Essex coast, he learned to sail in a winkle brig and the smack Shamrock. And with dyslexia blurring his formal studies, he left school at 15 to be apprenticed to a Maldon boatyard – soon becoming absorbed in the rebuilding of Thames barges.

But art also beckoned, and ever more strongly, for this son of a painter and illustrator. So, after training as a shipwright, he embarked on seven-year studies at art schools, first in Colchester and then in London. By the time of his MA at the Royal College of Art, James had switched from fashionable abstract painting to timeless portrayals of the subject closest to his heart: ships and the sea.

Now we see a fabulous flotilla of near-life-sized boat paintings joined by a fleet of prints and a regatta of celebratory fine-press tomes produced by the artist’s Jardine Press. Suspended in indigo seas, the boat pictures resemble both abstract sculptures and leviathan creatures trawled from the deep. At times their quiet power is quite overwhelming – on a par, perhaps, with a Damien Hirst pickled shark.

Elsewhere, like a nautical anatomist, James Dodds picks apart the structure of a vessel. His timber skeletons recall the ribs of whales, which are then fleshed out with human genius. But all these pictures float on the profound belief that creativity is about more than concept. They stay in our consciousness thanks to skills of execution and expression.

When he began illustrating boat books James used the line-drawing medium favoured by his father, Andrew, in the Radio Times (where James’s redoubtable grandmother, a Scottish farmer transplanted to rural Essex, was the model for Doris Archer). But having had that apprenticeship with planes and chisels, he soon swapped pen and pencil for knives and gouges as he took to the linocut – the school craft that had been turned into a pre-war artform by the East Anglian master Edward Bawden – like a duck to water. “A hand-cut image suits a hand-cut boat,” he says simply. Of course, he could have progressed all the way to sculpture, but he deliberately resisted because “that would have been all about using my training rather than my imagination”.

His imagination has also taken flight into panoramic prints of East Anglian ports – Cromer, Southwold, Aldeburgh, Wivenhoe, Brightlingsea, Maldon. Here period and perspective are slyly and wryly bent in order to provide the bigger picture in a gull’s view of the marine scene. Each presentation takes in both a day and a century and captures the abiding essence of a coastal community – plus the weather and folklore in which it is indelibly set.

As I wrote in a catalogue introduction when the touring show opened at the FirstSite gallery in Colchester: “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 our 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.”

Now with a young family of his own, James has bought a boat and moved back to Brightlingsea – to a house built by his maternal great-grandfather, a Victorian entrepreneur who had been master of a sprat-curing business, a sail-making loft and a shipyard.

Shipwrights always work in pairs and although James appears to have charted a solitary course, he really revels in collaboration – producing books with his father, for instance. One richly creative partnership has been with the pop poet Martin Newell, most recently with a beautiful tome entitled The Song of the Waterlily: The Building of a Boat (Jardine Press, £15). This epic poem – a traditional saga spliced with sea shanties – shows all the tools and the skills needed to build a boat strong enough and agile enough to withstand ferocious storms at sea.

Clearly, such marine art – “like a painted ship, upon a painted ocean” to borrow a line from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner which so appeals to this artist – is also intended as a metaphor for life itself. All at sea, we survive more through co-operation than conflict, and in order to thrive we need to understand the extent of our responsibilities as well as our rights.

As it ebbs and flows, the art of James Dodds reminds us of the history and geography which continue to shape our temperament. For all the global ambitions of the world’s fourth largest economy, Britain remains an island nation. Most of us live within striking distance of the sea which our ancestors crossed and which we love to visit and revisit.

Tacking against the wind, constantly changing course, the art of James Dodds seems to move backwards and forwards. But in truth it is always advancing towards its ultimate goal.

Ian Collins

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(Ian Collins is the author of A Broad Canvas: Art in East Anglia Since 1880.)