This exhibition celebrates the awarding of an honorary degree by the University of Essex to James Dodds in recognition of a “distinguished contribution to the local community as an artist and defender of our community and natural heritage”. Also, Fore and Aft is a kind of homecoming for the Brightlingsea-born, Wivenhoe-based painter, print-maker and producer of fine-press books, who staged student shows in the University’s theatre and library back in the early 1980s and in the gallery in 2001. In 1984, the late professor Thomas Puttfarken – to whose memory the exhibition is dedicated – arranged the loan of one of James Dodds’ ambitious Royal College of Art student paintings, to hang above the doors in the University’s lecture theatre block, where it remains to this day. The triptych, called Solidarnosc (1982), focuses on the Gdansk shipyard in Poland whose striking workers shifted the course of European history. Influenced by Stanley Spencer’s early 1940s paintings series Shipbuilding on the Clyde and by the Andrzej Wajda films Man of Marble (1971) and Man of Iron (1981), the painting is a homage to skill, power and conviction.
Having struggled in formal education due to undiagnosed dyslexia, James Dodds swapped school at fifteen for a shipwright’s apprenticeship at Walter Cook and Sons in Maldon. By then he had already spent weekends working on the sailing boat Solvig, exploring the rivers of the east coast of England and crossing the North Sea to France and Holland. He learned by watching Alf Last, builder of barge boats for over six decades, grasping the value of arithmetic through the process of ‘lofting’ – making moulds from full-scale drawings – then calculating the required amount of timber for the emerging boat. A gift for draughtsmanship was further honed in evening art classes and impromptu sketching sessions as the boatyard’s self-appointed artist-in-residence.
It was to be a long apprenticeship, for after completing training in Maldon, he switched to studying art. A foundation year in Colchester was followed by a further six years in London, first at Chelsea School of Art and then at the Royal College of Art. In a sense he was following in the footsteps of his father, Andrew Dodds, who left the family farm at Weeley to train as an artist and enjoy a career as a water colourist and illustrator – using his family as models for The Archers in sketches for the Radio Times. James Dodds tells us ÒIt was only really in the final years at college that I realised that the background I’d got was very rich. And from that point onwards, I’ve been making pictures about boatyards, [and more recently] the construction, subtlety and shapes of boats, the regional variations, and how boat shapes have evolved to suit the kind of fishing and the kind of harbours and sea conditions in the region. All these shapes have evolved through experience and practice, rather than from a [naval] architect’s table.”
He wrestled with mythological and intellectual ideas in paintings with a strongly symbolic and allegoric content until, with a major show entitled Shipshape at firstsite@the minories art gallery, Colchester, in the offing, he suddenly covered a long-unresolved picture with a large, blue boat (also shown at the University Gallery exhibition The Blue Boat in 2001). James Dodds now acknowledges: “The boat has become a metaphor for my identity, combining my boat-building and artistic selves. But the boat also has a broader analogy with that of a community within a defined space, whose differing and yet complementary characters can feel secure however uncertain the surrounding seas may appear.” The blue boat, monumental as a blue whale suspended in an indigo infinity, led a fleet of local and regional vessel portraits launched from firstsite@the minories, on a four-year voyage around the country, from Thurso to Falmouth and with a final call at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. That epic journey gave way to a sell-out debut at Messum’s gallery in London’s Cork Street, where a third Dodds solo show is awaited this autumn.
But whereas the Gdansk shipyard was welding a revolution in the 1980s, the ancient boat-building yards on the River Colne were coming to a close. Over ensuing decades of dereliction, James Dodds fought hard for the ghost sites to be reclaimed by the local community, but all were eventually sold for development. The last, Cook’s Yard in Wivenhoe, brought the tide of housing almost to the door of his studio and home and threatened to turn a vibrant town into a dormitory suburb. A discarded fragment of paving stone from the developed site inspired the artist’s first venture into stone carving and now bears the image of a boat, like a tombstone.
But two strengthening communities, in both of which James Dodds now finds a place, keep the spirit of innovative creativity alive. One is the company of artists of all kinds – whose recent numbers have included the great twentieth century painter Francis Bacon, Ernie Turner (known as Essex’s Alfred Wallis), sculptor of driftwood birds Guy Taplin and poet Martin Newell (with whom Dodds has collaborated on a number of publications including The Wild Man of Wivenhoe (1997), an ironic take on the trials and ultimate triumph of an Essex student). The second is a University fraternity whose students and lecturers come from all over the world. James has paid tribute to this creative growth in his linocut University Tree (1991) a grand old oak – already imposing when Constable painted his image of Wivenhoe Park in 1816 – it stands for the Òmany branches of ideas and learning which are reshaped by time and preserved by human management” adding that, “in the shadow of this learned tree a young sapling is being nurtured after the damage of the 1987 hurricane.”
Together these overlapping communities give the town of Wivenhoe on the River Colne the faint air of an Ark holding the diversity of humanity. Possibly that fabled boat might take the unusually curvaceous form of the otherwise workaday vessel Maria (CK21), the Rowhedge smack built in 1860 by the same makers of the now-celebrated Pioneer, and lately restored at St Osyth and relaunched as a racing craft. That revived vessel looms large in this exhibition.
Then again, Fore and Aft is rife with distinctive boats from Orkney to Sussex viewed from the front and the rear, as well as from James Dodds’ favourite vantage point – with the vessel up on the stocks and the sheer line at eye-level, giving the viewer the same perspective as the builder. We also see the intricacy of internal structures, whose congregations of linked timbers resemble medieval church roofs (the words “nave” and “navy” stemming from the same root). Title and alternating angles also project forward and back – indicating our need to secure the past in order to create a better future.
In an essay pleading to keep historic local ships afloat, in the wake of the fire gutting the Cutty Sark in its berth of concrete, writer and campaigner Adam Nicholson wrote in The Guardian, (26.5.07) naming James Dodds among a tiny crew of “passionate advocates” nationwide. He’s there in a flagship still awaiting a fleet.
Ian Collins is a writer and curator whose books include A Broad Canvas: Art in East Anglia Since 1880 and Making Waves: Artists in Southwold and Bird on a Wire: The Life and Art of Guy Taplin.