Ian Collins 2013

Forward to Messum’s Catalogue 2013

Three years ago this artists’ biographer got a plum commission, at least from a professional point of view. An admired painter asked me to write the last word on his fascinating life and career – he had already stopped working save for noting down masses of memories, was fading fast but seemingly set fair for a full death-bed confession. What a scoop.

But hang on a minute. This was James Dodds, my (not so) old mate. We had grown up in the Sixties and Seventies, met in the Eighties and both were supposedly in the prime of life – in fact he was a few weeks younger than me. And yet an initial diagnosis of debilitating illness suggested lymphatic cancer in galloping mode. I have written many obituaries for aged artist friends and, while I couldn’t quite believe that such a close contemporary was about to hit the canvas, it made sense to make haste.

So together we charted Tide Lines: The Life and Art of James Dodds with amazing speed and ease. It just flowed out like a tidal river until it was finished – as if in a parting gift. And by the time we had our book, James also had his reprieve. The near-felling of the former Wild Man of Wivenhoe turned out to be due to sarcoidosis – nasty enough since one lung collapsed at one point and both kidneys faltered – but wholly curable. Our tome was splendid therapy. But now, alas, I want to encourage reflectiveness in future biographical subjects with dire medical news, before delivering the happy endings of good health and fulsome books…

Actually, it’s not quite true that nothing was painted in those months of memorialising. James did manage to complete one image of two adjoining anchors – clearly a metaphor for the deep-rooted partnership of James and Catherine Dodds (his wife and our book designer). It’s in this exhibition not as a last word but as a launching point. For we can now see the renaissance of James Dodds, who has returned to his art revitalised – and, being further on his creative journey as a masterly mariner, literally with a new perspective on life. Born at the North Sea mouth of Essex’s River Colne, in Brightlingsea, he has travelled just a few miles downstream to Wivenhoe. But having left school with no qualifications (and undiagnosed dyslexia) at 15, he then famously embarked on a prolonged apprenticeship – first as a trainee shipwright in Maldon and then as a boat-besotted art student in Colchester and London. And, ever on an exploratory voyage, his paintings, prints and fine-press books have now crossed oceans, to be hailed from the East Coast of England to the East Coast of America.

Twenty years ago James and Catherine were settling down to family life in a house looking over a shipyard to the river which ran through this artist’s work, play and dreams. Then the yard was closed, like all the others on what had once been the Essex equivalent of a mini River Clyde. Dereliction gave way to development and that vital view vanished. But while his print workshop remains next to his house, James has now bought a fantastic space on the waterfront for painting. “My new studio restores my link to the river, and everything that means for my life and work,” he says. “Here I can watch the tide and the boats and feel part of the weather.”

Mid-way between the old shipyard jetty and new tidal floodgates, to one side he can see the last four local fishing boats, in a saltwater village once with its own canning factory, now returned from the Thames estuary with whatever they can net (including mammoths’ tusks and 18th-century buoys as gifts for artists). And across the river, and the route of the little foot ferry to Fingeringhoe and Rowhedge now revived by volunteers in summer months, he can see sublime saltings beneath a southern sky and berths for the Colne’s last commercial shipping: gravel barges plying to Deptford and supplying the London Olympics. Grit still makes the pearl in the Essex oyster.

This being creative Essex at its most authentic, what looks at first glance like a rather aloof enclave of prime New England marina housing turns out to be more community than commutery and far more settled than second-home. And all the more so since a mix of living and working spaces has prompted a vibrant array of galleries and studios in which James Dodds is happily at home.

He is especially happy since this spacious studio can double as a boatshed – housing the treasured winklebrig Breeze, which he saw his friend Shaun White carefully craft at Brightlingsea. And then he had one of the happiest days of his life when he was able to buy the sturdy vessel and sail her home to his adopted port. After all, brigs like this have floated through his entire life like a mascot or a talisman. For this was just the sort of vernacular Essex boat he helped to build at the age of 15, and on which he also learned to sail as a teenager. In the year 2000 such clinker-built curves inspired the extended and abstracted Blue Boat painting that really started him on his journey as a poetic painter. That long-sold picture recently drew an inquiry from the actress Julia Roberts who wanted it for her house on the New England coast. And now the little boat looms large in this exhibition – there it is at the head of a new line in relief carving, as it emerges from an old timber hatch-lid from a Colne fishing smack in an echo of the gouged blocks for nowcelebrated Dodds’ linocuts of boats, sheds, yards, ports and harbours. And there it is again, leading a flotilla of small gesso images on board, comprising North Norfolk crabber, Yorkshire coble, Shetland fourern and American skiff, which resemble nautical icons.

Various vernacular vessels now glide toward us, past us or above us, and we also look down into interiors where great congregations of naval timbers recall the finest ceilings of medieval church naves. And amid a procession of unblemished perfection we are also guided over the strange beauty of decay and dereliction in creeks and on beaches which are graveyards for boats.

At first James Dodds brushed up his boat evocations in strokes and layers of paint which he then scraped back to brown ground. This process produced a smooth and silky finish which could even emulate that pristine gloss of marine varnish. But as he has advanced he has become more concerned with the subtleties of texture – and now he delights in all the patterns and patinas of wear and weathering as rendered in revelatory light. And the method of putting on the paint has fundamentally altered. Unsatisfied with the range of commercial palette knives, he has made his own from bent and filed steel. These customised shipwright’s tools have allowed him to lay on the paint quickly and then slowly and skilfully to manipulate tonal adjustment to build a haunting picture. Such a technique initially derived from studies of the burned timbers and rusted metal of the Cutty Sark and much meditation on how best to depict that heritage of sustained danger and sudden disaster. It has now brought to poignant life the skeletal wreck of a Baltic trader as found in the mud of Alresford Creek, close to the artist’s studio.

But still underlying everything there is a desire to celebrate the beauty and buoyancy of boats – be it the new rowing gig Audacity built at Harker’s Yard in Brightlingsea by the Pioneer Sailing Trust also responsible for rebuilding the lighter once serving the Constable clan on the River Stour or the royal barge at the centre of last summer’s festivities for the Diamond Jubilee. James Dodds just loves the practicality and poetry of boats.

From those two painted anchors which form the earliest work in this display we neatly end with a boat hook carved in a waste sandstone paving slab found on the development site of the old shipyard beyond his doorstep. It is a symbol of both clinging to home, family and community and casting off for a joyful journey. Besides solo shows on the Maine coast and in London’s West End, this sculpted pointer to the future further signals the landmark exhibition Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia, at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich from September 14 2013 to February 24 2014 for the 50th birthday of the University of East Anglia. Alongside treasures of archaeology, medieval relics and prized works by Holbein, Gainsborough, Constable, Turner, Moore and Hepworth, James Dodds will claim a prominent place with the triptych Salthouse Altarpiece (Cromer Crabber) – an ancient and modern classic from 2008.

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Ian Collins
Art critic and writer. Author of Tide Lines: The Life and Art of James Dodds