Nick Compton 1999

Classic Boat magazine

Lino & Wood

When I did eventually make my way to James’s studio (in a roundabout manner, with his print still firmly in my mind), I found myself in the middle of what appeared to be a turn-of-the-century printer’s workshop. Over the years James has bought or inherited several presses, including a magnificent 1880s Wharfdale. Wooden chests of drawers crowd the walls, filled with lead types of different fonts and sizes used to make up the outdated handset pages. It’s a genuine treasure trove of printing history which James uses only occasionally to hand-print his (very) limited edition books.

It is typical of the man that he should be as interested in the physical process of reproducing his work as creating the work itself. Most of his work, and indeed his life, has been devoted to just this: the conflicting demands of the physical and the spiritual; manual skill versus creative imagination; boatbuilding versus art. It is a dilemma shared by many in this highly specialised age and one that, after years of struggle, lames seems to have resolved.

Born in Brightlingsea in 1957, he admits to being “pretty disruptive” at school, leaving aged 15 with just one 0 level — predictably enough in Art, which he had taken a year early. His father Andrew is a professional illustrator and since 1957 has contributed three drawings a week to the Eastern Daily Press, so artistic abilities came naturally to the young Dodds.

It was however the influences from his mother’s side that guided him to start with. His great-grandfather William Pannell was a director at the famous Aldous boatyard in Brightlingsea (see CB132) and owned the smack Waterlily, which was reputed to have carried small arms to the Continent. It was he too who in 1898 gave the town its public hard. Neither of James’s parents, however, showed any interest in boats’ much to his chagrin. “When I was at school, all my friends’ dads were shipwrights, and I wished my dad was a shipwright too,” he says.

He made up for this lack, by sailing aboard the Baltic Trader Solvik in his early teens and crewing aboard the local Aldous smack Shamrock. From school he went straight into a four-year shipwright apprenticeship at the Walter Cook & Son boatyard in Maldon, which included a year at technical college in Southampton.

These were formative years and, although he later turned his back on boatbuilding, the skills he learned during this period were not only useful backup later on but also proved crucial to his development as an artist.

The four-year boatbuilding apprenticeship was followed by eight years’ artistic training, first at the Colchester School of Art, then the Chelsea School of Art in London and finally the Royal College of Art. Given his woodworking skills, sculpture would have been an obvious medium for him to work in, but he made a conscious decision not to go down that route and chose painting instead: “l needed to do something that did not involve using tools, to allow my imagination to grow.” Early experiments with more abstract forms (including mixing metal filings, earth, glass and wallpaper with paint) eventually gave way to a more figurative approach. More significantly, he also found an ideal halfway house for his manual and artistic talents: linocuts. Traditionally regarded as treading the fine line between craft and art — and wrongly devalued by some as a result — it was a perfect medium for James. He had finally, as he puts it, “found his voice”.

Linocuts were also compatible with his chosen subject matter. “Photography is a good medium for glamorous, smart yachts, but a hand-cut image suits a hand-cut boat. It looks old-fashioned, but the images can have a modern style, so it strikes a balance between traditional and new.”

During his last year at college in 1984 he produced his first ‘small press’ book with a series of 14 prints for the poem ‘Peter Grimes’, which his father had also illustrated several years before. Written in 1810 by George Crabbe, the poem revolves around the Suffolk coastline and the local maritime lore and gave James an opportunity to reconnect with the locality and the sea in general.

Alongside his fine art work, James produced a number of graphic illustrations. Soon after completing his time at Walter Cook’s, he was commissioned to illustrate a pair of books by Harvey Benham, “Stowboaters” (1977) and “Codbangers” (1979), with drawings of the respective fishing methods. Then, over a period of five years, he co-wrote and illustrated an intensely technical book on boatbuilding entitled “Building the Wooden Fighting Ships” (1984). Although completely unlike his later work, these drawings demonstrate James’s in-depth knowledge of his subject which informs all his marine paintings and prints. For, while his linocuts often adopt an almost naive approach to the depiction of boats, paring them down to their basic elements, the shapes are always true and the details always accurate. The sheerline might be exaggerated and key features drawn out of proportion, but this is done to create an effect rather than out of ignorance, as is all too often the case with less boat-orientated artists. During his final year at college, James started on a series of paintings of boating subjects, usually focusing on the characters around them as much as the boats themselves — or more exactly the relationship between people and their boats. Perhaps the two most successful paintings, in terms of fusing boats and people, are “Three Men and a New Boat” (1990) and “Pulling Together” (1991). In “Three Men” the curves of the new planks are exaggerated yet real and the light catches the line of the sheer plank in exactly the right way. The three men working on the hull are typically chunky and rounded, reflecting the shapes of the boat itself. “Pulling Together” shows three people rowing a delightfully rakish double-ended tender against the dark swirl of sea, a rope rubbing strake literally tying boat and people together.

Several of these painting were eventually reproduced as wood-and linocuts and formed part of a series of prints used to illustrate Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Shipwright’s Trade”, originally published in 1910 in his children’s book Rewards & Fairies. The general gist of the poem is how little boatbuilding skills and methods have changed since the ark was built.

“The Shipwright’s Trade” was in many ways a watershed for James, embracing as it does a facet of his life that he had often tried to suppress. The book opens with a preface by East Coast boatbuilder David Patience — for whom James worked for a while and who is portrayed with two colleagues in the first print “Building Eleanor Mary” —which provides an insight both into the boatbuilding trade and the artist himself:

“Kipling drew his inspiration from the workaday aspect of ships and the sea, but remained a detached observer. The pictorial artist, who has earned his living from an occupation that now provides the subject matter, has the advantage of technical understanding and is perhaps able to avoid a romantic image…

“Jamie, even after all these years, is probably happier with the label ‘ex-shipwright’ than ‘artist’, but he knows, and this is what may produce the nostalgia, that there is no going back.”

The signature at the bottom of James’s own introduction is equally pointed: James Dodds Shipwright MA (RCA)’.

The book also contains the first two of what was to be an on-going series of large “landscape” prints, with barges and boatbuilders wrapped around the curve of a river or the arc of a quay. As well as forming a tight thematic form, it has the effect of exaggerating the shapes of the boats, giving them an almost toy-like appearance.

The final image is perhaps the most revealing of all. It shows a man with an oar over his shoulder, a set square under his feet, casting aside a boat on a pebbly beach (“Man with an Oar?”, 1990, linocut). The picture is intended to illustrate a local saying that, if you really want to get away from the sea, walk inland with an oar in your hand until someone asks you, “What is that?” By going to art college in London, James had done just that, and the book marks not only his return to his childhood home but also to the themes and concerns of his younger years — albeit through an artistic medium this time.

James’s next major work takes the theme even further. “The Wild Man of Orford” (1995) was inspired by an operatic version of the 1200 saga at the Aldeburgh Festival. It tells the tale of a Merman’ caught in the nets of Suffolk fishermen. Captured, measured and tethered, he eventually escapes through a wall of nets to return to his element. It is rich material for anyone as interested in local mythology as James is. He commissioned a new interpretation of the story by author and illustrator Allan Drummond and produced a set of prints that are as timeless as the tale itself.

“Wild Man of Wivenhoe”(1997) soon followed, a modern saga by Independent poet Martin Newell. The book included the first in what was to become a series of panoramas of East Coast harbours. “Wivenhoe Past and Present” was my introduction to the village and my means of navigation, until I realised I would have to enter into the artist’s mind to really make use of it. The picture is accurate in every detail, from the individual boats which moor or used to moor at the quayside (the dinghy sailing in the left hand corner is a Wivenhoe One-Design) to the cranes which once formed the skyline when the docks were still active. Past and present merge and a unique, Dodds-like vision of the place emerges.

A similar print of West Mersea came next, followed by Aldeburgh Beach (with the Sizewell nuclear power station in the distance on one side and a cathedral on the other), Cromer and, most recently, Brightlingsea. All are filled with details of local maritime life that would be familiar to locals and give the prints their individual character.

Meanwhile James had a regular output of non-boaty pictures, ranging from illustrations for Kevin Crossley-Holland’s book East Anglian Poems (1989) to a variety of paintings, usually featuring his distinctive, chunky human figures. Even his women tend to be pretty solid since, as he admits with,a smile, he is his own model —’they even have boatbuilders’ hands! Earlier this year he illustrated Black Shuck (1999), another poem by Martin Newell about ‘the ghost dog of eastern England’.

Somewhere along the line, he found time to build his own house in Wivenhoe — now part-studio and part-rented — while he lives with his wife Catherine and children Douglas and Mary in Brightlingsea. His recent Alphabet of Boats (1998) started as a series of plywood tablets for his son to play with and developed into a children’s book of boat types, “from the ark to the zulu” (see Lazarette, CBI29). Recent sailing has been mainly in other people’s boats, although he owned a John Leather-designed New Blossom for four years and is currently looking for a large, open dayboat.

Although it is some 15 years since James left art school, and he seems through his work to have resolved the major conflicts in his life, there is still a sense that he feels bound to the physical labour of producing prints, from which he makes most of his living. It’s almost as if the sheer weight of those anachronistic presses are holding him down, preventing him from rising into other artistic realms — in particular his painting, which is still his great love, although he admits it doesn’t sell as well as the prints. It’s no accident, however, that in another corner of his studio sit his adze and maul, rather dusty and unused now but still at hand. Just as he is an artist, he is still very much the ex-shipwright.

Nic Compton