Adam Nicolson

Messum’s catalogue 2007, “Fore and Aft”

On the tomb of a particularly vicious Macleod chieftain, a man called Alasdair Crotach, meaning Hunchback Alasdair, who killed and raped his way across the Hebrides in the middle of the 16th century, and who was buried in the church at Rodel at the southern end of the island of Harris, looking out across the waters of the Minch which were his stamping ground and fiefdom, there is a carving of a boat.

It is surrounded by other things – angels, swords and apostles telling important stories, all the hypocrisy that gathers around a bad man when confronted with death – but nothing holds the eye or lasts in the mind in the way of this boat.

It is sailing in the air. No hint of the sea or its troubles disturbs its perfection and completion. There is no heel or list in it, nor is there anything apparently to support it. Here is a craft complete in itself, an encapsulation of what a boat, a loved and treasured boat, might mean. The man who carved it knew exactly what he was doing. It is a birlinn, or in English a galley, derived from the great Viking inheritance which for more than a thousand years has coloured so much of the boat-building of the British Isles. Every strake in the hull is cut into the stone with precision and familiarity. Its bilges belly out towards you, given a fullness even within the shallow relief of the stone. The rudder-fixings, the gudgeons and pintles, are not blurred or guessed at but described and conveyed. But this is no inert thing. The birlinn – empty of men – is shown sailing at full stretch, the wind coming in over the starboard quarter, the sail filled and driving, its panelled cloth creased against the forestay behind it. It is a boat in the fullness of its being, but as it would never be seen in life. Boats on land, when you can see the form of the hull, never have this vivid urgency about them. They are stilled, asleep, like seals laid out on a rock. But when a boat is on the water, when it is living in the way its makers and sailors always hoped it might, you can never grasp it in its wholeness. There is, strangely, too much sea at sea for a boat to be seen.

So here, remarkably, is not a carving of a boat as it ever was in life, but a boat as it was imagined in its state of perfection, alive in a way that is quite unworldly, free of the restrictions and disciplines which the sea imposes on a boat in the real world and afloat, vividly living, in an element which does not belong to the here and now.

What is this space around the boat, the gap where the sea should be? It is not quite nothingness; it is more charged than that. But it draws its power, if one can say this, from there being nothing there. The air in which the ship sails is a charged absence, of immeasurable potency simply because it does not exist. It is a heavenly element: something which only means as much as it does because it has no physical substance. And that heavenly power of the absent sea in which the perfect ship sails also lends its quality to the ship itself. The ship becomes something that belongs to that other world. It is carved with all the precision and materiality the sculptor could give it, but that is his paradox. The more real the boat and the more absent the sea, the more this is a depiction of an everlasting beauty, of a meaning which outlasts the bitterness, imperfections and violence of life and transcends the material by its materiality clear.

This is an oblique way – and from the wrong, rocky, northern and western side of the country – to approach the deeply southern, Essex, mud-berth visions of James Dodds. But I will persist and retell another famous story from the wrong side of the country, which Seamus Heaney has made the subject of a poem.

One day, the monks of the ancient monastery of Clonmacnois in County Offaly had gathered in their church. They were talking together, discussing the worldly affairs with which monasteries are necessarily involved, when they looked up and saw a ship sailing over them in the air, high above them in the church, its hull revealed to view, sailing above them as if it were at sea. But there was a crew on this ship and they looked over the side, saw the monks at their deliberations and decided to drop anchor. Slowly, through the air, the anchor dropped on to the floor of the church. As it landed, the monks grabbed hold of it. The men in the boat thought it must have got fouled somehow in the rocky ground over which they had stopped, and sent one of the crew overboard to see if he could free it. The man came swimming down the anchor cable, pulling himself down towards the sea floor in the nave of the church. The monks and he struggled for the anchor. ‘For God’s sake, let me go,’ the crewman said. ‘If you hold to the anchor any longer you’ll drown me.’ The monks let go, the anchor came free, the man swam back up, anchor in hand, to his friends in the boat above them, who then hauled him aboard and the boat sailed away in the air, leaving the monks in the church behind it.

Why does that story seem to resonate so closely with the paintings Jamie Dodds has been making? Heaney himself has spoken about this story: ‘I take it to be a kind of dream instruction,’ he has said, ‘a parable about the necessity of keeping the lines open between the two levels of our being, the level where we proceed with the usual life of the meeting and the decision, and the other level where the visionary and the marvelous present themselves suddenly and bewilderingly. We must, in other words, be ready for both the routine and the revelation. Never be so canny as to ignore the uncanny.’

One can restate that union of things again and again. Miracles need to be concrete. Only through incarnation can beauty be known. Miracles must take the form not of clever or amusing or interesting ideas, but of substances, of bread and wine, which you and anyone you have ever met can eat and drink, from supplies you can never exhaust. The only meaning that ever matters is in the interpenetration of the real and ideal. That is the middle, rich, mysterious ground of the real lifted into the condition of the heavenly which Jamie Dodds’s paintings repeatedly approach. Neither aspect is given any dominance over the other. For many years Dodds was reluctant to make his paintings submit to his knowledge of the ways in which boats are actually made. He was anxious that the artist in him – the dreamer of the ideal – would be drowned out by the craftsman – the maker of the real. But as he now quite explicitly recognizes, the richness of his art, the place he needed to arrive, was in the meeting and fusing of those qualities. The ideal without the real would know no ground. The air-sailing ship would never drop her anchor. The real without the ideal would know no air. The ship would never sails into the church at all. But it is important to know that the meeting is entirely reciprocal. When the man returns to his ship, in Heaney’s version of the story, he understands that he has ‘climbed back/Out of the marvellous as he had known it.’ So which is the marvel here: an air-sailing ship; or a sea floor on which monks discuss the future of flocks and the fate of the harvest?

It is at least worth asking why the boat – for Heaney, Dodds, the monks of Clonmacnois, the anonymous sculptor of Alasdair Crotach Macleod’s perfect birlinn – seems to be such a perfect vehicle for this complex of ideas. Why does the boat so effortlessly become the vision? Partly, I think because it is an expression of hope, of human ingenuity set against an inherently hostile and difficult world. But the hope is not a wan and wafting thing. The hope with which a boat is full is expressed through strength of build and coherence of design, of an understanding of the sea environment in which it will have to work and of the stresses to which the timbers can be safely subjected. A boat wouldn’t exist unless men were prepared to risk themselves at sea, but once the decision is taken to undergo the risk, everything in the boat is designed to negotiate that subtle line between liveliness and quickness, in a seaway or a shifting wind, and the desire to look after the crew. It is in that way a humanising of risk, a form of making the world livable.
You can see a boat, in other words, as the great symbol of what in our best moments we might be. In her fineness, strength and robustness; in the many interlocking details of her overall scheme; even in the bowing to nature of her underwater form: in all these ways, she represents a kind of dignity of ambition. The sea is always an ‘it’, the boat a ‘she’. Boats are us against it, what we can do despite the world. From the deck of a boat, out of sight of land, as Auden wrote in ‘the Sea and the Mirror’, ‘All we are not stares back at what we are.’ That is why a boat, far more than a house or an earthly construction, which is always surrounded by the mechanisms designed to support and service it, is the great symbol of transcendence, of our innate capacity to move beyond the brutish realities into something better and finer, but only – and this is the paradox – by attending as closely as we know how to the nature of those realities themselves. A boat in the hands of James Dodds is both canny and uncanny, real and unreal, here and afloat in some other ethereal space of which we will never be quite sure.

Adam Nicolson 2007
Adam Nicolson
2007