We catch up with James Dodds, boatbuilding’s artist laureate
Forget… just for a heartbeat or two… James Dodds’s long career in art. Forget that he is one of the few marine artists to have broken free of the marine niche into the wider art world. And set aside the fact that he is the de facto artist laureate of Britain’s littoral working craft, perhaps even Britain’s leading living marine artist. Instead, shut the door on the present, and hang a sign on it that says… Gone paddlin’.
Well, what else would we do? James has a new toy that he has taught himself to use – a tandem sit-on-top kayak – and he’s dug a channel through the narrow stretch of mud between his studio and the River Colne so he can launch it in situ. The tide’s up, the sun’s out and the river’s surface is a luminous, brown glitter-scape, as we pass a man battening down his Folkboat. Soon, I will have to ask searching questions like “what is your favourite colour?” (indigo) and when I’ve gone, a summer gale will replace me, harassing this gentle spot and its ageing cabin yachts that forever swim against the tide at their moorings. But right now, where else would we rather be than paddling upriver on the last of the flood?
As we move steadily up the Roman River to Fingringhoe Mill, James tells me about the local area. Like every coastal town in the southeast of England, the shipyards have become flats and houses and the fishing fleet has disappeared, bar four stout-looking craft in the tiny town dock. Cook’s Shipyard was the last builder of any consequence and near it, a large, metal engraving on a plinth is the most visible reminder of the town as it used to be. It’s by James of course, and one of those old sheds is now his studio. From his talk and from his long, low paddle strokes, the impression is of a man as comfortable in his environment as he seems to be in his own skin.
Much has been made over the years over the similarities and differences between James’s subjects and his depictions of them. A four-year shipwright’s apprenticeship in nearby Maldon after leaving school (aged 15) in the early 1970s has given James a profound feel and respect for the craft of the boatbuilder; not to mention a fondness for the sort of stout repartee that is sometimes enjoyed by men who work with their hands… “They called me the artist in residence when I worked at the yard,” he recalls. One can only imagine the joshing James sustained during those years, as he carved lino-cuts of the boats in the yard.
At the end of the four years James, still only 19, went to Colchester School of Art, then the Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College. The art critic and painter William Packer who taught James at Colchester wrote in 2006 “James Dodds is not just a remarkable artist: he has been one from the start. What marked him out was not just his comparative maturity among his fellows, but that he seemed even then to know exactly what he wanted to do. Such predisposition can well be an irritation in a student and a provocation to his teachers, but it proved to be quite the reverse in his case. Far from being narrow or obstructive, least of all arrogant, he was clearly anxious to learn all he could.” (Jamie’s version, with his gentle self-effacing humour, is “people used to tell me I took myself too seriously”.)
For that reason, there has been a great stability to James’s work during his long career (he has sold nearly 300 oil paintings, not to mention countless lino-cuts, wood-cuts and hand-printed books). William Packer’s comment seems to ring true – here is not a person who has invented himself over the years as most of us do, but who knew his mind from the start.
As we walk around his studio, James explains the process behind one of his typical large oils. He prepares his canvases the old-fashioned way, by applying two layers of rabbitskin glue (which has to be reconstituted from desiccated crystals), then two coats of white lead primer, which has become almost impossible, and very expensive, to get hold of since the EU banned it.
Next is the background colour, a brown oil paint that James mixes himself, with three parts of turpentine to one of linseed, the pigment being burnt earth (literally) from Umbria. More recently James has started to use mud from the river outside his studio. He washes the salt out of it in a sieve, then dries and powders it with a maul. “It’s something I might do more of,” he added. The idea of a workboat painted on a background colour made from the same mud the craft usually sits on seems an apt way to add a narrative quality to the work. The next stage is the drawing of the boat’s lines in white chalk. Sometimes the boat is projected, sometimes lofted just as it would be on the yard floor, and sometimes drawn by hand. “At the end of the day you have to make it look right – the same as in boatbuilding,” says James. He produces a long, thin batten with a string drawn from end to end, a longbow without an arrow.
“You pull the string until you achieve the curve you want” he explains. “Then you can chalk along it”. He learned the method from local boatbuilding legend Malcolm Goodwin whose shed, just a few doors away, is now occupied by his protégé Rob Maloney who restores Wivenhoe One-Designs and Brightlingsea One-Designs, both of which James has painted.
It tallies with another comment made by James’s first tutor, to the effect that James has shunned the usual romantic interpretation of boats and the sea for a much more vivid approach, one that rejoices in utility, a love of “what things are and how they work”. To this end – and it is part of the rare appeal of James’s art – his subjects are depicted either mid-build in the boatbuilder’s shed or out of the water, usually rising out of a dark-coloured background with a vivid relief created by their powerful linear forms. His biographer Ian Collins (Tide Lines: the Life and Art of James Dodds) best describes the effect this creates, when he writes: “His most beautiful pictures now have a luminous quality and an inner light suggesting a sturdy optimism.”
James’s reputation is still waxing. His paintings now fetch up to £30,000 and he was one of the few living artists to feature in the 2013/14 blockbuster exhibition Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia, charting the region’s history from the dawn of recorded time in 300 pictures and objects. His triptych painting of a Cromer Crabber must have been a great contrast to the romance and ‘sturm and drang’ of the Turner next to it.
HAND-CUT ART, HAND-CUT BOATS
The wood-cuts and lino-cuts are carved with a craft knife and gouge and shaded with a wirebrush and sandpaper. Again, it seems a fairly physical process, much like boats which are also, as James points out “hand cut”. Wood-cuts, lino-cuts and oils have made up the bulk of James’s work to date, although in his studio there is a glorious oil of a Wivenhoe One-Design painted on vertical planks of worn, pale wood planks that once made up the roof of the beach hut that his grandfather built in Brightlingsea in 1953. Painting on unconventional surfaces like this is another thing James might do more of in the future, an aspect of his work that, like the locally-sourced mud colours, adds a narrative to his art. The lino-cuts are another strand of James’s work that are instantly recognisable, particularly the fish-eye harbour views, highly detailed landscapes often with wild skies and seas. These are edited memories of a century or more of place. So in one work, you will find an existing building alongside one that was knocked down years ago; rain and sun, night and day. “It’s similar to the way you edit memories in your head,” James explains. Is it more fictional than his art, which is very figurative? “Actually, I see the boats as a fiction too,” is James’s take. “The way they float in space without any context is not realistic.” In some way, the impossible distillations James achieves in his lino cuts are more real than a photo, giving a place all the facets that it is capable of wearing.
“Printing was a more viable way to make a living” says James once we’ve wandered into his print studio annexed to his house. It’s an amazing room cluttered with the tools of the trade, namely two 19th-century letterpress machines, the 1950s-vintage proofing press that Jamie uses for all his prints, and countless drawers of movable type, arranged by font and size. It started in 1984 when James got a spot at the Aldeburgh Festival and hand-printed some books of the extract from George Crabbe’s poem The Borough, the part now better known as Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. James has continued with the artisanal printing under his Jardine Press brand, collaborating from time to time with living poets, but printing an entire book by hand is labour-intensive and it’s in painting the working craft of our shores that James’s deepest enthusiasm lies.
ARTS AND CRAFT
“I find workboats more interesting than yachts, which are generally designed at a stroke. Workboats have evolved over centuries, perhaps millennia. It’s fascinating to consider how a hull form is influenced by the sort of fishing it does, in what sort of seas. If something works well, it will inevitably be beautiful.”
As we’ve said, the practical manner Jamie brings to his art has some of the quality of boatbuilding to it. It’s clear even from our brief meeting that James makes seemingly everything he can himself and overcomes aesthetic problems with workmanlike solutions. In fact, the difference between the mind-set of a boatbuilder and that of an artist is something that started to interest James the moment he started to train as the latter. “The boatbuilder knows exactly what he wants and strips away all else in order to achieve it. The artist has a less formed idea and adds to it as he goes. I don’t think a craftsman should be considered less than an artist. Just think of the riches you find in the V&A – 90 per cent of them were made by people whose names have been forgotten.” James describes his art as “celebrating the art of boatbuilding” implying a healthy subservience to the real thing. “More recently, someone told me once that a painting of mine was more expensive than it would be to buy the actual boat… I suppose you don’t have to varnish one of my paintings every year though…”