William Packer 2006

Forward to Messum’s Catalogue 2006

James Dodds is not just a remarkable artist: he has been one from the start. I first met him when, in 1976, he turned up as a student on the Foundation Course at Colchester School of Art, where I was then a part-time teacher in the painting department. And what marked him out at once was not just his comparative maturity among his fellows, though he was only 19, but that, far more than 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 his proved to be quite the reverse a case. Far from being narrow, difficult or obstructive, least of all arrogant, he was clearly anxious to learn all he could. It was just that, being so sure already of his vocation as an artist, and knowing so clearly just what kind of artist he was going to be – perhaps already was – what he wanted from us in all humility was all that we could give him, so long as it related directly and practically to helping along his path. He was always in the studio, always doing all, and more, that was asked of him. And yet, in his quiet way, he seemed always in control. He continued with that same singularity and strength of purpose through his time at Chelsea School of Art and then the Royal College, and so he has gone on, down to the present day and this his latest exhibition. Such certainty is as enviable as it is rare.

For James is a practical man above all else, and his earliest, formative calling was that of the Sea. After sailing as mate on a Baltic Trader at the age of 15, he was apprenticed to a shipwright at Maldon in his native Essex, and ships and boats have been his life ever since, most of all the traditional inshore craft working the Thames Estuary and East Anglian coast. So it was that Dodds the sailor and the craftsman made him the artist he is, and, as the artist he now is, it is back to the sailor he was, and to the boats he came to know so well, that he forever turns. There can be few artists who know their material with so profound an intimacy.

But we should not take what he is and does as but the indulgent, nostalgic expression of a romantic ideal, or any simple celebration of how things were. For there is little of the Romantic to Dodds and his work, at least overtly, nothing of the storm clouds flying and the surging tide, and man’s eternal, dangerous love affair with “the old grey widow-maker” of Kipling’s sardonic phrase. There is nothing wrong with any of that, of course, but Dodds is, as I say, a practical man, and his near-obsessive fascination has always been not with any suggestive reference to the Sea, but with what things are, and how they work.

And again that essential practicality declared itself in his earliest work as a student, and most obviously in the natural affinity he immediately discovered in himself for making prints. It was to the wood-cut most of all, that is perhaps the oldest medium of the print, not to say the most direct and physically demanding in the technicalities of carving into the face of the block, that he was especially drawn. As we see here, along with, as it were, its little and quicker brother, the lino-cut, he has made himself its master.

From the print to the painting is a natural step, but it is one that can sometimes be large and difficult enough, for it is not necessarily just a matter of the simple transference of the image from one medium to another and its amplification as may be. Each medium has its character and disciplines to be respected, and any shift of scale, too, brings its peculiar tests and problems – for ink and paint sit with different weights upon the surface, while the cut in the block is the negative and uninflected counter to the touch and infinite variability of the painted mark. Large or difficult or whatever, Dodds made the step by the simple expedient of making it, and getting on with it with all his characteristic certainty and aplomb.

And if the paintings were going to be different, so they were going to be different. They were certainly going to be larger, often very much larger, and by the nicest inversion, as the image has grown, so it has become ever simpler in the presentation, and technical in its detail. If the prints often afford Dodds the chance to bring out a more private and whimsical side to his nature as an artist – in his jaunts along the coast and his portraits of seaside towns and ports, and of ships actually at sea – it is the boat in the building, under the hand of the shipwright in the yard, that is all but the exclusive subject of his painting. So strong is the descriptive quality in this work, however, that it is perhaps too easy to overlook its quality as art, for if Dodds is sure of his material, he is no less sure, and accomplished, in his manipulation of it in composition and design, and in the confident sweep and vigour of the drawing in the paint itself. Far beyond illustration, these are monumental works of art.

Sometimes it is the boat, newly painted and complete in itself, strung up as by invisible wires for our inspection, from prow to stern, from deck to keel, that is presented in its isolation – a Coble or a Thames Skiff. But quite as often it is the boat stripped down to its bare skeleton – an East Coast One Design seen from within both aft and forward, or a Lute Sterned Pilot Cutter seen from below and astern. How magical these names are in their un- assuming practicality. For Dodds is a romantic after all.

William Packer

Art Critic and Painter