James Dodds: 
Drawn to the Form

We catch up with boatbuilding’s artist laureate
Story by Steffan Meyric Hughes / Portrait by Emily Harris
Article courtesy of Classic Boat Magazine

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. Continue reading