Artist's love of Suffolk coast

James Dodds has two great loves art and the East Anglian coastline - or more specifically boats and sailing. His art work rooted in sailing traditions of East Anglia finds a ready audience both in London where he currently has an exhibition at Messums in Cork Street, to galleries dotted across the region.

By Andrew Clarke

James Dodds has two great loves art and the East Anglian coastline - or more specifically boats and sailing. His art work rooted in sailing traditions of East Anglia finds a ready audience both in London where he currently has an exhibition at Messums in Cork Street, to galleries dotted across the region.

He has been a featured artist at the Aldeburgh Festival and launched his epic Shipshape exhibition at the Minories Galleries in Colchester.

His work falls into three broad categories, beautiful paintings of traditionally built sailing craft, linocuts of coastal landscapes and illustrations of tales from East Anglian folklore and traditional scenes. He even started a printing and publishing company Jardine Press during his last days at college to publish books of his themed prints.

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His art captures the world of yesteryear through contemporary eyes. He shows us traditional scenes, using traditional methods but seen from a modern viewpoint. His coastal images show us the East Anglia of today but in a style which suggests the long history of our region.

He said: “A sense of history informs the present. My love of our coastline is very much informed by a sense of belonging. My roots are here and that sense of belonging is infused with the history of East Anglia and its coastline and plays a huge role in my work.

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“I love the landscape because it is so subtle. People go on about the skies but it is true, the skies in this part of the world are fantastic. The coastline is tremendous. The water is inspiring and we have these marvellous marshes, reed beds and shingle beaches.

“People go on about big mountain ranges being the ideal landscape but what I love about East Anglia and the coastline is that everything is in a state of flux. Nothing is ever the same.”

Son of an East Anglian painter, illustrator and Suffolk College tutor Andrew Dodds, he showed early aptitude for both art and sailing. Brought up in Brightingsea, his early life was very much influenced by the sea and he learned to sail from a very early age. In fact he spent weekends on the water in a Baltic Trader at the tender age of 14.

He said he originally he went off to become a shipwright's apprentice because he lost interest in school. He said his dyslexia put paid to his more formal studies and he left school at 15 to become an apprentice shipwright at Walter Cook and Son ship yards in Maldon.

It was a match made in heaven. James loved the skills involved in traditional boatbuilding and loved the sense of achievement in being able to build a boat from scratch or repair a classic boat and make her seaworthy again.

“Dyslexia doesn't make you a better artist or a better shipwright but it allows you to channel your creativity through a different form of expression. My dyslexia meant school was very difficult and by 15 I had pretty much given up. I decided to take on a shipwright apprenticeship because I needed some independence at the time. At 15 you just want to get away from your family and stand on your own two feet.”

Using wood and traditional tools he spent four years repairing and rebuilding Thames sailing barges and smacks. He was a craftsman with an artists eye and he saw the beauty in the lines of the boats he built and sailed. This led to him to enrol in the Colchester School of Art in 1976 which then led to Chelsea Art School completing his training at the Royal College of Art.

“The reason I changed was largely down to the fact that I was apprenticed to a 75 year old who lived 100 yards from where we worked and that was his world. I had developed the skills but I couldn't see myself staying there forever and becoming a younger version of him. Also girls were a great motivation. There aren't too many opportunities to meet girls in a ship yard.”

He said that he had always enjoyed art but had shied away from it because that was what his father did. “I think that time away was important because I had established myself as an individual away from parents. I wasn't simply following in my father's footsteps. I was doing it because I wanted to do it. I already had trained as a shipwright, so I had skills away from my father's world. Also for a while I managed to mix both worlds. As a young artist the months from Christmas to April were very slow, but they were very busy in the boat yard, so I would go and work there just to get some money in and then go away and paint for the rest of the year.”

He said that his father was very proud of his achievements and when James had graduated from the Royal College the pair were able to swap notes and criticise each others work in an understanding and supportive way. “It was a great thing because it brought us closer together rather drove us apart. It wasn't competitive in that way because our styles and the media we worked in were completely different. I am tremendously proud of my father's achievements. It was something worth celebrating that he was the resident Saturday Sketchbook artist for 48 years and was one of the artists commissioned to illustrate the Radio Times during the 1950s. One of his jobs was to provide the illustrations for The Archers - he was the one who gave them a face to match the voices on the radio.”

James' love of the primeval force of the sea was reinforced when he first heard Benjamin Britten's music to Peter Grimes when his father was commissioned to illustrate Britten's Sea Interludes - a theme which returned to when he entered a competition during his last year at the Royal College to provide a series of 14 prints to illustrate the George Crabbe poem Peter Grimes. He admits was inspired by the same haunting music that he heard when his father was illustrating Britten's book of Sea Interludes.

The prints were compiled into a limited edition book printed at the college before becoming the first publication by Dodd's own Jardine Press.

James' professor, Peter de Francia, wrote: “James Dodds is a painter whose ideas and whose work have been moulded by seascapes, the elements and themes of timelessness. More specifically, the Suffolk coast, ships and nautical folklore form the basis from which many of his concepts derive. He has made splendid illustrations to Peter Grimes. In this sense he is an artist whose work has a strong regional setting. His work is terse but never bleak. In the words of one of Crabbe's poems, they enable us to see 'the tide's reflowing sign'. In doing so his work becomes both moving and remarkably memorable.”

This is perceptive description of James' work and provides a perfect overview of his artistic obsessions even today. “I can't argue with it,” James says laughing: “Actually it was thanks to Peter that I got my first exhibition with the Aldeburgh Festival. He knew more about me than I did myself at that time.”

Since then he has been a featured artist at the Aldeburgh Festival five times. Dodds' connection to Benjamin Britten continued when in 1988 he was commissioned to make a linocut The Burning Fiery Furnace to promote one of Britten's church operas which was inspired by the Syrian reliefs in the British Museum. At the same time he landed a commission to produce a large edition of a print for the School Curriculum Awards. He came up with a four colour woodcut Sailing From Ephesos which demanded the services of not only the Columbia press at Wingfield Arts but also the ancient press at The Museum of East Anglian Life at Stowmarket.

He said that his work as a shipwright has become intimately entwined with his art, so now his work is unmistakable. His paintings of traditional clinker-built boats and his linocuts of East Anglian scenes are instantly recognisable as his work. He said that he tries to bring a human sense, an feeling of emotion, to his work.

“They are not in any way technical drawings or technical paintings - good art is a balance between the hand, the eye and the heart. It's the heart that I try to get in there. Much conceptual art is too much in the head for my taste and I am trying to redress the balance.”

James said that he remains fascinated by the design and construction of traditionally built boats and has recently started reconstructing long vanished designs building lightweight models before painting them. He said that because he can read boat drawings he recreate them on canvas from inside his head. “It's a way of preserving boats that have long since disappeared. I love the shape and feel of boats and I love the fact that designs change as we go along the coast. Basic designs have been altered or evolved to suit the work they are required to do.

“Boats going out of Southwold are slightly different from those going out of Lowestoft and Yarmouth. I also love how each of our coastal towns are an entity unto themselves. They each have their own character and are much more distinctive than towns inland.”

He continues to produce detailed paintings of small traditional boats which lovingly recreate the beauty of their construction. The paintings alternate between vessels that have been completed and those still being assembled. He loves to show the keel and struts of the boats from dramatic angles which throw up images of whale bones left high and dry on a beach.

The linocuts have an almost medieval feel to them - particularly those that deal with East Anglian legends. The costal images and townscapes as seen from the sea have a surreal quality to them. You see a town encapsulated in one image. The town's features are recognisable and yet it is gently distorted in a reassuring way.

James said that he took to linocuts because his boatbuilding apprenticeship gave him excellent skills with a hammer, planes and chisels which are instrumental when it comes to crafting the linocut block. The linocut was lifted from the school classroom and turned into a legitimate modern art form by fellow East Anglian artist Edward Bawden.

James has also established a long collaboration with poet Martin Newell and the pair have produced a series of books together celebrating their particular visions of life in East Anglia.

These provide a different aspect to James' work as they tends to focus on East Anglian legends and folklore like Black Shuck and The Wild Man of Wivenhoe.

James Dodds' latest exhibition is at Messum's in Cork Street, until March 11.

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