Caught by the River

Tide Lines

Ken Worpole | 27th September 2011

Ian Collins, James Dodds: Tide Lines
Review by Ken Worpole

James Dodds is a boat-builder and artist who has lived and worked on the Essex coast all his life, and paints exquisitely. For many years his lino-cuts and wood-cuts have been admired by poets whose work he has illustrated, including Seamus Heaney, Katrina Porteous, Kathleen Jamie and Kevin Crossley-Holland. Dodds is a riverman and coastal sailor through and through. ‘A hand-cut image suits a hand-cut boat,’ he has written, reflecting on the many correspondences between the rigours and craft of wooden boat-building and the making of finished work of art. His life has also been steeped in poetry and music, like his close friend and fellow ‘wild man of Essex’, Martin Newell, the rock musician, poet and balladeer.

Hastings Beach Boat

In 2000 Dodds’ work changed direction dramatically with the painting ‘The Blue Boat’, a mysterious blue and red clinker boat pulsating with colour set in a dark universe. It had a sensational effect when exhibited. Since then Dodds has painted a series of large canvases – sometimes triptychs – filled with these glowing boats, beautifully constructed, wonderfully curved, which have the brooding immanence of religious icons. With these paintings his work moved, overnight, from being of coterie interest to international acclaim. These are not wholly allegorical boats, but boats perfect in every detail representing the many different styles of boat-building which have been designed and used around the coast of Britain: Orcadian Yoles, Shetland Fourerns, Thames Skiffs, Essex Smacks and Bawleys, Aldeburgh and Hastings Beach Boats, Scillonian Gigs, Winkle Brigs and many others. These paintings have won him an international reputation, and his work is now regularly exhibited at Messum’s Gallery in Cork Street.

Winklebrig ‘Breeze’ 2005, Oil on Linen

This handsomely designed and richly illustrated biography by writer and friend Ian Collins – 300 illustrations in full colour – is an affectionate and engaging biography of an insecure young Secondary Modern school-boy who left school with one ‘O’’ level to sweep up in a Maldon boatyard, there discovering his true vocation, working with wood, carpenters’ tools, boats, sails and canvas. There is something biblical about the work, and it is not surprising that one of his boat triptychs has been exhibited as an altarpiece in Salthouse Church, Norfolk. It is a pleasure to read about an artist who is completely fulfilled remaining in his childhood milieu of bohemian Wivenhoe – with its marvellous and occasionally riotous waterside pub, The Rose & Crown – and who continues to find such rich material in the coastal mythologies and riverside boatyards of East Anglia.

Last Ships, Cook’s, Wivenhoe,Linocut 2004

‘You build a boat in anticipation that it will go to sea,’ Dodds told Collins. ‘It’s got to weather the storms and be safe, and in a sense that’s what I do with a painting – I build it to be strong and hold up on its own. And, of course, one of life’s lessons is that at some point everyone has to sail their own little boat.’

Tide Lines is a joy from start to finish and in these miserable days is one of those rare books that make one glad to be alive.

Ian Collins, James Dodds: Tide Lines, Jardine Press, Hardback, on sale in the Caught by the River shop priced £35

The Tide Lines paintings will be on show at Messum’s, 8 Cork Street, London, from the 5th to the 22nd of October.