Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
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Some people just don't take to school Winston Churchill, most notably: How I hated this school and what a life of anxiety I lived there for two years. James Dodds told me that he didn't get on very well at his Colchester secondary school and left aged fifteen. This, when I first ever met the artist, was a point of contact between us. I hadn't done very well at school either and had also left when I was fifteen. I once saw an old photo of the teenage Dodds. In it, he stands shaggy-haired besides a baby-faced Colchester rock group, Cosmology, for whom he acted as roadie. Dyslexic, rebellious and somewhat hesitant of speech, with boyhood now over, James was apprenticed to a shipwright in Maldon, Walter Cook & Son who rebuilt traditional sailing barges. Here, he was given an adze to work with, an ancient woodworking tool, which literally, might have come out of the ark. That's the thing about making a wooden boat. Apart from radar, sonar and one or two other bits of modern electronica, the basic construction of a traditional wooden boat has hardly changed over long centuries.
James told me that they used to train a young shipwright by pairing him up with an old shipwright. On his first day at work, the older shipwright told him: I shan't say nuth'n. You watch me. The young man's first timid swipes with his adze at a piece of oak, were gently admonished by the older man with: Stop taking bees-wings off, boy. and James, a quick learner, began to pick up the knack. He learned the parts of a boat: keel, keelson, stem, sternpost and strakes. He swept out the yard, made the tea, lit the fire under the pitchpot and helped take the planks, newly-pliable out of the steaming-trunk He learned that the bottom planks of a ship are often made of elm because elm behaves well underwater though, he said, it stinks of cow-dung when it's first sawn up. James, in fact, became thoroughly versed in the trade of Noah.
Four long years later, having travelled, winter and summer by bus to Maldon, his overalls covered in paint, resin, mud and pitch, Dodds emerged as a shipwright. He'd been trained on the River Blackwater. Though, he was actually a son of the Colne, having come from a Brightlingsea family. His mother's side, were mostly in maritime-related trades. His father, Andrew, was an artist and lecturer who for 48 years, worked as an illustrator for our sister paper, The Eastern Daily Press.
Art, too, was in James Dodds' blood. He had the talent. Still just in his teens, he returned to education. It must have been strange, having been a working man since he was fifteen, to attend art college in Colchester amongst people of his own age, many of whom would have seemed immature by comparison. His years as a shipwright, which had taught him the virtues of hard work, stood him in good stead. Seven years later, with an MA from the Royal College of Art in London, he'd stopped painting the abstracts which were then the stock-in-trade of the fashionable metropolitan art world. He began instead making prints and lino-cuts of ships, shipyards and working-life in East Anglia. For James, acclaim wasn't instantaneous but steady and sure, with a slow accumulation of successful exhibitions, sales and reviews. There's an East Anglian reticence about him, too. Catch him in London at a packed Cork Street exhibition, clean-shaven in an unfamiliar smart jacket and he'll still seem as awkward and tongue-tied as the teenager in that old photograph. Drop in on him at his workshop, however, grinning and unshaven in overalls, surrounded by prints hung up to dry like pillow-cases and a floor covered in bits of framing wood and then, you meet the man.
James Dodds has just produced an extraordinary book. A book and a half. in fact, as we might say round these parts. River Colne Shipbuilders A Portrait of Shipbuilding 1786-1989 is published this month by Jardine Press. With an exhaustively-researched text by John Collins, archivist of the Nottage Institute, the book has been many years in the making and details 200 years of shipbuilding at Brightlingsea, Rowhedge, Wivenhoe and St Osyth. It is a definitive work, chock-full of diagrams, linocuts, paintings and photographs of ships, shipyards and the men who worked there. Many of the pictures are previously unpublished and all of them are stunningly re-produced. The front cover alone, a rare 1877 painting of a Colneside shipyard observed from the Rowhedge, with a wooden capstan in the foreground, sets the book's tone. Even if you weren't particularly interested in the subject, River Colne Shipbuilders in an age where many of our rivers have become playgrounds for waterfront developers brings a lost world back into sharp focus. Stood in rows by their work, the Victorian shipyards' men, stare out at the camera, moustached and cloth capped, with their mauls (heavy shipwrights' hammers) resting on their shoulders. It was their river then, a place of hammering, sawing and the drifting smoke of boiling pitch. The River Colne gave James Dodds to the world. Alongside John Collins' sterling text, with River Colne Shipbuilders, he returns the favour.
River Colne Shipbuilders , published on 18th September, is available from local bookshops.