Artists flocking and floating together

IAN COLLINS Birds and boats abound in the parallel visions of a painter-printmaker and a sculptor that will be on display at King’s Lynn Arts Centre. Ian Collins hails the work of two leading East Anglian artists who are singular talents and firm friends.


There may well be a lyrical link between one man who makes images of boats and another who gathers driftwood from vanished vessels to be carved into birds.

But when those artists are James Dodds and Guy Taplin there is most certainly a parallel journey.

Mainstays of the diverse creative colony at Wivenhoe, a Bohemian backwater on the Essex coast beloved of a characterful cast from Francis Bacon to Joan “Miss Marple” Hickson, James and Guy have long been close friends and artistic allies.

Having migrated through many careers before taking bird sculpture into a new dimension, Guy has been a key influence as James evolved from a shipwright into a consummate painter and print-maker of ship-centred scenes.

Both men have had hugely successful solo shows in London and elsewhere. And now their first joint exhibition is set to open at the King's Lynn Arts Centre - a fitting venue given its nautical air and its anchorage near the quayside of a medieval port.

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Born in the East End of London in 1939, Guy hails from a family of eccentrics and misfits - Huguenots who found a Cockney refuge on the Nile (Nile Street in Hoxton).

He gained a love of the wild outdoors, which would ultimately be expressed in emblematic bird sculptures, during wa-time evacuation to Herefordshire and later expeditions to Epping and to City bombsites.

He himself ran wild in early years, with stints as a Post Office messenger, meat porter, street trader, lifeguard, hairdresser, cook and gardener, plus a spell in a psychiatric hospital after faking a mental breakdown to escape National Service in embattled Cyprus.

Success as a designer of ornate belts in 'Swinging London' - an essential accessory for Cosmopolitan magazine - prompted a genuine collapse ­ and a retreat into Buddhism and birds.

Almost on a whim, he started whittling in wood while the Birdman of Regent's Park - caring for the fabulous royal collection of ornamental waterfowl.

Entirely untrained and soon wholly obsessed, he turned from decoy-like ducks and geese to poetic flights and stands of birds with each individual image both extended and pared down into a talisman for mankind's need for wildness and wilderness.

Exact ornithological models may only turn driftwood into deadwood, mocking nature by killing the spirit of the living thing. But Taplin's birds, excising or exaggerating telling details, hit straight at the heart and the soul.

Born in the Essex port of Brightlingsea, in 1957, James comes from sterling stock. His forebears include displaced Scottish farmers and the Victorian master of a sprat-curing business, sail-loft and shipyard.

But the name will be most familiar to EDP readers because his father and principal mentor was Andrew Dodds, prolific artist and this newspaper's resident illustrator for almost half a century until his death last Christmas.

Thanks to Andrew's example and active encouragement, James was steeped in art and craft from the outset. He­ trained as a shipwright before seven-year art studies in Essex and London.

After early experiments with abstraction he has wisely returned to his first love: ships and the sea.

His marine passion now sails across paintings, prints and fine-press books, with salty images ranging from panoramas of East Coast ports to shipyards and monumental boats afloat in indigo seas or stripped bare like stranded whales.

From 2001 his two-year Shipshape tour culminated in a coveted mooring at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

Shipwrights always work in pairs, and James continues to enjoy the art of collaboration - ­ producing several books with pop poet and Essex neighbour Martin Newell. In the latest tome, Longshore Drift, Dodds places his linocut images of East Anglian boats alongside the poetry of Katrina Porteous (Jardine Press, £10).

Birds of a feather flock - and float - together. And with the pairing of painter and sculptor two creative wings soar to new heights.

The joint exhibition by Guy Taplin and James Dodds, with many works for sale, is in the Fermoy Gallery at King's Lynn Arts Centre (01553 779095) from September 17 until October 23. Open Tues-Sat 10am-5pm and 10am-3pm on that final Sunday to coincide with Maritime Day. Early in the new year both artists will have major solo London shows with Messum's in Cork Street.

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