Although John Dodgson's closest allegiance as an artist was to the Euston Road School, he avoiding categorisation or alliance to any particular artistic faction. His work may bear comparison with the fantastical landscapes of the 1940s painted by artists such as Paul Nash and Edward Wadsworth, but his chief inspiration was historical. He had an unusually good first-hand knowledge of the works of French Post-Impressionist painting and the Italian Quattrocento, which was derived from his extensive travel.
Dodgson's technique was idiosyncratic. His paintings began with close observation of a scene, which he would note accurately on the spot. He would then seek out flat patterns, rhythms and textures, and transform the reality he had seen into an image which bears some resemblance to the landscape of a dream. His drawings show his progress from the images observed to the final result, which was the product of his own personal meditation. However, in some cases, for example that of Giant Snail, much of the transformation occurred on the canvas.
Dodgson rarely considered his paintings to be finished. He used layers of paint and varnish to build up the image and worked on canvases for many years. As he worked he juggled shapes on the canvas, allowing them to evolve and change. Thus, in this painting, a form, which, most probably, began as the hat of a girl standing in a crowd became the shell of a huge snail, while organic forms appear to grow and take over the nocturnal scene, and architectural features appear to come to life.
Giant Snail is an amalgamation of topographical fact, memories and fantasy. When it was acquired Dodgson explained its development,
this originated with a factual drawing of the old Porta San Donato at Lucca, 1951, which thereafter underwent a series of metamorphoses until the present design emerged, & I think I exhibited it at the London Group … but I have since then repainted it extensively over the intervening years. You are quite right in seeing an echo of Verona in the background … The picture has really become a fantasy depicting a mediaeval Italian fortress in the ramparts of which the stone lions have now come to life and stand guard in lieu of the one time human sentries. The foreground is a mass of debris across which the Giant Snail is trailing, and a couple of girls on the left approach a shrine & a crowd of boys rush down the hill side on the right (Dodgson quoted in Chamot, Farr and Butlin, p.154).
When Giant Snail was first shown in 1959 in a retrospective exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery arranged by Helen Lessore the Times critic commented that the painting 'expresses a vein of undemonstrative poetry given weight by the carefully methodical technique, and a certain sombreness and mystery of colour' (quoted in Pery, p.22).
Jenny Pery, John Dodgson: Paintings and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, The Fine Art Society, London 1995, reproduced p.23.
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, Vol. 1, Tate Gallery 1964, p.153-4.