Summary

Under Arches, Rue de Seine, for which Tate owns preparatory drawings (Tate T07565, T07566, T07567), shows a well-known street on the Left Bank of Paris. The cast of people loitering on the corner is almost exclusively female, and a sense of silence reflects the personal isolation of the post-war period caused by the devastation of the male population. Just one man is included, he appears behind the arch and supports himself on a stick. It is not clear whether he is elderly or a wounded veteran. Dodgson has used layers of paint to build up the image, creating a dense surface of grimy colour. Jenny Pery explains that, 'Dodgson considered that the painted surface of a picture should resist the eye and have an actuality as real as objects in the world outside.' (Pery, p.18) While maintaining the legibility of the subject matter, the shapes are flattened and the shallow perspective adds an element of claustrophobia. The shadow cast by an unseen figure falls from the right and the woman on the far left appears to address her gaze towards it. The painting, with its prominent blank space and palapable sense of unease has an affinity with the Paris street scenes of the 1920s painted by Balthus (1908-2001). Dodgson travelled in Europe around this time, often acting as a chauffeur for his uncle, the Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum Campbell Dodgson (1876-1948), so it is very likely that he visited Paris regularly.

It has proved difficult to date Dodgson's work as he liked to retouch paintings years, or sometimes decades, after he started them. His way of working led to the development of an unusual technique in which layers of paint and varnish have been interwoven to form a textured and glossy surface. He found it difficult to part with canvases, and they piled up in his studio. Many of his paintings were destroyed in a fire on 5 December 1964, five years after his retrospective exhibition arranged by Helen Lessore. Four paintings and a charred sketchbook were rescued, but a lifetime's work and all his materials were destroyed. He remained stoical, and wrote in a letter to Helen Lessore, ' as a matter of fact ... I had been saying to myself for some time "shall have to have a bonfire one day soon!" But the studio WAS lovely. Am putting up another one as quickly as possible ... and hope to be at work … again before long' (quoted in Pery, p.24).

Dodgson did resume work, but without physical evidence to support his memories, and without familiar reference points his inspiration waned and his paintings tended to be more 'sparsely furnished' (Pery, p.24). It is the paintings completed in the 1950s, which were able to evolve slowly and meditatively, that show Dodgson's technique to its best advantage. They achieve a sense of timeless monumentality learnt from the work of the Renaissance artists such as Piero della Francesca, whom he admired, and whose paintings he had seen in Italy, which he visited many times. Dodgson worked alongside and exhibited with members of the Euston Road School, but his painting technique and love of pattern set him apart. Under Arches, Rue de Seine, is one of his most socially complex works and stylistically places him alongside his Euston Road contemporaries, while revealing his leanings towards a more abstract and individual approach.

Further reading:
Jenny Pery, John Dodgson: Paintings and Drawings, The Fine Art Society, London 1995, no.19, reproduced on cover, in colour.

Chloe Johnson
September 2002