Kenneth Webb was born on the 21st January 1927 at The Royal London Hospital. His parents, William and Mabel Webb, moved to Bristol in 1930 after William had secured a job as a designer of leather goods at Savoury’s. By the outbreak of the war, William Webb had started his own small factory. The direction of Kenneth’s childhood was shaped by the traumatic events of the Bristol Blitz, during which both his father’s factory and the family home were destroyed by Luftwaffe bombing in 1941. By chance and perhaps sheer luck, the parachute mine that sheared their house in two spared the lives of Kenneth, his younger brother Keith and their parents, who were sheltered in the cupboard under the stairs, the only part of the house left standing.
After this traumatic experience, Kenneth’s mother was deeply affected, and the Webb family moved to the beautiful Gloucestershire countryside, to Warren Farm, a derelict sixteenth century fortified farm house, near Lydney on the Welsh border, close to the Forest of Dean.
The proximity of Warren Farm to the Forest of Dean was an unending source of delight to Kenneth who began to paint and sketch spontaneously and freely in the early 1940s. Kenneth was an observant young man, and the changing seasons of the Gloucestershire countryside, the beauty of trees and landscape, and the atmosphere of the woodland environment that Kenneth would walk through every day on his way to school deeply impacted his imagination and creativity. Kenneth attended the local Lydney Grammar School where he excelled in sports and athletics, particularly rugby and boxing. Academic studies did not interest him greatly, but Kenneth’s early interest in art led him to attend classes at the local School of Art in Lydney and he received a scholarship to the Slade School of Fine Art in 1945.
As was commonplace in the era, and before Kenneth went on to pursue his passion for Art, he was called up for National Service in 1945 and contributed valiantly in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy until 1948. After his demobilisation from the Fleet Air Arm, Kenneth was able to pursue his artistic passions. Kenneth’s attachment to the Forest of Dean, “the forest which had given me some of my happiest hours,” and the struggle of the post-war years at Warren Farm facilitated his decision not to take up his scholarship to the Slade in London, and instead, he enrolled at the College of Art in Gloucester. There, Kenneth studied painting, pottery and graphics for his National Diploma of Design.
The few watercolour and oil sketches of Kenneth’s Art College years that survive, illustrate the young artist’s discernible talent in draughtsmanship and in the handling of colour. His first painting accepted by the Royal Academy in 1949 was The Family around the Aladdin Lamp at Warren Farm, a charming oil painting of the Webb family that depicts Mabel Webb sewing and William Webb reading the paper surrounded by other members of the Webb family. This impressionistic academic study, influenced by the work of Walter Sickert, depicts the close family life that Kenneth grew up with. Family has always been hugely important to Kenneth’s personal and professional development and his children and grandchildren are a testament to this.
From Kenneth’s Art College years to the present day, his love and appreciation of nature has formed the nucleus for his creativity. In 1951, while he was still a student at Gloucester, Kenneth had his first London exhibition at the Wardour Gallery in Soho. The exhibition consisted entirely of watercolours of the River Severn and the Forest of Dean, the landscape that Kenneth had grown so attached to in his school and early college years at Warren Farm. Oil paints were costly and as Kenneth had only a small grant of £168 per year for his service in the war, watercolours were his chosen medium. These early watercolours, in particular The Dark Wood, show a subtle influence of Paul Nash’s depictions of trees in the Oxfordshire countryside where Nash lived.
After graduating from the College of Art in Gloucester, Kenneth completed his Teaching Diploma at the University of Wales in 1953. That same year he was appointed as the Head of Painting in Ulster College of Art in Ireland, where he remained until 1960. The move to Ireland was instrumental in forming Kenneth’s artistic identity. In the early years at Ulster, Kenneth and his wife Joan, who is a keen watercolourist, spent much time travelling around the Irish countryside. Both of Kenneth’s parents had ancestral ties to Ireland; his father in Wexford in the south east, his mother in Cork, whilst other ancestors came from County Sligo in the north west. Kenneth’s connection with Ireland was heightened by his delight in the wild, rugged countryside that offered him endless inspiration.
Whilst teaching at Ulster, Kenneth continued to exhibit in London as well as in Ireland with numerous societies and galleries including the Royal Society of British Artists, the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, the Royal Hibernian Academy and the Arts Council in Belfast and in 1957 Kenneth set up the now prestigious Irish School of Landscape Painting. Kenneth embraced more experimental techniques, many of which he taught at the college; encouraging his students to paint and draw in nature to widen their approach and not just remain fixated in the curriculum of realist paintings.
Towards of the end of the 1950s Kenneth became fixated with the motif of blackthorn trees and created a series of paintings based on his drawings and sketches from a trip to County Donegal in 1958. These paintings depict the stark branches of the blackthorn tree silhouetted against a moonlit sky and take homage in Irish folklore. In Irish folklore the blackthorn, also known as fairythorn, is guarded by unfriendly spirits who leave the bushes unguarded at the full moon. Kenneth had great success with these paintings during his first exhibition in the USA.
Only one of these paintings remain in the Webb Family Private Collection, The Rising of the Moon, Wexford, in which Kenneth combined the blackthorn motif with a well-known Irish folk song that tells the story of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, in which it is written “pikes must be together at the rising of the moon”. The outbreak of the uprising against British rule in Ireland began in County Wexford, where his father’s ancestors were from. His ancestral ties to this part of Ireland resonated with Kenneth and inspired this striking painting in which the blackthorn motif silhouetted against the moonlit sky took on a secondary interpretation of the pikes meeting in the moonlight centuries earlier. The bright blue paint of the sky is applied using a palette knife and the broad gestural strokes of black for the silhouetted blackthorn create an effect reminiscent of stained glass windows.
Kenneth further developed this technique in his prestigious commission for a mural of Christ at Bangor Abbey in north east Ireland. Kenneth layered multiple glazes of translucent paint, interspersed with opaque texture in contrasting colours to build up the surface and create the character of a stained glass window on panel. At the re-dedication of the Abbey, the Bishop of Down and Dromore, the Right Reverend Dr. F. J. Mitchell, said that he was almost hypnotized by his first sight of the mural. He alluded to an experience similar to that of this first visit to the imposing Gothic Chartres Cathedral in northern France.
Following the Bangor Abbey commission, Kenneth undertook a considerable amount of what he refers to as ‘commercial’ work for organisations including British Steel, Shell, The Post Office in Northern Ireland, and worked with John Piper, John Betjeman and John Houston. Kenneth travelled extensively during this period and had hugely successful exhibitions in Ireland, the UK and America. Kenneth continued to experiment with texture, using treated sand and texture forms to add depth to his landscapes. He was influenced by a film about the French cubist Georges Braque and began to evoke the texture of the landscape through the use of the palette knife and thicker, broad brushstrokes resulting in Kenneth’s abstracted descriptions of the rugged Irish landscape.
In 1962 Kenneth and Joan moved to Ballywalter, on the Ards Peninsular in north east Ireland. Their small bungalow had spectacular views of the sea from almost every window and provided Kenneth ample opportunity for inspiration. The Irish Sea on the east coast of Ireland is particularly stormy and in those early years at Ballywalter Kenneth became fascinated in the tide wrack that came ashore. Seaweed and marine vegetation twisted together in great clumps that Kenneth recalls being “as thick as a man’s body”. The entwined mass of texture and colours of red, orange, purple and green provided the perfect inspiration for a new series of paintings.
Kenneth exhibited his Tidewrack series with the Veerhoof Galleries in Washington in the early 1960s, all of which sold. Tidewrack: Emerald and Gold is a vivid painting that perfectly encapsulates this experimental period in Kenneth Webb’s artistic development.
The bold and jewel coloured oil paints were applied with both palette knife and brush and were built up over a period of many months to create the different layers of texture and depth, a technique Kenneth still uses today, over fifty years later. The yellow and red gestural strokes down the composition appear to have been squeezed directly from the tube, their appearance is as fresh today as it was when it was created.
Towards the end of the 1950s, Kenneth began to paint landscapes on the long narrow canvases that he has today become so identified with. These landscapes captured the beauty of the Irish countryside in colourful abstracted vistas.
His earliest Irish landscapes were of farm buildings in County Down in which Kenneth explored the shapes and tones of buildings in varying degrees of abstraction, often focusing on blocks of colour in geometrical shapes. One farm, in particular, inspired many of these landscapes. Ditty’s Farm was an eighteenth-century farm with outbuildings that faced the Strangford Lough. The fields stretched for some distance and Kenneth fondly remembers his time visiting the farm with his young children and painting the old barns under the sweeping skies of County Down.
An influence of Vlamick and De Staël can be seen in Kenneth’s earlier landscapes, but the bold compositions and the application of paint with the palette knife offered an originality to the market and Kenneth’s Irish landscapes continue to delight and excite the viewer today.
Poppies have been a recurrent theme of Kenneth’s oeuvre since the 1960s and he habitually returns to the challenge of capturing their simplicity of form with his bold, textured brushstrokes. In the late 1960s Kenneth was offered the opportunity to go abroad with various organisations, including the African Group of Safari Hotels in Nairobi, which exposed him to a very different environment. However, it was Lanzarote that inspired the poppies, as he became interested in the evocative ‘riot’ of red colours he saw. The tumultuous ensemble of various hues of rich colour, whether red, orange or purple, became ingrained in Kenneth’s artistic psyche throughout the following two decades and resonates in his paintings today. His return home to Ballywalter coincided with a proliferation of poppies on the sweeping sand dunes, inspiring a whole series of work and experimentation that focused on the abundant blooms infused within the landscapes and seascapes of Ireland which came to be known as “Webbscapes”. By the 1970s the poppies that had so brightly furnished Ballywalter had become a natural aspect of Kenneth’s works.
Kenneth’s paintings of poppies enchant, and when he depicts them grouped in a great display, the impact can be tremendous. A Field of Poppies is a study for a much larger painting, entitled 1916 , that is regarded as Kenneth’s most important Poppy painting. The painting is a mass of texture and a riot of colour. Each bloom is unique, painted in contrasting tones, and diverse shapes, representing the hundreds of young men who perished in the First World War and for whom the poppy is a poignant symbol. The poppy continues to delight Kenneth and is a recurrent theme in his recent paintings. Whether the poppies are in a wildflower meadow, nestled amongst rocks from Kenneth’s Ballinaboy Garden or silhouetted against a vivid Irish sky, he is constantly drawn to the enduring challenge of capturing their simplicity of form in his bold, textured brushstrokes.
By the early 1970s the political tension in Northern Ireland had forced the Webb family to consider relocating from Ballywalter. The family moved back to Gloucestershire to Bownham Grange, a large house with much room for Kenneth and Joan’s four teenage children. At the same time, Kenneth also purchased a small cottage in Ballinboy in Connemara that was in need of renovation. The West Coast of Ireland had inspired Kenneth for many years and Kenneth describes a “magnetism” to this area of serene blanket bog full of magnificent colour and texture. The Connemara move presented Kenneth with a tremendous amount of inspiration. Kenneth’s newfound perspective saw him focus on the minutiae; small studies of flora, bog cuttings and most significantly waterlilies, bountifully prevalent in the area.
Kenneth’s muse in the 1980s and 1990s came from the early days of life in Ballinaboy, where he would procure pieces of bog oak and consider them “natural sculpture”, to be placed in the garden and depicted in paintings as a subsidiary interest or as the main focus in his paintings of Bog Monsters. The bog oaks are pieces of wood that have been buried over time in the peat boglands, preserved from decay. They are pieces of history, which not only look beautiful, but feel beautiful with a depth of colour like the peat earth that was a home to it for so long. The bog oak take on a supernatural role in Kenneth’s paintings of Bog Monsters, recalling his earlier surrealist tendencies. The vivid colours and thick textural application of paint enliven the paintings of Bog Monsters and one can imagine these natural fossils coming to life.
In the 1990s the focus for the hidden forms shifted from poppies to ancient stones of the beaches of Cornwall and Roundstone in the West of Ireland which enabled Kenneth to embrace his growing concern with colour. Kenneth’s allegorical and surreal paintings culminated in his depictions of Sighle-na-gigs in which vivid blue female forms appear amongst bright red poppies in yellow cornfields. Sighle-na-gigs are medieval Architectural Grotesques of nude females exposing their genitalia that appear on the walls of castles, churches and monasteries as a symbol of protection and to warn off the evil eye and the devil. Particularly prevalent in Ireland, they have an enduring role in Celtic mythology which has always captured Kenneth’s imagination.
In the 1960s and 1970s, whilst his abstract and surreal work was proving popular, Kenneth simultaneously painted many academic paintings of historical views of Ireland and traditional Irish Fair Days. Following the cannon of history painting, Kenneth captured the life and characters of the Ireland that he cherished. He spent much time painting in Galway and the surrounding area, and Mending Nets on the Claddagh in Galway was one of the early commissions for a work of this type. Kenneth captures the daily bustle of this busy fishing village with lively characters, including a self portrait of himself as a fisherman.
The 1980s saw the exhibition of a number of large Fair Days with the Kenny Gallery in Galway. The subject of these paintings was a point of fascination for Kenneth, who spent significant time at these fairs in the West of Ireland, where he recalls horses being paraded against the backdrop of mountains and rivers. Kenneth has said that the areas of Clifden, Ballyconneely, Claddaghduff, Oughterard and Ballinasloe had a local, otherworldly feel to them and an ad hoc quality which he responded to in these lively paintings.
Having owned horses himself, Kenneth loved the atmosphere of the Irish Fair Days and has reflected that it was natural for him and his daughters to paint as well as enjoy the company of the animals. Kenneth was inspired by the early work of Sir Alfred Munnings and his depictions of horse sales in particular, where horses, riders and spectators are shown in a lively and chaotic scene. The rural element depicted by Munnings in the late nineteenth century was still apparent in the 1960s in the West of Ireland and Kenneth was very much drawn to it. These paintings serve as a homage to this part of Irish culture.
In 1987 Kenneth and Joan moved from Bownham Grange to the small village of Chagford in Dartmoor, a wild and remote part of Devon. Over many years, Kenneth has been drawn to the wilds of Cornwall, west of his home on Dartmoor. The ruggedness of the Atlantic coasts is echoed in both Connemara and Cornwall. Cornish sites, such as Gunwalloe Cove and along the Lizard Peninsula, have provided Kenneth with a wide variety of subjects, particularly in spring which is his favourite time of year in this area.
The wilderness of Dartmoor and the rugged coastline of Cornwall have provided Kenneth with a wealth of stimuli. The exciting textures of ancient weathered, lichen-covered rock forms with the delicate tracery of wild flowers have inspired many of his works. Wildflower meadows, both as settings and developed as focused subjects in themselves, have been a significant and long-running theme for Kenneth.
Kenneth and Joan purchased their cottage in Connemara in 1972 and this wonderful place, now known as the Ballinaboy Studio, has offered a multitude of inspiration to Kenneth for over forty years. When he moved to Ballinaboy, Kenneth delighted in the fourteen miles of blanket bog on his doorstep which stretched all the way to the small harbour of Roundstone. Steeped in history, the Derrygimla Bog provides an ethereal setting to Kenneth’s unique landscapes. A prehistoric trackway, exposed when peat was cut from the bog in the past, marks the earliest in a long line of important historic sites belonging to this otherworldly landscape.
The famous Marconi Station once occupied this site where the first regular transatlantic transmission took place in 1907. Vast quantities of peat were dug from the bog to fuel the generators of the Marconi Station, leaving a permanent mark in the form of the magnificent lough where the wild waterlilies now grow in abundance, providing enduring inspiration for Kenneth.
Kenneth has been drawn to the nuances of colour and the variety of flora in the bog since he first set eyes upon it. Inspired by the bog cuts, the reflection of constantly changing skies in pools of murky water and plants at the water’s edge, Kenneth’s “Bogscapes” combine these into unique visions of the Connemara landscape. Kenneth has described how this environment has a remarkable effect on him and causes him to simplify form and to create patterns of texture with colour. He studies the bog in all seasons and reflects the changing atmosphere in the colours and textures of his depictions; during the winter, the grass in the bog turns violet, purple and reddy-orange. The green of the summer months disappears completely and the colours become striking browns, reds and oranges, applied to the canvas in thick swathes of paint.
Kenneth has always been inspired by ancient stones and they have appeared in his landscapes since the 1960s. Stone plays an important role in the Ballinaboy Garden; vast amounts of stone has been added for the boundry walls and to add shelter to the plants in the garden amongst the natural granite rocks that have stood in the garden for thousands of years. Kenneth depicts these ancient stones in his most vivid and textured paintings of the Ballinaboy Garden. Surrounded by native red poppies, wildflowers and occasionally the vivid blue Himalayan poppies that Joan and Kenneth have added over time, they recall the hidden blue forms of the ancient Sighle-na-gigs, in their use of primary colours.
The Ballinaboy Garden is an explosion of colour and texture that incorporates both wild incursions and intricately thoughtout plans. Combined with the native flowers are Kenneth’s impressive bog sculptures, bog oak “monsters” that he recovered from the bog, which loom out of deep vegetation. The result is an entirely organic landscape that fuses native and planted flora in equal measure. Heathers, red campion, ragged robin, ‘moon daisies’, teasels and orchids nestle comfortably together to form a stunning garden of delights. The conglomerate effect of natural forms that have been allowed to develop without interference is imbedded in Kenneth’s work and in the natural but vivid impressions of the garden upon his canvases.
Over the course of Kenneth’s lengthy artistic career, he has shown works at numerous notable institutions, including the Royal Academy in London. Kenneth founded the Irish School of Landscape painting in 1957 and has since lectured at the Tate Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Gallery London.
Kenneth’s paintings are celebrated and collected internationally, with his work placed in prestigious collections across the world. Gladwell & Patterson, formerly W.H.Patterson, have represented KennethWebb in London since 2010 and in that time his monumental works have found fame with important collectors in China, America and the United Kingdom.