Blackthorn with Moon is a theme Webb has taken on several times through his long career, notably in the late 60s/early 70s. The spectral image, the bare skeletal structure highlighted by the brightness of the moon, appeals equally to Webb’s spiritual and graphic sensibilities. For an artist who is possibly best known for his colour use, this theme may seem at first to be an unlikely choice, but Webb sees intensity even in the darkness of the night.
In the very early 60s, Kenneth Webb created the now iconic mural in Bangor Abbey (below) that stands around 25ft high behind the altar, in place of the more traditional extravagant stained glass window. The mural depicts Christ rising, a blackthorn crown on his head, and the three saints most associated with Bangor Abbey kneeling below amidst blackthorn motifs. This magnificent work, beloved and mesmerising in equal measure, is proof that the connection between the blackthorn and spiritual devotion has gestated within Webb’s soul for decades.
Most recently, in ‘Cathedral’ (below) this idea has crystallised into a powerful evocation of the Blackthorn as spiritual emblem, long associated with omens: death, the coming of winter, and also with protection, shedding of the old and readying for rebirth. This most recent and magnificent blackthorn, silhouetted against the full midwinter moon, demonstrates the very best of the theme, creating a stained glass window effect, such as Nature might forge in her own cathedral. Webb has set the black tree against a graphic all-season landscape, like the leading between panes of coloured glass, and accented the piercing branches not only with white snow, but also with red. When asked about this decision, he replied simply, “It has to be red.” Perhaps this harkens to the mythical association of blackthorn with defensive wounds or Christ’s blood, wearing the blackthorn crown at his crucifixion.
As with many of Webb’s masterpieces, the impact from Cathedral grows with each viewing; this painting has evoked possibly more shifts in emotion from its viewers than any other in this exhibition.