Kenneth Webb 2015: Themes & Backgrounds

With the highly anticipated Kenneth Webb exhibition just a few weeks away, we thought we would celebrate the varied themes in Kenneth Webb’s stunning new collection by releasing fascinating background information on each theme, every week, until the exhibition commences…


Paintings from this theme include:
Poppies in a Cornfield
Summer Flight
Cascade of Poppies
A Summer Tableau

Poppies have been a recurrent theme of Kenneth’s since the 1960s; this is probably the theme most closely associated with him. Unsurprisingly, given their impact on the art world, this is also the most copied of his work.

So, what is it about the poppies? The simplicity of form, which is deceptive – they look so easy, but to truly capture this honesty is an enduring challenge – draws Kenneth back to them again and again. The tint and colour of the poppy varies so greatly, with season and light and movement. Sometimes the light shines entirely through the petal as though transparent, at other times the colour is opaque, creating what Kenneth describes as ‘an exhilarating impact’. Whilst an individual poppy may enchant, when grouped in a great display, the impact can be overwhelming. Witness, indeed, the recent ceramic poppy display at the Tower of London.

Back in 1973, the then Governor of The National Gallery of Ireland, Gerald Y Goldberg, said of Kenneth’s work: “…I saw a study by Henri Matisse of poppies [in America]. I do not think that Mr Webb could have seen it. Yet today, I see the same treatment, the same use of texture, the proper use of colour in the wonderful, fascinating, living poppies from Mr Webb’s brush. They are fresh and strong, overbearing in pride, upright with knowledge that they are among the rare, the rich and the beautiful, shimmering with light, an exciting never-to-be-forgotten experience. The best is yet to come.”

Mr Goldberg was right then, as he is now. Better has come, and continues to come. The best, indeed, may yet be to come.


Paintings from this theme include:
Poppies in a Summer Meadow
Dancing Poppies
Summer’s Harvest
Atlantic Meadow

Wildflower meadows, both as settings and developed as focused subjects in themselves, have been a significant and long-running theme for Kenneth. The colour and texture of areas that have been left, in Devon, Cornwall and elsewhere, have a profusion of youthful, innocent life that inspires Kenneth to try to capture their ephemeral potency. It has always amused him that his concentration on so many of these wildflowers, many of which would be considered weeds and undesirable intrusions into gardens, is an utter contrast to the celebrated work of Monet in Givenchy and the plethora of Victorian artists, whose work focused on formal, classic cultivations. Kenneth’s work is, and has always been, romantic, as opposed to the control of the traditional, classical form.

The soft climate of Devon and Cornwall – mild winters and warm, damp springs – provides an ideal environment for these wildflower meadows. In addition, small fields divided by stone walls, often on steep and less-accessible slopes, has discouraged the more aggressive farming techniques and widespread use of pesticides that have destroyed these wildflower fields elsewhere in the country. These wonderful meadows have clung to survival in the South-West, oases of delicate life – flowers, bees, butterflies and more – that gladden Kenneth’s heart to see and motivate his brush to try to capture.


Paintings from these themes include:
Fernworthy Forest, Dartmoor


The garden at Ballinaboy Studio was just an area of natural bogland when he bought the cottage, with some lovely patches of rock and local flora – heathers (including St Dobian’s Heath), red campion, ragged robin, moon daisies, teazles, orchids and several different thistles. Being so close to the Atlantic coast, it was incredibly windswept with just a few scrubby thorn trees, willows and rhododendrons.

Gradually, the garden has been nutured over the past 40 years into an oasis of colour and texture with many different areas, but he and Joan have tried to use plants native to Connemara as far as possible. Some non-native additions have been too tempting to resist however, such as the blue Himalayan poppies, apt and beautiful companions to the existing red ones. The garden is now a profusion of hydrangea, montbretia, irises, buddlea – many of which grow wild in the area. The planted areas incorporate a lot of natural rock and ‘bogoak’ discarded by peat diggers, and these make wonderful foils to the delicacy of the flowers.

Kenneth’s bog garden is an oasis of colour in the mild empty boglands of the West of Ireland. Paintings of this landscape reflect his obsession with nature’s moods, recorded through colour. Pigment, gold and silver leaf and a variety of textures are always of interest but can never quite emulate, let alone surpass, the subtle tint of nature’s many forms. The transparency of a petal, the infinite variety of a leaf, he records as best he can, so others may look more carefully, may see patterns and details in a different way, may become more aware of nature’s elusive wonder.

Unlike many a formal garden, this has evolved into a series of spaces that unfold: a waterlily area, a woodland area, patches of poppies and irises and astilbes, interspersed with enormous granite, lichen-covered boulders (some weighing over half a ton) brought in by Kenneth and his neighbours. Besides working in the garden, Joan and Kenneth will often walk through it several times a day; the peace and tranquility, the ‘karma’ of the different spaces within, bring a stillness to their souls.
During the summer months, the buddlea and cultivated nettles draw flocks of butterflies: Emperors, Cabbage Whites, Painted Ladies and many others in blues and golds. The actual area of the garden is surprisingly small – the way that the spaces link and flow still mean that visitors often become lost – in their orientation, and in the emotional atmosphere of these zones.

Whilst many areas within the garden were, of course, carefully considered and planned, many other
parts of the garden developed on their own, as though the garden’s own character and personality were asserting themselves. For example, Joan once planted a range of teazles in one part of the garden, but after a couple of years they seemed to disappear altogether – only to reappear two years later in an entirely different part! This is where they wanted to be; they are thriving still. And in this accepting evolution, where the living, breathing garden communicates with its human carers, where neither imposes will on the other, but grow together – perhaps this is the source of the bond between them, and the happy inspiration the garden continues to provide.

Kenneth’s garden is so important to him, and has proved to be such an inspiration for many other artists and poets over decades, that plans are afoot to ensure the preservation of this magnificent and unique space for future generations.


Over many years, Kenneth has been drawn to the wilds of Cornwall, west of his home on Dartmoor. Cornwall has provided him with a wealth of exciting textures, and Kenneth has combined these ancient weathered, lichen-covered rock forms with the delicate tracery of wild flowers. Rock forms, individual stones and patterns of shore line have been subjects for his paintings since the early 1960s, when he first exhibited his work in Washington D.C..

A series of Holy Wells in Cornwall, calm and mystical sites still, have proved productive sites for Kenneth, such as the ancient twisted trees making beautiful patterns across a sunset, included in this exhibition.

The ruggedness of the Atlantic coasts is echoed in both Connemara and Cornwall. Cornish sites, such as Gunwallow Cove and along the Lizard Peninsula, provide Kenneth with a wide variety of subjects, particularly in Spring – his favourite time of year in this area. The quality of light in this area has often been referenced, the sea acting as a giant mirror, reflecting and refracting in the millions of little prisms suspended in the sea-moist air, intensifying the colours.


Paintings from these themes include:
Sweet Pea in a Blue Pot

Kenneth says of these that they are absolute fun to paint. Unlike most of his flowers, which have relevance to the natural form, these are deliberately presented in a semi-abstract way, so that the colour pattern is predominant over the structure of the flower itself. There is a gaiety about the Sweet Pea which is easy for Kenneth to respond to. They demand playfulness from him, seeking to be represented with a lyrical, innocent and joyful tone, rather than the more serious, meditative response as from the poppies.


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