Nature in technicolour

PUBLISHED: 15:05 22 May 2017

Artist Kenneth Webb

Artist Kenneth Webb

Matt Austin

Celebrating his 90th birthday, a retrospective spanning seven decades of work by renowned landscape artist Kenneth Webb is sure to inspire and delight this month, writes Carol Burns

Capturing the natural world in paint is one of the artworld’s most longstanding challenges dating back as much as 500 years. But it was the interpretations from the 18th century that we think of – from the 18th century romantic rural idylls painted by John Constable through to the 19th century impressionistic Monet’s Giverny gardens - and for the 20th century I’d have to choose Ansel Adams long-exposure large-format photographs that capture the depth and detail in the landscape in a way no painter ever could. Not better, just different.

And nature is something that has occupied the paintbrush of Devon-based artist Kenneth Webb for seven decades. He celebrates his 90th year with a London retrospective this month exploring his lifelong approach to the landscape. Webb has seen many changes in the world of art – and landscape painting – since he first exhibited his work at the Royal Academy in 1949.

Called up to serve in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy in 1945, Webb served for four years – handing over the reins of his final role as education officer to David Attenborough with whom he remains good friends – before embarking on his art career, serving more than a decade as head of painting at Ulster College of Art before becoming a full time landscape painter at the age of 31. “I travelled the world after that,” he says. “I took commissions of paintings and murals – if anyone would pay me a few bob, I was off.”

Born in London in 1927, Webb studied art before and after his time in the Royal Navy when he was called up before the end of World War II at the tender age of 17 years and nine months. “After the Americans dropped the Atom Bomb, I was out of a job,” he remembers. He served his remaining time as an education officer until he was demobbed in 1948 and exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy in 1949.

A student of the work of Constable – that most traditional of landscape painters – Webb has gone on to enjoy a very successful career as a landscape painter with work now sitting in collections around the world. He featured in an award-winning film documentary Kenneth Webb - A Life in Colour by Donal Haughey in 1999 and there are a number of books written about his work.

Kenneth WebbKenneth Webb

His work is often described as an exploration and celebration of the natural world through his use of colour. He also worked on more abstracted and impressionist work for himself, he says, which he signed as simply Webb. While these were the paintings less likely to sell at the time, now these stunning studies in colour and light are highly sought after. And it is easy to see why. The vibrant use of colour in these works offers a hint of the light and wildness that he is drawn to, which stretches from Ireland to the highlands of Kenya. Looking at the work, the colour offers a shortcut to the joy felt in viewing the landscape which is perfectly balanced in the paintings.

“Landscape paintings are really passé, we are dinosaurs,” he tells me. “If you look at the contemporary art world, there is everything but paintings. It’s a different world, but you can’t really generate a computer landscape – it doesn’t have the emotion.”

His travels took him all over the world – he painted Lanzarote in the 1950s when there was just one hotel. “I got into poppies there, he tells me. “There were millions of them.” He also spent time in Africa where John Huston commissioned work.

“I did a lot of commercial work. When I resigned from college, I was freelance and I took all the work I could get. I did things that other people wanted me to do, but I carried on doing things I wanted to do.”

He has called Devon his home for more than 30 years where he lives with his wife of 65 years, Joan Burch – herself a well-respected watercolour artist.

His exhibitions have also taken him across the world, with solo shows in Washington, Galway and Toronto as well as closer to home in Cheltenham, Bristol and London – where his last show in 2012 coincided with the London Olympics.

G&P presents: Kenneth Webb

12 May -12 June

5 Beauchamp Pl, Knightsbridge, London SW3 1NG

His retrospective show will move on to New York later in the summer.

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