In the first of our occasional articles about Swindon Treasures, Juliet Platt talks with painter and muralist Ken White, from Old Town,who gained national media coverage in the 1970s for his enduring mural of the Golden Lion Bridge at Whalebridge, yet does not have one of his paintings in the town’s much vaunted collection of British modern art housed in Swindon Museum & Art Gallery.
Ken is also well known for creating the Scarlet Lady, the glamorous mascot which adorns Richard Branson’s Virgin aircraft and his work for Virgin branded locations around the world.
Ken is less famous in the town for his own considerable portfolio of oil on canvas artwork, reflecting his memories and experiences of Swindon’s industrial past.
Swindon born and bred, Ken began his apprenticeship in the railway works as a rivet hotter, before moving into sign-writing. At the age of 17 he began studying art at night school, then went on to Swindon Art College, on the top floor of the recently demolished Swindon College building.
His work as a designer and illustrator took him to London and New Zealand before he returned to Wiltshire to raise his young family.
Ken created the Golden Lion Bridge mural in 1976 as part of a job creation scheme. Explaining the commission he said: “At the time I was on the dole and receiving £30 a month, having just returned from six months living in New Zealand where I’d worked as an illustrator for the Auckland News. Swindon Council offered me £25 to do the painting, and to teach young students how to paint as well. Then the chemical company Bayer used the mural in an ad campaign and I became a muralist over one weekend.”
For 26 years Ken worked for Richard Branson, and travelled all over the world, meeting many of the famous musicians and rock stars of the day, and creating murals at Branson’s recording studios, mega-stores, hotels and in the Virgin airport lounges. Ken’s wife Jan even knitted some of the Virgin boss’s jumpers.
Describing the charismatic businessman Ken said: “He was a brilliant boss. He’d just leave it all up to me. It was nerve-wracking to be shown a white wall and told to get on with it.”
Ken has now retired from mural work and dedicates himself to his own paintings, which he sells through a London gallery.
After school Ken spent four years from 1958 ‘inside’ Swindon’s now closed railway works, first as a rivet hotter then a signwriter in the wagon shop, before leaving to study at Swindon Art College. He worked as an exhibition designer, freelance commercial artist and illustrator before returning to the town in the mid-1970s.
The Golden Lion Bridge was his first mural. After his work appeared in a huge Bayer advertising campaign in 1977, he was taken on by Richard Branson to paint murals in his home and in Virgin Megastores around the world, a relationship that has lasted over 30 years.
Ken has created over 100 major murals worldwide. Funding for the Golden Lion mural refurbishment in came from Swindon Does Art – pictured right. Read about and see pictures of Ken in 1976 and 2009 here
Commenting on the global appeal of his work Ken said: “I think people like scenes of how things used to be. My paintings have been shipped to the States and to Canada; I sold 18 paintings at a London gallery exhibition in February this year.”
Yet, ironically, there is not a single painting of Ken’s in Swindon’s art collection, although McArthur-Glen bought seven canvasses for the Designer Outlet Village, and Steam Museum have a couple of Ken’s works on loan.
Ken is saddened by the disappearance of so much of old Swindon and the demise of its heritage. He dreads what might be constructed on the old college site.
He said: “Swindon doesn’t know what it’s got. We should keep what we’ve got and look after our history.”