A new community mural which looks at Swindon through a visual mist of time in the 175 years since the Great Western Railway came to the town has been created on the side of Cambria Bridge in the town centre – a site which in pre-railway times saw a canal entering the town, and also where a mural was painted in the early 1980s depicting life next to it.
The 200 foot artwork depicts key people, buildings and organisations, linked together by an old style police box at one end and the Dr Who Tardis at the other. It has been produced by local artists Ed Russell and James Habgood of The Visual Drop in collaboration with young people from ‘The Railway Kids’ youth club organised by the Mechanics’ Institution Trust, in partnership with Swindon Borough Council.
Hannah Parry, the trust’s community development co-ordinator, said: “Local Councillors came to us back in August 2014 and asked us if we could help create a new community mural there. The bridge wall overlooking the play area has seen several murals and street art works over the last 30 years, but was in poor condition and was due to be re-rendered. We’ve worked with local artists on various projects over the years, so we were really excited to be asked to coordinate a project.
“While the wall was being repaired this summer we ran some history sessions at the youth club with Ed and James where we talked about all the important people who have made Swindon special and went on a visit to Steam Museum.”
In 1982 Swindon born artist Ken White, who went on to become an internationally renowned muralist and painter, hand painted scenes from life on the canals. The concept for the new design grew out of his original artwork, particularly the large pillar at one end of the bridge wall which Ken had painted as traditional police box, used for communications between the police station and officers on the beat. He says it was more to do with the shape and size of the pillar rather than any connection to Dr Who.
Ken had been an apprentice sign-writer in the railway works before leaving to attend art school in Swindon and then lived in New Zealand for several years. When he painted the mural he had returned to his home town and was on the dole, struggling to establish himself. As a result of national publicity for his work on several murals in Swindon, he was commissioned by Richard Branson to paint murals in Virgin offices around the world and to design Virgin Airlines ‘Scarlet Lady’ to adorn their Trans-Atlantic aircraft.
Hannah said the police box was deeply rooted in resident’s memories. “When we were talking to people about the project, the main thing everyone asked was whether we could paint the Tardis again. They had made such a strong link between Ken’s original work and the programme.
“Ed and James came up with the great idea of using the Doctor Who theme and time travel with friend and collaborator Justin Smythe to tell the story of Swindon through the ages. The youth club members loved the idea.”
James said it was really important to feature Ken on the wall. “As the artists who made Swindon famous for its murals in the 70s and 80s, many of which are sadly no longer here, we wanted to show our appreciation for his work. You look at the wall and get the sense of travelling through time and space, but next to our portrait of Ken on the new mural, we’ve created a place where we’ve pealed back the artwork, it’s like a portal to his original mural underneath. The image of the white horse which pulled canal boats in the 18th Century is almost in the same place that Ken painted it in 1982.
Ed added: “With the 50th Anniversary of Dr Who this year the mural ends with Swindon actress Billie Piper who played Rose in the TV series and the Tardis swirling through space onto its next landing adventure.”
Hannah said giving attention to lesser known features of the town was important: “We wanted to draw out some of the other wonderful but lesser-known Swindon people and celebrate their contributions. Unfortunately there was no way we could include everyone and lots had to be left out, but we tried to give a balance of people with various backgrounds and from various points in time. Swindon’s 175th year celebration in 2016 when the first brick was laid to build the railway works is celebrated with an image of a locomotive. This appears alongside Sir Daniel Gooch and Isambard Kingdom Brunel who were responsible for the town becoming an industrial centre 175 years ago.”
Edith New, the Swindon campaigner for votes for women in the early 20th Century also appears on the wall. She is thought to be the basis of an amalgamation of several leading campaigners played by Helena Bonham Carter in the new film ‘Suffragette’ which will be in cinemas from 12 October. Her life was recently celebrated by Swindon Heritage Magazine and will be celebrated by workshops and a march by Swindon women re-enacting the Suffragette experience. Read about Edith in an earlier SwindonLink.com post
Two key community arts organisations have been chosen for the wall: The Octobus Project, a mobile youth project which worked with thousands of people across Swindon over a period of 30 years, and Swindon Viewpoint, Britain’s original Community TV service which began broadcasting in 1973 and now offers its vast archive and contemporary material online.
Also looming large in the mural is one of Swindon’s most important heritage buildings, The Mechanics Institution, funded by railway workers in the mid-19th Century and a key social and cultural centre for over 100 years. The Grade II * listed building in the town centre is now in a derelict state awaiting decisions on its future.