Interview: Swindon Link talks to renowned artist Ken White

By Claire Dukes - 1 October 2018

Arts and CultureOpinion and Features

I have known the name 'Ken White' since I can remember. There's no question that he's an integral part of Swindon's art scene, and this is evident by the murals you can still see around the town today.

As one of England's most renowned artists, - for his murals in particular - I was delighted to be invited to Ken's studio before he opened it to the public as part of Swindon Open Studios 2018.

A Swindon man through-and-through, Ken's visionary talents have made a creative impact on the town's heritage, identity and culture - his house and studio are packed with paintings, canvases, posters and newspaper clippings from since he discovered painting at 15. At 75 he admitted that he still gets overwhelmed by the amount of people who come to see his collections. He humbly explained that “I’m not good at these things - I can’t mingle, I like one-to-one.”

Ken's work has been seen all over England, Europe, NYC and even the skies - when Virgin Atlantic launched in 1984 he was commissioned by Richard Branson for the 'Scarlet Lady' emblem which featured on the aircraft. "I became a painter over the weekend," he said. After that he worked on a retainer for Branson for 20 years. Other well-known works include Golden Lion Bridge (Swindon), Castle Mural (London), Highworth Pool (Highworth), Town House Studios (London), and various Virgin airport lounges and Megastores. Up until recently he would regularly sell and exhibit his work at London's Panter & Hall gallery.

Unfortunately some of Ken's murals in Swindon can no longer be seen, like the one that used to be in the Brunel Centre with Diana Dors and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He said: “That’s the thing about this town, they keep knocking the best buildings down – even the Lacarno, that looks like it’s going to go.

“I used to go there, - I saw The Hollies. It was a really good place. There was a great big bar and lots of events – I used to go there on a lot of Saturdays with groups. [Laughs] I don’t go out as much now though!"

Focusing now primarily on his own independent projects, Ken still burrows away in his studio. “I come in here, shut the door and put the music on," he explained. Whilst preparing for Open Studios Ken shuffled through canvas after canvas to show me some of his more recent art works, which are still very much influenced by his time working as a hotter of rivets on the GWR. "I wouldn’t want to live anywhere like Bath, or Marlborough," Ken explained.

"Swindon’s like a working-class town to me, which I like. It’s what my paintings are influenced by, when I worked at the railways.”

Another of Ken's latest projects is buying paintings at auctions and painting over them. He explained that the different textures can provide a new lease of life to create something new. “I bought one which had dead chickens on it – it was awful. I painted over it, and Panter & Hall sold it straight away.”

Asking what advice he has for Swindon's young creatives today, he told me: “You have to be focused and driven – painting's all I ever did and thought about. It’s the same with Ray ['Gilbert' O’Sullivan] - all he focused on was his music. That’s how you get there: just keep on going. Painting’s the only thing I’ve ever liked since I was at school.”

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