Ken White is one of Swindon’s most famous cultural figures, known for his large murals and paintings of life in the GWR Railway Works. As part of the Creative Wiltshire project, staff from Swindon Museum and Art Gallery and the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre visited Ken at his home in Swindon’s Old Town in January 2016. There they saw examples of Ken’s work and discusses his life as one of Swindon’s best loved artists.
Ken started his working life at the Railway Works, the huge GWR manufacturing complex in the centre of Swindon. By the mid 20th century, despite declining in its scale and range of activities, it still employed thousands of local workers. Ken was the third generation in his family to work ‘inside’, as it was described by locals. He was a hotter of rivets, spending every day heating up metal for use in the noisy and hot riveting shop. By the end of the 1950s, he joined the Carriage and Wagon department as an apprentice sign writer, and it was this that helped spark his love of art and his later creative career.
In 1962, Ken left the GWR and enrolled at Swindon Art School where he studied fine art and, later, graphics. Here he became good friends with Raymond O’Sullivan, better known as the musician Gilvbert O’Sullivan, and Rick Davies who would go on to found Supertramp. After college, the three would move to London and shared a rented house in Notting Hill.
While in London, Ken worked as a commercial artist and illustrator, producing posters, exhibitions, book illustrations and murals. During this time, he started his work with Richard Branson’s Virgin organisation, for whom he produced designs and murals over the next few decades. Ken and his wife Jan returned to Swindon in 1976. Over the next few years, Ken produced over a dozen murals for Thamesdown Community Arts and Southern Arts, helping transform the face of Swindon.
In recent years, Ken has painted many images of the GWR works, inspired by his time inside the Riveting Shop.
People in Swindon are deeply fond of Ken White. Not only is he a Swindon-born artist who has worked all around the world, but he has a rare gift for capturing life and work in our fast-changing town. The Creative Wiltshire project offered a wonderful opportunity to finally acquire Ken’s work for Swindon Museum and Art Gallery.
During the visit to the studio, we saw the diversity of Ken’s art: prints, drawings, posters, paintings and sketches. Following discussions with Ken, staff decided to acquire a range of works for the museum and art gallery. Ken later gave some of his own archive of drawings, articles, prints and posters to the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.
The acquisition comprises three prints, including one showing Ken’s friend Gilbert O’Sullivan, who lived for many years in the town. Another 1960s print shows a playground on Ferndale Road, Swindon.
Two large paintings reflect Ken’s ability to capture life in the Works, showing the Riveting Workshop. These paintings are strongly atmospheric with deep strong shadows and active figures.
Finally, a small framed drawing is Ken’s original sketch for the famous Golden Lion mural near Whalebridge. This is perhaps Ken’s most famous mural and was restored a few years ago. The sketch shows Ken’s keen eye for composition and his talent as a draftsman.
A number of these works are on permanent display in Swindon Museum and Art gallery in the newly opened ‘Made in Swindon’ gallery.
Swindon Museum & Art Gallery