Ken White - 'Grafters'
29th Feb - 16th Mar 2012
Ken left school at the age of 15 and followed in his grandfather's and father's footsteps - into an apprenticeship at Swindon Railway Works. He started as a rivet hotter but became a signwriter in the carriage and wagon works, "Because I was fed up with the burns on my legs". The move encouraged Ken to take more of an interest in art and he studied and passed 'O' and 'A' level Art in evening classes.
Against his parents' wishes, but with the encouragement of fellow students Ray ('Gilbert') O'Sullivan and Rick Davies (later of Supertramp fame), he then decided to take the chance on his talent providing a living and enrolled on a four-year full-time course at Swindon Art School. He had an undoubted talent and was dedicated to learning his craft. "The caretaker would have to tell me to leave in the evenings" he recalls. On completion of the course, he moved to London to do exhibition work for the British Council but returned to Swindon in 1978 because he did not want his children to grow up in the capital.
After a few months out of work, he landed a place on a job creation scheme for Thamesdown Community Arts. It was then that he painted his first mural - a view of the Golden Lion Bridge on the end of a house in Fleming Way, Swindon. Little did he know what an effect it would have on the rest of his life. Paint and pharmaceutical company Bayer featured the mural in a poster advertising campaign, and suddenly Ken's work was beginning to receive interest from far afield. He received about £25 for the work. "I became a mural painter overnight," he says, "Albeit a poor one". In the meantime Ken had met Richard Branson when the now-famous entrepreneur launched his first enterprise - a magazine called 'The Student'. Ken recalls that he sent Branson, who was aged about 16 at the time, a drawing of Dudley Moore for publication in his magazine. It was an acquaintance he would renew a few years later.
When Branson set up his Town House recording studio in London he commissioned Ken to decorate the outside of the building. The result was a stunning 3D scene which so impressed the Virgin boss that he asked Ken to do yet more work. But this time he had to turn down the work as he was already committed to another job. Branson employed another artist but was disappointed with the outcome and contacted Ken again. This time he paid a retainer to ensure that he could always rely on Ken's availability in the future. Since then, Ken White's work has adorned the walls of Virgin establishments throughout the world, including megastores, hotels and airport lounges. With the launch of Virgin Atlantic in June 1984, Ken produced what is probably his most well-known work - the 'Scarlet Lady' emblem which features on all the airline's aircrafts.
His reputation has grown with commissions from organisations such as Madame Tussauds. In addition to more than 100 murals he has completed, Ken continues to produce his own paintings on canvas.
Alas, some of his murals have been lost due to redevelopment and his most celebrated local work - a scene featuring famous Swindonians on the side of a wall in Prospect Place - had to be removed when the wall was found to have a damp problem. Ken is currently busier than ever and continues to create innovative and amazing murals all over the world.