Ken painted painted 20 large murals in England, Scotland and abroad between 1976 and 1985.
He was born in Swindon in 1943, the second child of three in the family. They lived a run down flat over a chip shop that had no heating or hot water. When times improved they moved to a council house, which was part of a large community where all the children would be out playing in the streets. Infants school was rough and the teachers discouraging. He only liked history and art, and remembers appearing in a local paper for a painting he did in Junior School, where he did quite well. If anything secondary school was even worse. He hated sport and lived only for the art lessons, recalling a turning point when someone praised him for a painting, “and I thought, ‘Oh God, I can do something!’ because you were always told, ‘You are terrible,’ by the teachers.”
Ken left School at age fifteen and began work in the yards of the Great Western Railway, in the family tradition going back generations, building steam locomotives, recalling working how hot and dangerous it was to be working with the rivetters for two years. Later on he saw Stanley Spencer’s Clydeside murals – “Recognised that a lot – how I was!”
working at the GWR, rivetting to signwriting.
He stayed there for four years, towards the end he acquiring a skill in sign writing and stencilling, employing the mahl stick and palette he still uses, painting and repairing the emblems and lettering on the wagons. He went to evening classes to get ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, so as to get into Swindon Art School. “After the railways it was lovely, amazing” he said, and studied there for four years. Though he was moved from the Painting Course to Graphic Design he continued painting finding places out of sight all the while. He was taught printing and wood engraving by Ken Lindley, was influenced by John Piper, learnt silk-screen printing, wood engraving.
art school and wood engraving
After he qualified, Ken went to London, “eight people in a four person flat” and began work for British Council where he graduated from being a filing clerk to became an exhibition designer. In 1970 he married his girlfriend, Janet whom he had met at art school; they moved to Watford where she was taking a teacher training course. He did the daily commute to the City, before later finding work in Bristol. With their two children they visited New Zealand where Ken did on-the-spot drawings for the Auckland Herald newspaper and illustrations for women’s magazines “getting quite good money” as well as doing his own work. Though he was well aware of current movements like Pop Art and American abstraction he was more interested in Ahknaten and Egyptian art. He was always drawing, and single-minded. “I am a figurative artist,” he said. From his first employment in the rail yards, the academic training at art school and the range of his various jobs, Ken acquired an exceptional range of skills.
Job Creation and the Swindon Arts Officer’s benign influence
Returning to live in Swindon in 1976, Ken was given a ‘Job Creation’ post as a community artist, organised through the Labour Party, designing posters, painting murals and teaching silk-sceen printing. The first mural was ‘Steam Train’ on a vast wall over a car park, rescuing and improving on a mural begun by young workers on the scheme. The second was ‘Golden Lion Bridge’ which he squared up from a sketch, one inch to a foot, and drew on the wall with a piece of lead – “pencils would get you nowhere” – before filling in the colour. Assisted by an apprentice, he completed it in a month. “If I’d done it myself it would have only taken a fortnight,” he said, “community murals take longer.” ‘Golden Lion Bridge’ was taken from a photograph of the original bridge, the people and the distant building society property on which the mural is painted. It made him famous; there were pictures on the news, in the papers and colour supplements. In the next year in Swindon he painted ‘Swindon Personalities,’ which showed all the famous faces of people in the town, like XTC, the councillors, the men who built the trains and Isambard Brunel at the very top. His accessible style struck a nerve, and soon he was painting the town. ‘Cambria Bridge’, ‘The Voluteers Mural’, ‘Gilbert’s Hill School’, ‘Oasis Dome’ and the mural for the Brunel Shopping Centre followed in the next three years, as well as murals in London, Scotland and Hampshire.
the first mural for Invergordon – the test – “all on my shoulders.”
Ken painted many community murals, often improving the appearance of a town by “doing the street”. Local groups invited him in after seeing the pictures of his work in Swindon and elsewhere, and the funding came from the local authority.
“In Invergordon they wanted the whole town painted to bring more tourists into the town. The first one I did it was a trial, people wanted to see what a mural looked like, so it was all on my shoulders to get it right. It was on a wall in part of the town that was all gone, so I painted that town back again.”
Ken painted two more murals there, a landscape of a local scene and a lifeboat. Other artists followed, whilst he went on to paint in other Scottish towns, Bonnybridge and Kircaldy. Local authorities were becoming aware of the effect murals could have, making a name for the town. He recalls painting a community mural in a run down area on Plymouth Hoe, a tall trompe l’oeil work covering a ruined wall. It was prompted by pictures of the mural he painted in Covent Garden for Jacob Rothstein, and he recalls how determined the arts officer was to see off a protester. Ken describes his style as being figurative and realist. He says that his use of shadows is key, it is the way that a person, trees, waves, wagons – everything is described. The way shadows fall, opposite to the light’s direction, creates the illusion of three dimensions; the trompe-loeil building becomes as believable as the real house next door. And the way the shadows fall onto the ground creates space and depth in a landscape or townscape.
trompe l’oeil on Plymouth Hoe and meeting the painter Lenkiewicz
Richard Branson was so impressed with the news coverage of Golden Lion Bridge, that when he was redesigning the old Goldhawk Studios in Shepherd’s Bush he called on Ken.
“He got me up there to paint a trompe-l’oeil building – that was ‘The Town House’, And I met many of the famous groups and people like Peter Gabriel, Freddie Mercury, Gary Kent and lots more. Then later when I was working on a commission in Cornwall he asked me to paint another in London and I said ‘I’ll have to finish this one first.’ After that he put me on a retainer, which meant that whatever I had lined up, he’d expect me to do his one first. So I was on a retainer with him for twenty years. The Town House was my first commercial mural. I used emulsion paints, or Weathershield, never varnished them – don’t believe in it.”
Over the period up to 1985 Ken painted six large scale murals for Branson, besides the Goldhawk studios there were murals for the Venue Club, Sex Pistols, Mike Oldfield, Virgin Mansions and Gold Diggers. He became accustomed all the time to flying off to produce images for Branson’s Virgin Megastores using his experience with stencils and as a signwriter – which he did not regard as proper ‘ artist’s work’ – as well as murals for hotels and airport lounges. In 1976 he developed the ‘Scarlet Lady’ logo for the Virgin 747s, painting some directly onto the nose of the planes.
“It’s all I’ve ever done all I ever wanted to do.”
Having painted over a hundred murals for communities, local authorities, hospitals, schools as well as private commissions, Ken is continuing as ever with his easel paintings, many about the rail yards. There are a lot of shadows.