Remembering the days of our glorious murals
Swindon’s Wall of Fame, as created by Ken White on a gable-end in Union Street, Old Town in 1979. The much photographed mural disappeared during the early 1990s
EVERY morning when I draw the curtains and look out of the window of my modest town centre flat I am confronted with a vision so surreal it is almost as if I am still dozing with a head full of dreams.
What I see is a thundering great 70ft long king class steam engine – furiously belching smoke and steam – which, as I blink back the sleep, appears to be hurtling straight towards me.
This unnerving apparition is, of course, a mural. King Class Locomotive Passing Through Swindon Railway Works has been freshly applied to a huge double-gable wall in Henry Street, right opposite what passes for my backyard.
It is the summer of ’76, I have just moved to Swindon and have never seen a mural before: at least, nothing quite as big, bold and brassy as this. You can almost hear the thing barrelling down the line.
Over the next decade Swindon acquires an unlikely reputation as “The Mural Capital of the UK” – a nice little moniker to go beside the one on the shelf that reads “Home to the UK’s Wackiest Roundabout.”
Mural-mania erupts to such an extent that by the late Eighties the town has amassed well over 40 of them. Walls, underpasses, playgrounds, sports centres, hospitals, shopping malls – they are everywhere.
Some reflect important aspects of Swindon’s history and heritage, including striking tributes to its prime movers and shakers – Brunel, Don Rogers, Diana Dors – or long-gone street scenes such as a Victorian sweetshop.
Others are pure flights of fantasy that exist for no other reason than to brighten up a drab area of town with a pleasing – at least, to many eyes – splash of colour and escapism. But where are our celebrated murals today? Apart from a couple of hardy survivors, they have – as far as I can make out – virtually all gone. Only Ken White’s Golden Lion Bridge and Sarah Faulkner’s Arkells Brewery seem to be left, although one or two more may still be lurking in the shadows. Today these once prominent features of our urban landscape – many of which become well known and useful landmarks – exist only as memories.
The story of “Swindon’s Lost Murals” begins in 1975 with a nod towards, of all things, the Italian Rennaisance.
Mouths are agape when a full-blooded replica of Umberto Uccello’s 15th Century all-action masterpiece George and the Dragon appears on the side of a house in Rodbourne, courtesy of a youth scheme.
The following year heralds the dramatic arrival of the aforementioned Swindon-built king class loco, the result of a community arts project led by Thamesdown council arts officer Terry Court.
Swindon artist and ex-railway employee Ken White, who worked on the mural, says today that the interpretation of the mighty loco in full-flight was based on a drawing of Terry’s that was more impressionistic than technically accurate.
“Railway workers used to stop on their bikes and tell us things like ‘the steam shouldn’t come out there’ and, ‘that’s not how the pistons should look,’” he says.
Soon afterwards Ken, a former Swindon Art School student, is commissioned by the council for a mouth-watering £25 to recreate the town centre’s Golden Lion canal bridge (demolished in 1918) as part of a job creation scheme.
He paints it in emulsion on the end of a town house in Fleming Way. It is instantly acknowledged as a wonderfully graphic, larger-than-life reminder of a lost era.
The project launches Ken, much to his surprise, on a career that sees him become one of the country’s leading muralists.
Terry, meanwhile, is ecstatic. Murals, he insists, will flourish in Swindon. They don’t only liven-up grey areas of town but also involve the enthusiastic input of young volunteers, he reasons.
Swindon, he adds with a burst of pride, is in the vanguard of bringing murals to the people.
Eye-catching alfresco art follows thick and fast. Ken is involved in several, notably one of the town’s best known examples of this trendsetting form of public art, Swindon Personalities (1979) in Union Street.
Created with college students, it becomes Swindon’s Wall of Fame and even features a couple of his old musical mates, Gilbert O’Sullivan and Rick Davies of Supertramp.
Other famed faces who make the cut include those who have shaped Swindon (Brunel, David Murray John,) footballers (Don Rogers, Harold Fleming,) pop and film stars (Justin Hayward, Diana Dors,) and the Hammerman Poet, Alfred Williams.
William Morris, founder of the Swindon Advertiser, peers from a first floor window next to his great grandson, zoologist and TV presenter Desmond, another local lad who made good.
Many XTC fans who make the pilgrimage to Swindon have their picture taken next to the mural’s original line-up, presumably after getting fed up with knocking on Andy Partridge’s door.
A few years later Swindon’s champion National Hunt jockey John Francome gallops onto the wall.
Veteran artist Leslie Holland, 78, directs operations for Swindon’s longest mural, a 150ft depiction of the town’s “forgotten railway” the Midland and South Western along part of its former route in Signal Way, Old Town (1978).
Swindon Railway Junction 1901, meanwhile, is shunted into Alexandra Road, off County Road (1979.) The same year a breathlessly romantic and utterly incongruous Austrian Castle appears straight out of the pages of a Germanic fairy tale at a gable end in Westcott Place.
Naked men and women cavort shamelessly through a cornfield on a wall in Cheltenham Street (1978), prompting an exasperated J Loughton of Shrivenham to outline his “disgust” in the Adver.
Controversy rages as Ken returns to a familiar theme and paints Swindon Celebrities in the Brunel Centre (1984.) He is half-way through Diana Dors – who died of cancer a couple of months earlier – when fuming arts committee chairman Eammon Hackett demands that Ken downs tools.
“She didn’t even like Swindon and doesn’t deserve her place in the Brunel,” he rages. Hot air billows from the Civic Offices as the matter is disputed at length by stern-faced councillors before Ken is permitted to finish his tribute to our home-grown icon.
In 1985 councillors, having quaffed bottles of Kingsdown Ale kindly provided by Arkells, embark on an open-top bus tour of Swindon’s murals.
The occasion? The completion in County Road of Sarah Faulkner’s gable end take on the art of brewing beer in Swindon, as commissioned by Arkells.
Four years later the council, rightly proud of its many and varied murals, produce an art trail leaflet with a brief description and the whereabouts of some 41 pieces.
But the writing is already on the wall. Some of the earlier ones aren’t included because, sadly, they don’t exist anymore.
Ken, now 70, who has painted around 100 murals – some at the behest of Virgin impresario Richard Branson – says such works have to be renovated around once a decade otherwise they shrivel, blister and decay.
“The reds are always the first to go, they start going black,” he says.
Ken recently undertook his fourth refurbishment of the now 37 year-old Golden Lion Bridge.
Like the Arkells mural – a splendid advertisement, by the way – it is a rare survivor.
Over the years our once much-heralded wall art, widely featured in books and glossy magazines, gradually fade away – falling foul of age, redevelopment, changes in art funding and perhaps a feeling that murals, sadly, have had their day.
Enter – and exit – the Dragon
In 1984 both George and the Dragon, the prominent characters of Swindon’s first mural, are cruelly slain with an indiscriminate lick of white paint… by another knight.
Nine years after brightening up Rodbourne Road it is vanquished by the owners of the host building, Mike Knight Tyres.
There is outrage. The council threatens to sue. “They have destroyed a local landmark – a work of national consequence,” fumes arts officer Terry Court.
“We had no intention of destroying the picture,” insists company boss Mike Knight. “I actually like it very much.”
It is all the result of urgent structural work, he says.
The following year our valiant knight (George, not Mike) and his scaly adversary are painstakingly revived in rich colours.
George (not Mike) can once more be seen gouging the unfortunate beast, who drips deep red blood.
Five years later, the wall is demolished.
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