by The Curious Scribbler
Mabel Pakenham Walsh has been part of the Aberystwyth scenery since the 1980s.
She was always to be seen, around the town or crossing the road near her home in Llanbadarn Village. I remember her walking with sticks, effortfully and painfully slow, and then some years later, after her hip replacements, whizzing around the town with a wheeled shopper-cum-walking frame, her legs powering away like Sonic the Hedgehog. As part of her health regime she swam regularly, and I remember the surprise I felt on first seeing the contrast between her ruddy weathered face and the youthfully smooth white skin of her body.
It was beautiful skin and others must have admired it. There is at least one nude portrait of her which I have seen displayed in the National Library Wales.
For Mabel was both an artist and an artist’s model. There are three of her oil paintings in the collections of the National Library of Wales, two self portraits in her thirties, and a head and shoulders of a saturnine man, identified as J. Warburton. In their collections she has also deposited several boxes of letters from the 1960s to the 1980s which include correspondence with many arts organisations, and with friends and artists including Martin Leman, Maeve Peake, Lord Snowdon, the writer Tom Stoppard, and the wife of the then Archbishop of York, Jean Coggan.
She was a prolific woodcarver, gardener, and proper eccentric. The photographer Homer Sykes recorded the thirty-eight year old Mabel, then resident in Sussex carving one of a series of ornamented toilet seats.
She was not rich, but she had original artworks in her home and she was often strikingly dressed. I remember startling hats, and a complicated tweed skirt and jacket, fashioned of many fragments of material cleverly joined, but with the raw edges protruding at the seams. She wore such costumes with great panache.
I got to know her through the gardening club, the rather grandly named Cardiganshire Horticultural Society. Her last lover ( husband?) had also been a member of the CHS, Peter Hague, a loquacious compulsive hoarder whose home up in the hills near Ystrad Meurig was, by his own estimation a graveyard for every piece of rusted machinery he could acquire, and intended, one day, to fix. When I knew him she had moved out to the relative comfort of her terraced house on Heol y Llan, not far from the vet’s in Llanbadarn. He was a gentle man, a compulsive talker, who fed himself largely out of tins. He was known to those with deeper roots than mine as the brother of the formidable Douglas Hague of the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historic Monuments.
Some 15 years ago a remarkable sculpture appeared in one of ancient apple trees which protrude above the wall shielding the backs of these gardens from the widened Llanbadarn Road. It was a huge wooden spider’s web made of twigs, with a realistic rubber spider at its centre. From a passing car or bus it looked very striking. It was in quest of this landmark in the days when I wrote a column for the local paper, The Cambrian News, that I eventually found my way to the front door of Archnoa on Heol y Llan. . A house whose windowsill assemblage of rocks, shells and objets trouve suggested eccentricity within. I was not disappointed.
So I am saddened to learn that Mabel, aged 76 has died. With the panache which characterised her life, her friends and relatives ( she told me she had a houseful of kin in Ireland) assembled round an impromptu blaze on Aberystwyth’s North Beach, and, as the sun went down, her cremated remains and flowers were scattered in the sea at dusk.
Photographer Keith Morris attended the occasion and the complete set of pictures may be viewed on his Facebook page. A touching detail he records is the rustic picture frame placed beside the disposable red plastic cremation urn. It displays the words : Well behaved women rarely make history.
For more pictures of the young Mabel Pakenham Walsh search photoshelter for ‘Mabel’ at http://homersykes.photoshelter.com/