My year with Pat Albeck.
On the 10th August I had a busy day. It began at 9am playing tennis with my 88-year- old stepfather. This game is a new regular habit and a peculiarly testing one: Peter has an uncanny ability to return the ball, and he is naturally strong on both the forehand and backhand. I am not a good tennis player but I have the advantage - being able to run. Consequently I need to return the ball to Peter - but not too far away, as killing him by inducing a heart attack would not please my mother who has cherished his presence for over 40 years.
Game over and I am off to Bampton in Oxfordshire to collect Pat (87 years old) for lunch. She is not so mobile and therefore I act as driver. We are going to meet my aunt Liz (86 years old) for lunch at Daquise, the Polish restaurant in South Kensington (70 years old). Pat and Liz used to be neighbours in Chiswick but house moves and time had eroded their friendship and they had not met for more than 20 years.
All went well and an old friendship was rekindled. The food was excellent and the head waiter suitably ancient. The restaurant has meaning for all of us. Following visits to the V&A aged 5 or 6 I gobbled up exotic triangular poppyseed and coffee cakes whilst soaking up a very local form of Polishness which filled South Kensington in the 60s. The others had their own private and possibly romantic memories. Therefore it was with an intense dose of nostalgia that we tucked into our robust wintry food, ignoring the rare sunshine that was blazing away outside. The place has been radically redecorated since my cake days but it retains echoes of its post war run-down charm. They serve traditional but updated dishes and the bright airy room is delightful.
On the way home we stopped at Tesco to buy miniature bottles of prosecco. Pat loves a glass of prosecco (whilst methinks secretly preferring Champagne) but as she is now a widow drinking a whole bottle is a challenge she did not want to take. With titchy bottles in hand we headed off to visit another old Chiswick pal Pat Lousada, the beautiful ex-ballerina, author of my personal bible of pasta dishes and assiduous theatre goer (75 years old). It appeared that she too loved these little bottles and so with a reduced load we headed back to Bampton.
The extraordinary energy and vigour of the company I kept that day exhausted me. I was struck by how very much alive and full of creative force they all were. You will say they are lucky to be able to enjoy and embrace life and I will agree but what a joy and a privilege it was to be with them that day.
A few short weeks later and I have to sadly report that Pat Albeck has died, my stepfather has been struck down with some sort of debilitating stomach condition and my aunt fell over in the road and is in hospital bandaged, strapped and emblazoned with bruises. How desperately fragile it all seems.
But I am grateful that I have had this last year to enjoy and, now with tears, reminisce over. It began by being late. I hardly knew Pat in September 2016 but Esther had been her friend for some time and we had been invited to an exhibition at the Emma Bridgwater hub in Bampton of Pat’s recent work. Of late she had been working on creating cut-out still lives; simply using coloured paper and a pair of nail scissors she had created incredibly complex three dimensional, layered, simplified but botanically correct works of art. In some way these were the culmination of her extraordinary long career in design. Without preparatory drawing she sat and snipped and when she knew a piece was right she would glue it down in the perfect spot. It had the quality of Japanese scroll painting because there was almost no going back, once done and laid down the image could not be adjusted. Her decades of work - so admirably summarised during her ‘Desert Island Discs” - gave her the freedom and fluency to create finished work without revision. We arrived about an hour late and each of the 18 works were already sold.
I was struck by the vivid colours and clear graphic compositions. Esther already had an example of her work and I had boringly pooh-poohed buying another but I felt both avaricious and disappointed. I could see that here was work that was fabulous, decorative, complex and burgeoning with life and energy. It deserved a wider audience.
Over a few subsequent delicious - both to eat and look at - lunches at her house in Bampton I heard more about her beloved husband Peter, who had died only a few months earlier, and other aspects of her life and past. With each visit the depth of her loss and the creative flow that was her life became clearer to me. Her aesthetic sense and excitement for the future explained her happy marriage and creativity better than any biography could. During those lunches we hatched the idea of an exhibition in London. Back home I racked my brains for where to do it?
It occurred to me that as Colefax was opening a new shop in Pimlico and because Pat’s work was very floral and bright it might suit all parties to work on an event to coincide with the Chelsea Flower Show. I emailed Emma Burns (one of the senior designers at Colefax) with the idea and amazingly it turned out she lives in Bampton too and loved Pat’s work already. So, in short, the show was on. Pat worked tirelessly for months and produced over 20 works. Regularly during that time I drove down and we would enjoy mischievous gossip, glasses of wine and a delicious something or other to eat. It is hard to capture the character of those meetings without conjuring up images of the cheerful colours of the room and the gallery of jugs that parade around a shelf just below the ceiling - these were collected by Peter and many of them appear in the works. Pat was an enthusiast for objects, but not in a value or collector’s way; she wanted things that spoke to her of shape or colour and it was of no consequence if they were rare, old, or precious. She judged people in a similar way; completely devoid of respect she either liked people for what they were or didn’t, and being granted approval by Pat was a major triumph to be treasured for as long as it lasted. It was her enthusiastic immediacy and excitement for what was to come rather than nostalgia that made both her and her work ever-fresh and exciting.
Emma framed each image beautifully and the next thing we knew Pat was seated in Pimlico like a queen receiving praise, admirers and buyers for her work. The Colefax show was a success and we thought the presage of things to come. We planned a trip to New York, hoping to cruise across as flying was out of the question.
Her much cherished son Mathew was with her when she died. He told us she left peacefully and willingly, celebrating her life-long love of flowers and more surprisingly, a love of sport. In death she managed to be as original as she was in life.
God bless the antiques amongst us and I aspire to being as young as they are.