Mabel Culley was a very well regarded artist who lived in Stevenage from (approximately) 1932 until her death in 1965.
She was born Lucy Mabel Culley in Costessey, Norfolk, in 1880, but always appears to have been know as “Mabel”. Her father was John Culley, a prosperous mill owner. He had at least seven children by his first wife Ellen who died in 1869. John then remarried to Katharine Dexter in 1871 and had a further four children. Mabel was the youngest of the whole family.
Mabel attended the Slade art school (now part of University College London) from 1898 to 1901. In her second year at the Slade she was awarded 2nd prize in Figure Drawing and received a certificate for “Antique Drawing”. In her final year she won a £4 prize for Figure Painting.*
Mabel is probably best known locally for her drawings and watercolours of local scenes, but she was also an accomplished portrait painter.
According to information held by Stevenage Museum, Mabel taught at various places including the Sherborne Girls’ School and Berkhamsted High School before coming to Stevenage. It appears she spent time in Cornwall during the war. She placed an advertisement in the Cornishman on 31 Oct 1940, when she was living in Mousehole, offering drawing lessons for children “by an experienced teacher and artist”. As a result of this, Mabel is listed on the Cornwall Artists Index.#
Presumably Mabel came to Stevenage to join her elder sister Ruth who had started the private Westover School in the town with her cousin Gertrude Turner. Westover School was at 1 Hitchin Road, on the corner with Julians Road.
“Miss Culley”, presumably Mabel, is recorded living at 72 Fairview Road in a directory of 1933 and according to information from Stevenage Museum, she had bought the house when it was “newly built”.
After Westover School closed, Mabel and Ruth lived together at 72 Fairview Road. Ruth died in 1958, at the age of 84.
It was planned that Mabel would illustrate a book on Stevenage that was to be written by the local historian Reginald Leslie Hine. Sadly, he died on 14 April 1949 before the project could go ahead. Sometime later, probably in the early 1950s, Mabel published the booklet entitled A Stevenage Picture Book which included the pictures she had already completed. There were two slightly different versions of the booklet published, both with black and white plates. The Hertford Archives holds copies of both. The following illustrations include the complete set from both versions, plus a couple of additional images taken from greetings cards.
The forward to the booklet was written by Lord Jowitt (born William Allen Jowitt in 1885 in Stevenage, created 1st Earl Jowitt in 1951; died 16 August 1957; buried St Nicholas churchyard, Stevenage) and reads:-
I have been asked to write a foreword to this picture book of Stevenage. I can claim at least one qualification for the performance of this task: for I was born at Stevenage and I got to know every inch of the area of some ten miles round Stevenage, and that district brings back to me in a way no other district can the idea of Home. This book contains a series of sketches by Miss Culley which have been executed with loving care. She will receive from all those who love Stevenage and its traditions grateful appreciation for the marked success she has achieved. The inspiration which happily induced her to publish this book came from my old friend and contemporary, R. L. Hine. He was indeed a most “uncommon attorney”. Those who know his writings would agree that to him can be applied that famous epitaph “He touched nothing that he did not adorn”. Such a book so inspired and so carried out will I feel sure achieve the success it so richly deserves. Jowitt.
In addition to the images from the Picture Book and greetings cards, I have also added a few of Mabel’s watercolours.
Mabel died at Benslow Nursing Home in Hitchin on 22 March 1965. She had been a great character who enlivened the lives of everyone who knew her.
I will correct and improve this text as more information becomes available to me.
* I am grateful to the Archivist at UCL for this information.