DOCTOR Russell Rhys, formerly GP for Caerleon but much better known in later years for his patronage of the arts has died at the age of 85 following a short illness.

The village of which he was such a flamboyant resident is coming to terms with the loss of one who for over 40 years has been at the centre of its collective story.

Russell Rhys (the name was later changed from the anglicised Rees) was born near Llanelli, the son of a coal miner.

When inspired by one of the subjects that impassioned him Dr Rhys in his rolling, declamatory speech would sometimes remind listeners that he could not speak English until he was of infant school age.

A colourful man who well into his eighties wore his hair in a pigtail, his earliest contact with bohemia came when he was studying to be a doctor at King's College and Charing Cross Hospital, London.

It was during this time that he met among other Welsh emigrés, the poet Dylan Thomas.One of his first jobs as a qualified doctor was as a surgeon in the Merchant Navy.

Always a man of the Left - although never comfortably fitting in with the orthodoxies of the Labour Party - after coming to Caerleon in 1969 he represented the community on the then Gwent County Council serving among other things on the council's police committee.

Newport West MP Paul Flynn remained a close friend. But it was after his retirement from medicine that his centre of gravity shifted towards the a arts which were sometimes an expression of his political views but much obviously as of his love for Wales and its culture.

Living in the Mynde at the village centre, he acquired the old stables and buildings the other side of the road that were under his direction to become the Ffwrwm arts centre, a living memorial to his tastes and beliefs.

Although extremely well read and with an interest in painting and drawing it was sculpture that particularly intrigued him.

When the Caerleon Arts Festival started in 2003 he was not only the founder but the prime mover who had commissioned the sculptural centrepieces.

The aim of the festival was to make Caerleon to sculpture what Hay-on-Wye was to books.

Invitations were sent to artists as far afield as China who were brought to this country and given bed and board at the festival's expense on condition that their finished work was left here.

The original idea was that a sculpture trail would lead from the Celtic Manor Hotel to the village.

That so many locations in Gwent have sculptural works inspired by Celtic myths and legends is due largely to the residue of such festivals.

While Caerleon was often spellbound by their former GP he in his turn was fascinated by the Arthurian connections of the village which he associated with its Romano-Celtic past rather than with later mediaeval and Norman constructs.

One of his earlier projects was to have carved from single massive pieces of timber thrones for each of the Arthurian knights of the Round Table who rising from their mythical sleep beneath a mountain, would arise to rescue Wales at her hour of greatest need.

He would smile at suggestions that such a moment, might have been the founding of the Welsh Assembly Government.

A sadness towards the end of his life was the death at the age of 52 of his daughter, Mari, a rising star of the Labour Party who had contested Pembroke North in the Assembly elections coming a close second and who was expected to achieve an elected position.

He leaves a wife, Gillian, children Sian, Catrin, Mark, Rhian and eight grand-children.

As the Ffwrwm flourished, Doctor Rhys's pleasure was to sit among the art works he had commissioned - 100 of them in number in total and many of them by West Wales sculptor Ed Harrison - and have coffee or share a glass of wine with friends.

In his custom-made and brightly-coloured leather waistcoats he was to the end a bohemian figure but one who with shrewdness and diplomatic skill advanced the cause of Caerleon in which town he is so sorely missed.