Obituary : Helen Ashbee

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The Independent Online
C. R. Ashbee, "architect, designer and romantic socialist" as Alan Crawford so aptly subtitles his great 1985 biography, only wanted sons. What his wife Janet (who never disappointed him in any other way) gave him was four daughters. Helen Christabel was number three and, because she was beautiful from the start, he forgave her.

We were all born in Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire, and then, because of "CRA" 's getting a job as "Civic Adviser" to the Mandate Government of Palestine, we spent four years of our childhood in Jerusalem. When, in the early Twenties, this job ended, we all returned to Britain. All of us four girls were artistically or musically inclined and, after ordinary school, we were all trained in various artistic fields. Helen started professional life as a musician, after studying viola and piano at the Royal College of Music in London.

She was first married to an American Rhodes Scholar astronomer, Thornton Page, with whom she left for America, but when the marriage ended her second partner was an Italian painter, Christofanetti, and she then switched to textile designing and returned with him to Europe.

Only later after his premature death did she find her true metier: "abstract" sculpture and related jewellery, for which she always did a great many preparatory drawings.

On her return to Europe, she lived in Paris, but because of "Chris" there were always Italian connections, and after his death she was less happy in France; with her last partner, Arno Mandello, she finally found a place in southernmost Italy that really appealed to her.

The wild surroundings of this, her last home in Puglia inspired her, and the land around the ruined buffalo stables which she converted into a civilised and characterful house is dotted with large pieces of her abstract sculpture, most of which have a strangely half-human character.

With Mandello, a photographer of Alsatian Jewish descent (who died a few years ago), she settled there in 1969, claiming that the olive- studded, rocky landscape and blue skies reminded her of our Palestinian childhood. At La Bufolaria di Alessano, near Ugento, she had a dream initially of recreating her father's Guild of Handicraft, of bringing a group of workers together who - combining their skills as artists, poets, writers, musicians, artisans, agriculturalists - might build a small interdependent "community".

Helen Ashbee's sculpture is represented in various continental museums, and galleries, since she worked exclusively in France and Italy. There is none in Britain, as she never lived or worked there again after her marriage, returning only to visit family.

Felicity Ashbee

Helen Christabel Ashbee, sculptor and jeweller: born Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire 24 December 1915; married Thornton Page (one daughter; marriage dissolved), secondly "Chris" Christofanetti (deceased); died Ugento, Puglia 15 June 1996.

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