The sculptor Josefina de Vasconcellos celebrated her 100th birthday in October 2004 in splendid style at Dove Cottage, Grasmere. She had composed a song especially for the occasion, "We'll all go fugiting along", which she sang with her friend the singer Jimmy Cassidy.
The event was typical of the verve and humour that she displayed throughout her life. Josefina de Vasconcellos was the cherished only child of a Brazilian diplomat, Hippolyto de Vasconcellos, and Freda Coleman, daughter of a distinguished Quaker doctor in London. Josefina grew up highly protected but encouraged in her artistic interests. As a tiny child she was modelling small animals from clay found in the garden, and soon she was revealing a precocious talent as an artist and as a poet. Early lessons in drawing were taken at the Bournemouth Art School, and she then went to study at the Regent Street Polytechnic under the guidance of Howard Brownsword.
In 1923 she was awarded the Bronze Medal for Design in Sculpture, and extended her experience by studying in Florence with Professor Guido Calore and Liberio Andreotti. She followed this by working with Emile-Antoine Bourdelle at the Grand Chaumière in Paris. She exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1926 with The Repentance of St Hubert, when she was only 21. Bourdelle remained an inspiring presence for Josefina de Vasconcellos, and he once remarked that her work was philosophy, not sculpture.
Recognition of her talent came early, with a major commission to design and execute the stone altar and figure of St Valérie for the Church of St Valérie at Varengeville-sur-Mer in Normandy, which she completed in 1928. This famous church, which was painted by several other artists including Claude Monet, gave the young sculptor an opportunity to create a modern work that perfectly complemented the ancient church.
De Vasconcellos returned to England, where she studied at the Royal Academy Schools and was runner-up for the Prix de Rome in 1930. Apparently poised on the brink of a brilliant career, at a time when her slightly older contemporaries Jacob Epstein, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore were all establishing their reputations in London, Josefina de Vasconcellos was suffering from many difficult personal challenges. Her marriage in 1930 to the painter Delmar Banner had been a meeting of unworldly innocents, leading to the discovery that Delmar was homosexual and interested in Josefina only as a friend and companion. Their bond was a strong one, however, and their marriage endured until Delmar's death in 1983.
After a few very difficult years, de Vasconcellos began work on a major carving originally called Christ the Judge but later renamed The Prince of Peace when it was placed as the centrepiece of the Hero's Shrine and Memorial at Aldershot in 1950. The 8ft pillar of Portland stone she used had been rejected by Sir Christopher Wren for the building of St Paul's Cathedral and was black with age, but soon revealed its beautiful creamy colour as de Vasconcellos carved, high up on a ladder in her garden in Sussex.
During the 1930s Delmar and Josefina made many visits to the Lake District so that Delmar could paint the mountains that he loved. Materials for sculpture were not so easily portable for his wife, but she also responded fervently to the dramatic landscapes of Cumbria, and eventually in 1939 they bought the Bield, an ancient farmhouse in the Langdale Valley. Facing out over Little Langdale Tarn and Pike o'Blisco, it is still an idyllic spot, but the house itself had few comforts and involved Josefina in very hard labour. But both artists had studios looking out over the fells, and some of their best work was done there.
Josefina had always wanted children, and in 1940 two young boys, Brian and Billy, were rescued from the bombing in London and came to live at the Bield. Soon they were adopted by the Banners and life was transformed by the presence of two lively boys who attended the village school and were soon proficient in broad Cumbrian dialect. During the wartime years the Bield offered peace and sanctuary to many friends including the artist Gilbert Spencer, who had been evacuated to Ambleside with his family when the Royal College of Art was moved out of London to escape the Blitz. Other friends included the poet Norman Nicholson and the well-known local farmer and breeder of Herdwick sheep Mrs Heelis (Beatrix Potter).
Two major works emerged from this period, The Last Chimera, which is now located in the grounds of the Kirk of the Canongate in Edinburgh, and The Hand, carved in Honister green slate, a memorial to a friend who died in the Second World War and is now placed in St Bees School as a war memorial.
At the end of the war travel became more possible and de Vasconcellos established a studio in London. With Delmar she organised a joint exhibition of their work in late December 1946 at the Royal Watercolour Society Gallery off Bond Street. It was a substantial exhibition, and a sign of promise for the future at a time when London was grey and badly weakened after the conflict. The two large sculptures Christ the Judge and The Last Chimera were too massive to go into the gallery, so Josefina arranged for them to be displayed on a bombsite at 35 Piccadilly. Thousands of people saw them there, and found the presence of art among the rubble strangely encouraging at a time when Britain was weary and worn. They mounted a second joint exhibition in 1955.
From then on de Vasconcellos became a well-known figure in the artistic world. She became the first woman Fellow of the Royal British Society of Sculptors in 1948 and became very involved with their work, serving on the council and helping to organise exhibitions. Her works were regularly accepted for Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions. With others she founded the Society of Portrait Sculptors and she undertook portrait sculptures of Edith Sitwell, Roger Bannister and Tenzing Norgay. She was experimenting with different materials at this time and Tenzing was carved out of a new material called perspex, which was extremely difficult to carve but gave a luminous quality to the work.
Her sculpture was to be found at Lambeth Palace as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, and in 1955 her sculpture of the Virgin and Child, cast in terrossa, was given to St Paul's Cathedral. At Evensong on 21 May 1957, it was dedicated "to stand within your cathedral church forever". It was the only sculpture by a woman in St Paul's.
Many people encountered the sculpture of de Vasconcellos through her popular interpretations of the Holy Family placed at Christmas in Trafalgar Square and also in other churches and cathedrals throughout Britain. She became a close friend of the Rev Austen Williams at St Martin-in-the-Fields, and organised exhibitions in the crypt to highlight public awareness of the plight of the African poor. In Cumbria she was also helping boys from approved schools and worked with others to establish an outdoor centre for them in the Duddon Valley. Later there was an elaborate project involving a disused trawler, the Harriet, anchored near Millom, allowing disadvantaged children to take holidays there. De Vasconcellos was always ready with exciting ideas, always ready to inspire.
The London County Council "Sculpture in the Open Air" exhibition in Battersea Park in the summer of 1960 saw the work of Josefina de Vasconcellos placed alongside major pieces by Frink, Caro, Epstein and Moore. Her sculpture Boys Wrestling in bronze was modelled from her two adopted boys, Brian and Billy. Life was full of possibilities, but again family tragedy affected her deeply. Her mother had often encouraged her to leave Delmar but Josefina refused to do so. To her great sadness, Freda committed suicide in 1961, leaving Josefina with the terrible legacy that such acts always bequeath. She attended her mother's funeral entirely alone, without friends or family, and without Delmar, who remained at the Bield.
It was typical of Josefina de Vasconcellos that despite this tragic event she threw herself into her work, and her work for other people. Much energy went into designing apparatus to enable handicapped children to run and play, and to help blind children to dance. As Delmar grew old and increasingly frail Josefina spent more time in Cumbria to be with him. The taste of the art world was changing and increasingly she felt that her figurative and symbolic style was not recognised. Neither she nor her husband had ever been dependent on the art establishment, and she continued to sculpt for patrons who valued her own approach. When she was appointed MBE in 1985 it was for services to the community in Cumbria, not for her work as a sculptor.
Then, at a time when many artists would have regarded their life's work as complete, de Vasconcellos began to receive international recognition for her moving work Reconciliation. This piece, which shows two figures kneeling and embracing, was first given to Bradford University to support the establishment of the Department of Peace Studies in 1973. It was later cast in bronze for Coventry Cathedral in 1995. With generous finance from her friend Sir Richard Branson, versions of this sculpture have been placed in the Peace Park in Hiroshima, at the Berlin Wall, and in the grounds of Stormont Castle, Northern Ireland. Bradford University awarded de Vasconcellos an Honorary DLitt in 1977.
Reconciliation has become something of an international icon, and represents what this sculptor set out as her guiding principle many years before, when she described sculpture as not only an art but a message. It is the voice of man through the ages in which his very thoughts, his noblest beliefs and aspirations are perpetuated in stone.
After Delmar's death in 1983, Josefina left the Bield and continued living and working in the Lake District. Important works are to be found in Cartmel Priory and in various churches throughout the country. She was carving a large-scale stone work, Escape to Light, in the woods at Rydal when she was well over 90 years old.
Many friends fell under her spell, and many people, young and old, became inspired by her profound religious faith, her love of nature and her belief in the power of art, music and literature to enhance everyday life. With the increased interest in public sculpture, Josefina de Vasconcellos's aim, to be the Wordsworth of sculpture, communicating in ordinary language to ordinary people, is starting to be fashionable once more.
Margaret LewisReuse content