Josefina Alys Hermes de Vasconcellos MBE
26 October 1904 – 20 July 2005
Maggie B Dickinson
Cumbria Magazine October 2017
For a sculptor of worldwide acclaim, whose amazing legacy of artistic endeavour also graces Cumbria, Josefina Alys Hermes de Vasconcellos deserves to be better remembered.
Tall and slightly-built, she was an attractive woman with green eyes and thick dark curls, who possessed great strength of character and, although she was born at Molesey-on-Thames, spent most of her life in Lakeland. A driven artist, poet, and dancer she was still involved in projects beyond her 100th birthday, which was celebrated at Dove Cottage, when she delighted her guests by singing her own composition “We’ll all go fugiting along” with friend Jimmy Cassidy.
Her Brazilian father, a diplomat from a politically-influential family, and her English Quaker mother, encouraged Josefina to pursue her artistic dream. At the age of only 24, after studying in Florence under Professors Calore and Andreotti, she was tutored at the Grand Chaumière in Paris by pioneer sculptor Émile Antoine Bourdelle, assistant to Rodin. Her recognition was assured by a commission to produce a reclining figure of St Valerie for St Valéry at Varengeville-sur-Mer in Normandy, where it keeps company with the work of Claude Monet.
Josefina and Delmar Banner’s paths had originally crossed at Regent Street Polytechnic School of Art. He was a graduate of History from Magdalen, Oxford but became a painter. The couple were married in 1930 and, as an Anglican lay preacher, Delmar’s religious teachings influenced Josefina’s work through her absorption of tremendous spiritual energy.
Already fond of the Lake District, they purchased The Bield in 1939. The farmhouse, which clings to the slopes of Lingmoor Fell in Little Langdale, is high above the road and provided inspirational views from their respective studios.
Beatrix Potter was much enamoured of the talented young couple because of a common interest in art and the environment. Josefina described in detail their first visit to tea at Castle Cottage, Sawrey, when Beatrix opened the door wearing a tea cosy on her head. Delmar was shrewd enough to accept Beatrix’s criticism of his art and she flattered him by purchasing one of his paintings of the Coniston fells. Ultimately he produced a portrait of Beatrix in old age, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery; it also graces the cover of She Was Loved: Memories of Beatrix Potter which Josefina wrote about her dear friend (published by Titus Wilson 2003).
The discovery that Delmar was homosexual and only interested in her as a companion and platonic soulmate led to difficult personal times for Josefina. However it says much for their common bond that they remained together until his death. Along the way they adopted sons Brian and Billy who had been rescued from wartime bombing in London. The four of them are buried at All Saints’, Chapel Stile, Little Langdale.
After the war Josefina spent time in London, having a studio in St Martin’s crypt. Her Holy Family Nativity introduced her to a wider public at St Martin’s and especially when it graced Trafalgar Square each Christmas. In 1955, when she presented St Paul’s with her sculpture Virgin Mary and Child, she was the first woman to have one in the Cathedral. Other large sculptures are to be found in several cathedrals, including Blackburn, Gloucester, Liverpool and Edinburgh, and also a wealth of churches.
Her work touched many lives in Cumbria where major examples include The Family of Man in Kendal Parish Church, They Fled by Night (as well as three other sculptures) in Cartmel Priory, her statue of Christ in St Andrew’s at Greystoke and two examples of Virgin and Child in St Mary’s Ambleside and Carlisle Cathedral, where more of her work is to be seen in its Fratery.
Driven by a strong caring nature for her fellow human beings, Josefina was forever concerned about the oppression of war and its victims, which influenced several memorials, like The Prince of Peace (1950), centrepiece of the Hero’s Shrine and Memorial at Aldershot and another called The Hand, carved from Buttermere green slate in the 1950s in memory of a friend who died in the Second World War. This is at the entrance of the Memorial Hall, St Bees School.
A further five sculptures are in St Bees. At the priory of St Mary & Bega are her Vision of St Bega and Virgin and Child. Three are in The Sleeping Child Garden which she designed and created to provide a quiet setting for those seeking comfort after the loss of a child, either before or after its birth. The garden is maintained by volunteers. Donations and support are very welcome.
Concern for disadvantaged children inspired her to set up Beckstones, in the Duddon Valley, which provided outward-bound type holidays, and the Harriet Trust where disabled youngsters could enjoy the outdoors from an old converted Fleetwood fishing trawler moored at Millom. Her compassion for children knew no bounds and one of her innovative ideas was to initiate a textured carpet for blind child dancers. In 1985 Josefina was awarded the MBE for her work with children.
Her most famous sculpture was commissioned in 1977 by the Faculty of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford for whom she created an original twin-figure sculpture “Reunion”, for which she received a DLitt honorary degree. It was re-named “Reconciliation” on Josefina’s 90th birthday in 1994. The following year, on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, through a generous donation by Sir Richard Branson, bronze casts of the work were sited internationally.
Her biographer Dr Margaret Lewis remembers her well, and tells me ‘Josefina de Vasconcellos went through life with a fierce bravery that no one who knew her could ignore. Although she was not born in Cumbria, Cumbria gave her a home and peaceful surroundings in Langdale to make her finest work. Her appreciation of the human form is apparent in all her sculpture, particularly her most famous piece, the embracing figures of ‘Reconciliation’. Immediate in its appeal, yet symbolic in its significance, this work carries an important message to the locations where it stands: the grounds of Coventry Cathedral, the Hiroshima Peace Park, Stormont Castle and the Berlin Wall. Her achievement should not be forgotten’.
Ann Taylforth, Josefina’s friend and companion for 24 years, moved with her family into High Bield, the Banners’ neighbouring farmhouse, in 1981. As their lives intertwined Ann became very close to the pair. She has a wealth of memories, both happy and sad, including the trauma in 1983 when Josefina was unconscious in intensive care for several days, with Delmar becoming seriously ill at the same time.
‘I held Delmar’s hand until he died,’ she tells me, ‘and the padre gave her the news. She asked me to arrange the funeral and walk behind his coffin in her stead.’ Ann accommodated her during convalescence and regularly acted as chauffeur over the years, with lots of memorable trips which included attending Buckingham Palace for the MBE ceremony.
After her recovery Josefina lived for several years at the Wash House in Ambleside. Judy Worrall, who had an interest in Delmar’s paintings, visited her there and described it as smaller than a caravan. ‘The dimensions of the sculptures were dictated by the aperture of a normal domestic doorway through which they needed to pass on completion’, says Judy. ‘The only place for her plants was, appropriately, in the shower’. From there she moved on, and on…….. like a boat without a rudder not settling anywhere for long, but remaining in the area.
She was inspired by compassion, the presence of light, a strong connection with the natural world, and her deep love of fellow human beings. Despite her slender frame her sculptures were often huge. Her final large masterpiece Escape to Light was sited on the Cumbrian coast at Haverigg in 2001. She was ninety five years of age when she created it from a massive 8-tonne block of magnesium which she chiselled away at in her trademark blue dungarees, regardless of weather conditions, in Rydal Hall woods.
Alongside Josefina was Workington sculptor Shawn Williamson, who was only twenty four years old when they first teamed up, although he’d already several commissions under his belt. Josefina became Shawn’s mentor for she was shrewd enough to know his potential. He now holds the distinction of FRSA, and is currently Sculptor in Residence at Low Wood Bay Hotel & Resort, where he is creating an art sculpture trail of carved slate boulders that are two million years old.
‘The huge difference in age didn’t deter our close friendship,’ says Shawn. ‘Josefina was an amazing woman and her passing has left a big hole in my life. I really treasure a letter she wrote to me only a few days before her death in a Blackpool nursing home. I understand it was her last.’
Shawn’s sculpture, The Angel, dedicated to the memory of Josefina, can be found on the Rydal Hall Sculpture Trail.
With thanks for information to:
Reverend George Wrigley
Shawn Williamson www.lakestay.co.uk/shawnwilliamson
Angela Monkman Brushett, Cartmel Priory Guide
Dr Margaret Lewis, author of Josefina de Vasconcellos: Her Life and Art
(Flambard Press 2002)