Josefina de Vasconcellos (1904-2005)

Josefina de Vasconcellos

Written by David A Cross

Occupation: Sculptor

Early Life

Josefina de Vasconcellos was born in Molesley, Surrey, the daughter of the Brazilian diplomat and atheist Hippolyto Hermes de Vasconcellos FRGS (c.1872-1936) and his wife Freda Coleman (1882-1961), an English quaker, actress and the daughter of Alfred Coleman (1828-1902), an innovative dental surgeon at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Her paternal great great grandmother was the poet Rosa da Fonseca (1802-1873) and her great uncle was Marshal Deodora da Fonseca (1827-1892), the first President of Brazil. On her mother’s side she was related both to Joseph Lister (1827-1912; ODNB), pioneer of antiseptic surgery and to the balloonist and aviator Frank Hedges Butler (1855-1928; ODNB). Though brought up in England, she identified with her father’s culture and one of her late works was Requiem for a Dying Race, (Clifford, 7) featuring indigenous figures of her paternal country of origin, seated in a dug-out canoe.

Education and Early Work

She was an only child and discovered clay at the age of three, fashioning a tiny bird’s nest. Being perceived as cultured foreigner did not win her childhood friends and she was taught mostly by governesses who were forbidden to mention religion but she attended drawing lessons at Bournemouth Art School. In 1918 an exotic and stimulating period in Brazil followed, visiting wealthy cousins and being taught modelling by Rodolpho Bernadelli (1852-1931) in Rio de Janeiro. On her return in 1919, she published some verse and was delighted when her father introduced her to a Manchester stonemason, who gave her well-worn carving tools. From the age aof sixteen she studied under Howard Brownsword (1885-1961) at Regent St Polytechnic, winning a bronze medal in 1923. Next, she spent time in Florence with Guido Calore and developed her modelling with Libero Andreotti. By then, her parents, who had never been compatible, had separated; she was only twenty years old. Subsequently, she joined Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929), at the Grande Chaumiere in Paris; he had carved for Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) for fifteen years and taught Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966). Bourdelle encouraged his students to benefit from enhanced light and shade by working outdoors. His influence and that of his friend Aristide Maillol (1861-1944) can be seen in Josefina’s female figures. She exhibited two works at the Salon de Tuileries and in 1926, having read the legend of a saint who taught the necessity for humane treatment of the animals of the chase, made and exhibited The Repentance of St Hubert (Rio de Janeiro Art Gallery; Canongate Church, Edinburgh; Clifford, 12) at the RA.  Being friendly with the Mallett family at Varangueville-sur-Mer, near Dieppe, in Normandy, she was commissioned in 1929 to commemorate St Valerie (Clifford,16) at the church on the cliffs, which had been painted by Claude Monet (1840-1926). Josefina conceived a recumbent figure, or gisant, a medieval tradition. The full-size clay, modelled in Andreotti’s studio in Florence, was transported to France, where she carved the stone. Presented under a simple stone altar, this powerful work greatly enhances the sanctuary of this 11th-12thc church, now also the resting place of Georges Braque (1882-1963).

Study continued at the Royal Academy schools, tutored by William McMillan (1887-1977) and influenced by William Reid Dick (1878-1961). She exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1926 and came second in the Prix de Rome in 1930. In the same year, on 28 April, she married Delmar Harmood Banner (1896-1983; ODNB), an artist and lay preacher, whose father was an engineer. His uncle, Sir Harmood Banner Bt (1847-1927), was MP for Everton and his great grandfather, the Austrian violinist Zeugheer Hermann (1803-1865), had founded the Liverpool Philharmonic orchestra. An Oxford graduate with a private income, Delmar had a powerful love of nature and his strong belief inspired Josefina, leading to the production of many spiritually inspired works. What Josefina did not know, until too late, was that her husband was gay and was still in mourning for the great love of his life who had been killed in the trenches. This shock ‘affected her confidence and artistic vision’ (Lewis) and she produced very little for several years. However, they established a home and studio together in London and she continued to produce figurative sculpture, in defiance of the mainstream abstract output of Henry Moore (1896-1896) and Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975).

Delmar loved the Lakeland fells and wanted to live amongst them, so eventually they bought The Bield, in Little Langdale, a traditional dry stone farmhouse. Delmar’s fine landscapes were often painted high up, near the summits of Lake District fells, rather than from the valleys, as had been usual. Having friends in London and Oxford, they oscillated between Little Langdale and the south. At The Bield Josefina enjoyed being closer to the natural environment and became friendly with Beatrix Potter (1866-1943; qv) at Near Sawrey. Later in life she wrote She Was Loved: Memories of Beatrix Potter (2003). She began to settle into a working rhythm but in 1936 a further blow resulted from the sudden death of her father, aged only 64, by then Consul General in Liverpool. He had always encouraged his daughter and had been a steadying influence. Her mother soon moved to the Lakes, to be nearer Josefina, and eventually died in Grasmere in 1961.  From 1938 she exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy but not as frequently as she did at the RA.

Prominent Early Work and Exhibitions

In 1939 she had carved Christ the Judge (aka The Prince of Peace; Clifford, 23 and 27) from an eight foot slab of Portland stone, rejected by Sir Christopher Wren at St Paul’s cathedral; a paradox she would have known from Psalms 118.22. This work was unveiled as a war memorial at Manor Park, Aldershot in 1950. The Hand (Clifford, 33), created in Honister green slate in memory of Major Ronald Balfour, a friend who died in the World War II, bears a soldier being taken up to heaven; this was presented to St Bees School. In 1947 she exhibited jointly with Delmar at the Royal Watercolour Society (RWS) in Bond St., contributing forty three sculptures. One of these works was Music in the Trees (Southampton Art Gallery; Clifford, 25), a work exhibited again at Lambeth Palace during the Festival of Britain in 1951. Another sculpture was bought by Lady Kathleen Scott (1878-1947; ODNB), herself a figurative sculptor, who wrote to congratulate them on their successes. This show also included what is arguably Josefina’s greatest work, The Last Chimaera (1946) (Canongate Churchyard, Edinburgh; Clifford, 31), which was carved over several years at The Bield, from a stone found in Ulverston. Her inspiration came, as a young woman, from seeing a bronze chimaera at the monastery of San Marco in Florence. Too large to exhibit at the RWS, this work and Christ the Judge were deliberately placed on a nearby Piccadilly bombsite, to underline the impact of the nation’s recent struggles against the evils of war and were much appreciated by weary passers-by. A parallel notion was realised much later with St Michael and the Devil (Cartmel Priory; Clifford, 93), though Satan was here designed with steel jaws. Again in 1954, they held a joint exhibit at the RWS, with Josefina contributing fifty four sculptures, including the serene Anita Garibaldi, (Clifford, 48) wife of the revolutionary, holding both her baby and a rifle. This work is very like Madonna and Child (Lewis, pl 55) accepted for St Paul’s in 1957 and the first sculpture by a woman placed in the cathedral. Her frequent choice of Madonna subjects may reflect her unsatisfied yearning for a child.

After the war, Josefina returned to the Royal Academy (exhibiting from 1945-1962), the Paris Salon and 45 Park Lane. At Battersea Park in 1960, alongside Henry Moore, Elizabeth Frink (1930-1993) and even Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), she showed Boys Wrestling, a work inspired by her adopted sons which celebrates a Cumberland tradition (miniature version, Dove Cottage; Clifford, 35). Around this time, she modelled Girl Riding a Dolphin, a parallel of the myth of Arion, used since her death as a design for silver jewellery. Among her overtly mythological works are Mercury (1952; Lakeland Arts; Clifford, 10), Prayer to Aphrodite (City Art Centre, Edinburgh) and Leda and the Swan (1927; Clifford, 10). Private commissions included Linda with Duckling, Boy Holding a Fish and Pru Fishing (1961) (Clifford, 71-73). She often exchanged advice with Ophelia Gordon Bell (Mrs Heaton Cooper; 1915-1975; DCB); they shared related themes in their work and visited each other regularly.

Her Social Conscience and Religious Work

That the Banners both had modest private incomes was a bonus which gave them creative freedom. This also enabled them in 1940 to adopt two London boys, Brian and Billy and to educate them at independent schools. In addition, Josefina was godparent to many other children and ran a Sunday school at the Bield during the war. Hippolyte, her father, had discovered a lost leper colony near Iquitos and had lobbied for the support of indigenous people. In her own way, she followed suit, with her strong Anglican faith leading to the creation of numerous religious works all over Britain from 1955-1990. These included a collaborative Nativity for St Paul’s cathedral in 1955 and another in 1959 for St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, placed beside the Norwegian Christmas tree, in a wooden stable made by boys on probation (Clifford, 57). Variations on the theme of the Holy Family were commissioned for Liverpool, Blackburn, Carlisle, Gloucester, Bristol, Wells and Norwich cathedrals, and an unusual crozier in perspex, a new material, was made for Bristol. Josefina’s work in churches includes The Good Shepherd (St Mary’s, Maryport; Clifford, 49); The Vision of St Bega (1955; St Bees Priory; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Clifford, 64); St Francis (Cerne Abbas Priory; St Francis, Ormsgill, Barrow; Clifford, 24); St John (St John’s, Tunstall); St Michael (St Michael, Southampton), St Augustine (Penhalonga, Zimbabwe) and, anticipating her interest in refugees, They Fled by Night at Cartmel Priory. Related work showing the Christ Child may be found at Kendal Parish church, St Mary’s Warrington and Epping in Essex; many in this sequence being cast in resin. Despite her frequent use of this medium, her best work was carved in stone. Also at Cartmel is Young Martyr of 1537, a memorial to a young monk who had protested against the Dissolution.

Following her experience of boys from approved schools while she was at St Martin in the Fields, she was keen to support deprived children. With help from boys from Pelham House, the approved school near Calder Bridge, she restored Beckstones, near Ulpha in the Duddon Valley, establishing there in 1967 an outward bound centre. She also set up a tiny chapel, open to the fells, with an altar donated by St Martin in the Fields (now at Patterdale church). Later her Harriet Trust at Millom enabled handicapped children to live in a converted fishing boat and holiday on the coast. Several imaginative hoists gave children in wheelchairs access to the exhilaration of Jeu Libre. For this work she was awarded the MBE in 1985, a fitting acknowledgement of her drive and dynamism.  

Engagement with Professional Organisations

Being financially independent, neither Josefina nor Delmar used an agent or a commercial gallery. Without the consequent stream of publicity, their reputations diminished in later life. Rightly disapproving of the favouritism manifest by the Arts Council they beavered away nonetheless. In 1948 Josefina became the first female fellow of the Royal British Society of Sculptors and served on the council. In 1949 she featured in a BBC documentary Out of Nature by Wardaw Kunucki, which showed a rather idealised life at The Bield. Then, in 1953 she was a founder member of the Society of Portrait Sculptors and organised their first exhibition of 130 sculptures entitled ‘The Famous in Sculpture’ at the Royal Institute Galleries, which transferred to the Edinburgh Festival in 1954. She was pleased here to have a work by Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) as a focus. Over the years, she modelled busts of Delmar (Lakeland Arts), Beatrix Potter, Lord Denning, Edith Sitwell, Norman Nicholson, General Sir William Platt, Father Mario Borelli, the sprinter Roger Bannister, the war correspondent James Cameron (Clifford, 41-45) and the mountaineer Tenzing Norgay, the latter bust in perspex. Between 1971-3 she was also the president of the Guild of Lake District Craftsmen. Keen to engage with creative predecessors in other genres, she responded to Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Solitary Reaper’ by modelling an eponymous bronze, now installed at Grange-over-Sands library as a memorial to Flora Cook, former county librarian.

Reunion and Reconciliation

Following the death of Delmar in 1983, whom she had nursed for a long period, Josefina experienced a renaissance. She had always believed that her art was capable of encouraging personal rebirth and ultimately social and political change. Commissioned in 1977 by Bradford university department of Peace Studies, she modelled Reunion, featuring two embracing figures, which led to an honorary D. Litt. Versions of this work, re-named Reconciliation (Clifford, 105), commemorate VJ day at Coventry cathedral, the Berlin wall and Hiroshima. In 2000, another cast of Reconciliation was unveiled before an international audience at Stormont castle, Belfast and representative pebbles were placed in the surrounding water garden. She aspired to unveil another cast at Jerusalem, though that has not yet been realised. Josefina’s political and social engagement was further represented by The Refugees (Sheffield Art Gallery) and The Weight of our Sins (1999; Wells Cathedral; Clifford, 78). The latter, a protest against child abuse, was carried on a charity pilgrimage from Kendal to Shrewsbury, Tewkesbury and London. Other work may be seen at the churches at Greystoke, Ambleside, Workington and Harrow.

Between 1990 and 1995 she was filmed for television, appearing on Border TV, Granada and BBC1, demonstrations not only of her new flowering but also her ‘fiery artistic energy’ (Lewis). Friends were amazed to see her here on the screen dancing most elegantly with a parasol. In 1991 she exhibited in Manchester cathedral and later made a memorial to Lake District pilots in World War II. Then she was interviewed for Woman’s Hour in 1997. One unusual legacy is a stained glass window depicting Josefina, TS Eliot and other luminaries in Tulsa, at the University of Oklahoma; a commemoration echoing the saints she had modelled herself.

Last Years

One of her final exhibitions was at Cartwright Hall, Bradford in 1987. The following year it transferred to Abbot Hall, Kendal, as she was friendly with the former director Mary Burkett (DCB; qv). The Kendal exhibits included Sea Urchins (Clifford, 83), a strange pillar-like sculpture of a pair of small boys and a seal. Mary had just inherited Isel Hall near Cockermouth and invited Josefina to live there. On accepting this offer, Sea Urchins was taken to Isel and installed beside a specially planted row of laburnum. After 1988, Josefina lived there in a small artistic community (see Burkett, DCB), though the ancient building was very cold. She installed her grand piano, beside the vast 16thc fireplace in the great kitchen, but water poured down the chimney into the piano case during a storm, a blow which speeded her decision to seek alternative accommodation. Moving to Kendal she lived at Prince Charley’s House and later The Old Wash House, Peggy Hill, Ambleside. Here she renewed her friendship with the poet Sheona Lodge (1901-1997). During this time she worked on a huge crucifix which was displayed in the garden at Rydal Hall. In 1991 her Blind Girl and the Lamp (Clifford, 94), an echo of a poem by the American writer Fanny Crosby, was exhibited at Manchester. Also Joyous Mary and Babe (St Albans Collegiate Chapel) was slated to travel to Texas and she arrived at the airport with it labelled ‘Dallas or Bust !’ Periodically, she returned to Isel; on one occasion in company with a young Japanese violinist who played before the huge mural she had painted on the north wall of the great kitchen.

Despite the popularity of Reconciliation, originally moulded in clay, her greatest works are undoubtedly those carved in stone and it is no accident that in her last work she returned to her favourite medium. Escape to Light (1994-2003; Cross, 179), carved at Rydal Hall from an eight tonne block of limestone, amidst a welter of fleeing creatures, a fleeing human evades the jaws of evil, a commemoration of the Independent Offshore Rescue Service (Haverigg, near Millom). Supported by her former student Shawn Williamson and other friends, this tiny but indomitable woman chiselled away, active until her late 90s, living for a while at Holehird. In 2000 she was awarded the Jean Masson Davidson medal, the most prestigious award of the Society of Portrait Sculptors. Throughout life she had engaged with other arts, including music, painting, poetry and dance. Another late work, her Stone of Names at the Armitt in Ambleside, echoes not only the stone initialled by the Lake poets but also the thinking of William Cockin (qv) in his ‘Ode to the Genius of the Lakes’ and indeed the motivation of Cumbrian Lives (see the About page). Josefina worked in clay, stone, bronze, lead, wood, resin and perspex and in 1996 she published thirty six poems entitled Perchance to Dream. She was assiduous in discussing in the interests of others, encouraging their ideas and aspirations but she died aged 100 at Orchard Lodge nursing home, Blackpool in 2005. In 2014 the Queen mentioned Reconciliation in her Christmas message; an indication that Josefina’s creative output will endure.


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  • Clifford, Linda, List of Josefina’s Poetry, in Clifford, 2000, 117
  • Cross, David A, Public Sculpture of Lancashire and Cumbria, 2017, 156-7, 178-9, 206
  • Cross, David A, Mary Burkett, Cumbrian Lives, 2022
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  • accessed 26 June 2022
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