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Centenarian sculptor Josefina de Vasconcellos

One of the world's most famous sculptors, Josefina de Vasconcellos, a centenarian who lived most of her life in England's picturesque Lake District, died peacefully in a Blackpool nursing home on July 20. Until her final illness she was still sculpting and planning a special Garden of Peace, to be adorned with some of her statues.

"Josefina de Vasconcellos celebrated her 100th birthday in October 2004 in splendid style at Dove Cottage, Grasmere" Margaret Lewis wrote in an obituary notice in the London Independent. "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."

And in an obituary notice in the London Guardian, Linda Clifford wrote:

Josefina ... was a gifted musician, composer, poet, dancer and inventor - but much more than any of these, she was a figurative sculptor with a strong religious faith to whom other people mattered very deeply.

Tiny and deceptively frail in appearance, she created sculptures - often many times her own size - until the end of her life, and they have been seen all round the world... A Londoner herself, Josefina was born to an English Quaker mother and an atheist Brazilian diplomat father.

Clifford wrote that in 1930 Josefina married Delmar Banner, painter, academic and Anglican lay preacher. "She and Banner shared a love of nature and the arts and, despite his homosexuality, remained together until his death in 1983. They lived at the Bield, a mountainside farmhouse at Lower Langdale, in the Lake District."

We first read about Josefina when paying our daily visit to Tony Richards' superb Lakelandcam website. We were intrigued to read this email from Sr. Mary:

Josephine Banner (sculptress Josefina de Vasconcellos) had her hundredth birthday a little while ago - and apparently sang at it! (And apparently still does some sculpting, with the help of an assistant!) A friend of mine was at the party.

I remember her singing Brazilian folksongs to a lovely Brazilian guitar more than 50 years ago (her father was Brazilian), so maybe that is what she sang. But she was shy about it, and took a lot of persuading.

Checking the name Josefina de Vasconcellos with Google News, we found an interesting story about this remarkable centenarian in West Cumbria's 150-year-old weekly newspaper, Whitehaven News.

Gillian Ellison told how the world-famous millionaire entrepreneur, Sir Richard Branson, a fan of Josefina's work, has donated a four-figure sum towards the cost of her project to create a special garden in the grounds of St. Bees Priory.

Josefina was thought to have been the world's oldest working sculptress. Three of her sculptures were included in her design for the garden, which she had hoped would be a "a place for all those who have suffered the loss of a young life, before or after birth, to go and find comfort."

A few weeks ago, Ellison wrote: "Many cathedrals and art galleries throughout Britain have one or more of Josefina's sculptures, including St. Paul's Cathedral, where she is the only living sculptor to have a work of art.

"It is hoped work can begin on the garden this summer. About 1000 still needs to be raised. If you would like to contribute to the project, send your donation to The Priory Treasurer, Dr. G Burgess, Croft Hill, Low Moresby, Whitehaven, CA28 8UP. Make cheques payable to St. Bees Priory, and mark your donations Garden Appeal."

On July 20, Josefina died peacefully in a Blackpool nursing home. "Her legacy can be seen worldwide," Anna Richardson wrote in the Whitehaven News. "One of a handful of female British sculptors working in the 20th century, her friends and contemporaries included Beatrix Potter and Sir Henry Moore."

Sir Richard Branson has commissioned a 50,000 work from 97-year-old Josefina de Vasconcellos, the world's oldest living sculptor. The proposed work, Reconciliation, is the brainchild of the international ministry team at Coventry Cathedral, which works to reconcile zones of conflict world-wide. It would continue a series by de Vasconcellos, whose other works on the theme can be seen in Coventry Cathedral, at the Berlin Wall and in Hiroshima. Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is blocking plans for a peace sculpture made of decommissioned weapons to be erected in the grounds of Stormont in Belfast. Talks continue.
- The Independent, London, April 2000.

 

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Eric Shackle

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