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Public Statues and Sculpture Association

Josefina Alys Hermes de Vasconcellos (1904–2005)

Josefina Alys Hermes de Vasconcellos was born in Surrey, in the United Kingdom. Her father, a Brazilian diplomat, was Roman Catholic and her mother an English Quaker. Her sensitivity towards good battling evil — which became the theme of much of her sculpture — developed during her childhood awareness of the First World War.
As a teenager, in 1919, during a family visit to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she explored a more cultured existence, discovering dance, music and poetry, which sustained her lifelong. Through her Brazilian heritage, she became keenly interested in the construction of the iconic Christ the Redeemer (1922–31) by Paul Landowski and Gheorghe Leonida.
Given de Vasconcellos’s evident early artistry, her father arranged for her to learn to carve in a Manchester stonemason’s yard, where she assisted in decorating headstones. She enrolled at the Manchester School of Art in c.1920, after which in 1921, she secured a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Arts, London, where she frequently exhibited her sculptures at the Summer Exhibitions, 1926–1966. In 1923 she furthered her studies in fine arts at the Regent Street Polytechnic and was awarded the bronze medal for design in sculpture.
Chaperoned by her mother to Italy in 1924, de Vasconcellos studied under the tutelage of Guido Calori and Libero Andreotti at the University of Florence. Aged 21, she created The Repentance of St Hubert (1926) which was exhibited internationally, in Florence, London, Manchester and Paris; a copy was bought by the National Gallery of Brazil. Later in 1924, she enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Paris, founded by Emile Antoine Bourdelle. She was inspired by the work of Ivan Meštrović, especially his powerful carvings of religious figures, and works by Alberto Giacometti, Germaine Richier and Jacob Epstein.
Competing for the Prix de Rome in 1930, she was the first woman runner-up: later the same year, she married as Mrs Delmar Banner, after which domestic duties stalled her inchoate international career. During the Second World War, in 1940 de Vasconcellos relocated from blitzed London to Cumbria, and as a childless couple, de Vasconcellos and Banner, who was homosexual, adopted two homeless boys, Billy and Brian.
By 1951 de Vasconcellos had returned to a studio in London and resumed her social life, becoming a co-founder of the Royal Society of Portrait Sculptors in 1953. With Madonna and Child (1956), she was the first woman artist to have work accepted at St Paul’s Cathedral, London.
She held joint exhibitions with Banner, a painter, at the Royal Watercolour Society Galleries in London in 1947 and 1955. As an experimental sculptor and mobility-aids designer, de Vasconcellos was keen to work with woods, metals, stones and manmade materials such as Perspex and textiles.
Acknowledged by her peers, in 1941 de Vasconcellos was elected an Associate of the Royal Society of British Sculptors; she was a Fellow from 1948 until her venerable retirement in 1977. Her later years were filled with humanitarian causes, fund-raising for an outward-bound holiday home, ‘Beckstones’, in 1967, and the land-based fishing trawler, the ‘Harriet’, in 1975: so relentless was her charity work that she was honoured as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1986.
Many of de Vasconcellos’ sculptures were placed in churches, cathedrals and public spaces, therefore remaining conserved and accessible, including Christ the Judge (1950), later know as Christ Calming the Storm, at the War Memorial, Manor Park, Aldershot. However, her most internationally famous sculpture, Reconciliation (1995), was installed at Coventry Cathedral and subsequently versions have been located at the Hiroshima Peace Park; the Stormont estate, Belfast; and the Reichstag, Berlin.
Generous by nature, de Vasconcellos mentored younger sculptors including her most loyal protégé, Shawn Williamson. Aged 95, she became the artist-in-residence at Prince Charlie’s House, Kendal. Aged 101 de Vasconcellos died in Blackpool, Lancashire.

Bibliography: L. Clifford, Sculptor Josefina de Vasconcellos, Sarisbury Green, Hampshire, 2000; D.A. Cross, Public Sculpture of Lancashire and Cumbria, Liverpool, 2017, pp. 140, 155, 156–57, 178–79; B. Crowther, ‘Josefina de Vasconcellos (1904–2005). Sculpting for peace and reconciliation’, The British Art Journal, XXI, pp. 28–38; M. Lewis, Josefina de Vasconcellos Her Life and Art, Hexham, 2002; National Catholic Register: ‘Celebrating Christ the King – 12 interesting facts about Christ the Redeemer statue’; P. Rose, Working Against the Grain. Women Sculptors in Britain c. 1885–1950, Liverpool, 2020, pp.108–09, 126–27; Royal Academy Summer Exhibition Catalogues: (i) 1946, The Last Chimera, Hopton Stone, listing number 1155; (ii) 1956, Dr Roger Bannister, bronze, listing number 1319.

Melanie Veasey, 2024

Vasconcellos, Josefina Alys Hermes de

Josefina de Vasconcellos working on a maquette (c.1930s), later realised as Valiant for Truth (1983) and placed on the grave of her husband, the painter Delmar Banner
(photo: Brian Horner)