The Reconciliation sculpture in the Coventry Cathedral Ruins is one of five such statues around the world. It was made by Josefina de Vasconcellos and first show in the summer of 1955 in a joint exhibition with her husband, Delmar Banner, at the Royal Watercolour Society Galleries. It was put on sale for the price of £25. It depicts two exhausted figures kneeling and embracing. Josefina was inspired by a newspaper story of a woman who had walked across Europe to find her husband after the Second World War. When she had completed the work, she realised that it was not just about just two people being reunited but also about the reunion of nations after they had been fighting. At the time it was not sold and it remained with the Gallery for 17 years.
In 1966 the University of Bradford received its Royal Charter. The Society of Friends were interested in setting up an academic studies course in international conflict and its resolution and in 1972 after much fund raising and the support of the Quaker Trust the course was secured. Josefina had heard of the proposed Department of Peace Studies appeal and offered her sculpture ‘Reunion’ as a gift. The University responded and at the same time suggested that the name of the piece could be change to ‘Reconciliation. Josefina agreed and the university had it cast in bronze
In 1977 it was unveiled by Sean MacBride, Nobel Peace Laureate and Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations and on the same day both Josefina and Sean were given honorary Doctorates. The statue is now standing outside the Department of Peace Studies and Library at Bradford University.
In 1992 a statue of Sir Arthur (Bomber) Harris was made to stand outside the church of St Clement Danes in the Strand, London. As it was being unveiled, there were a few who objected to it, including Canon Paul Oestreicher from Coventry and Richard Branson from the Virgin Group of companies. The artist worked with this group and the Bradford University, Department of Peace Studies, to make two copies of the ‘Reunion’ and called them ‘Reconciliation”. This was funded by Richard Branson. In 1995 one of the cast sculptures was put in the Coventry Cathedral ruins and the other was placed in the Peace Park in Hiroshima, Japan, to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.
To mark the opening of the rebuilt German Reichstag building in 1999, and the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, another cast was made, again funded by Richard Branson. It was temporarily placed outside the Reichstag building near the site of the Church of the Reconciliation which had been blown up by the East German secret police in 1985. When the ruins of the church were cleared the ancient Bible used for services was found under the rubble so Josefina had a cast of it made. It now sits with barbed wire around it between the two people of the sculpture.
In the year 2000 plans for a further ‘Reconciliation’ cast for Belfast were supported by Mo Mowlam. Josefina at the age of 96 was chosen to unveil it and she was very pleased to see it placed in the centre of a pool fed by a small curving cascade of water, in the grounds of Stormont in Belfast.
About the artist
Josefina de Vasconcellos, was born in Molesey on Thames on 26th October 1904 and died aged 100 on 20th July 2005.
Her mother was an English Quaker and her father came from Brazil. He was a Consul for the Brazilian Republic and a member of the founding families of the republic. The marriage was an unhappy one and they separated, but he kept in touch and supported and advised his daughter. He died in 1936 following a traffic accident in Liverpool where he worked.
Josefina attended Manchester Art School but she felt it did not advance her career in Art, so her father took her to a stonemason’s yard where she was given two blocks of Portland Stone to practice on. She found it very interesting.
In the Autumn of 1920 Josefina and her mother moved to London so that she could enrol at the Regent Street Polytechnic, specialising in sculpture. Sculpture was outside the syllabus at the Royal College of Art at that time and this did not change till 1927.
In 1923 Josefina won the Bronze Medal for Design in Sculpture. The following year she and her mother travelled to Florence, where she studied with the sculptors Guido Calore and Libero Andreotti. During this time, she sculpted ‘The Repentance of St Hubert’. They then moved to Paris where she enrolled in the Académie de la Grande Chaumiere, where she was taught by Antoine Bourdell, one of Auguste Rodin’s assistants.
She first exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Show in 1926, with The Repentance of St Hubert and completed her first major commission in 1929 for the Church of Saint Valéry in Varengeville-sur-Mer, Normandy, which included a life-sized reclining figure of Saint Valery under a stone altar. After she returned to England, de Vasconcellos enrolled in the Royal Academy Schools and was placed second in the 1930 Prix de Rome contest.
Josefina did many different types of sculptures from religious pieces to memorials. She was able to work with all types of material including ancient marble, bronze, wood, lead, plaster and as modern as perspex.
She was at one time the world’s oldest living sculptor. She lived in Cumbria much of her working life.
There are other Peace and Reconciliation themed public works of art in and around Coventry. If you would like to know more please see https://covpeacetrail.uk/
Article by Paul Maddocks. Paul is a founder member of Coventry Society and Chair of the Lord Mayor’s Committee for Peace and Reconciliation.
He would like to thank Donald Hamilton for highlighting the amazing life and work of Josefina de Vasconcellos.