Bruno Besagni, Reproduction Artist
This is Bruno Besagni, pictured in the nineteen fifties, with one of the finely painted casts that he made in his factory, Bruno’s, utilising the expertise that he first acquired in Clerkenwell at the age of fourteen. Bruno still has a similar lamp in his living room today and when I admired it, he gestured aloft with whimsical delight, directing my gaze overhead and there, overarching everything, was a flamboyant ceiling rose of acanthus leaves that he also made, using one frond he retrieved from broken plasterwork in an old hotel.
Moulding and painting statues became Bruno’s life, pursuing a traditional Italian technique which has its origins in religious art. In fact, alongside his career making lamps and figurines for sale, Bruno has made and repaired devotional statues for churches, including the painted effigy of St Mary of Mount Carmel that is carried in the Italian Parade in Clerkenwell each year. There is a certain kind of magic, conjuring such animated figures out of base materials, painted in lifelike colours and highlighted with gold, and it is a magic that has sustained Bruno throughout a long career.
Being Italian, my mother said, “You’ve got to go and work in a cafe or a restaurant, at least you’ll eat.” I tried it for a while, but I never got on with it. I got a job as artistic sprayer at the factory in Great Sutton St belonging to Giovanni Pagliai who came from Lucca in Florence where they make all the traditional statues. I took to it at once, I was fairly artistic and all my life I’ve been involved in art. I worked there for a couple of years from fourteen to sixteen, that’s where I met my wife Olive.
When the war began they were all imprisoned. Most of the staff were Italian, and one day a squad car pulled up and arrested everybody. They were “undesirables,” they came under section 28(b) – you were imprisoned but you could have food sent in. As my father was born here, I was a British citizen, so everybody but me got interned. After that, I did all sorts of jobs, chasing money because we were so poor. I should have listened to my mother and gone into the restaurant business.
I was born in 1926 at 48 Kings Cross Rd next to the Police Station, and we moved to Victoria Dwellings on the corner of Clerkenwell Rd in the Italian Quarter, when I was very small. Down “the hill,” everybody ducked and dived, and I had that education, but all I ever wanted to do was to play football and run. We were babies really, sent out to work at fourteen when we left school, earning twelve shillings and sixpence a week, and giving ten bob to your mum. It was a poor wage yet I enjoyed it, there were nine of us in the family then and we were all happy.
I wish I’d gone into the army. I was called up at eighteen, but I couldn’t fight because I had an uncle in the Italian army. It was a very difficult situation for me and – even today – I’m not proud of this. I would have loved to have gone into the army, because I’m a man’s man and I knew I’d have loved it. I worked on a farm instead, at Chepstow with other Conscientious Objectors who were English, and I was disgusted with them, because if they were in Germany, Hitler would have executed them all. They weren’t my cup of tea, they were writers and poets and university types. Being an athlete and a footballer, I joined the Chepstow Football Club and I became their star player. The Chepstow people didn’t want anything to do with us at first, but once I joined the team we got on like a house on fire. I always say, “Have boots, will travel!”
I ran away from there after a couple of years, because I was worried about my mother and the bombs were still dropping on London. They caught up with me and said, “You’ve got to do something.” so I worked in a munitions factory in Ruislip. I was still trying to chase money.
I was signed by Fulham, but footballers got no wages in those days and I couldn’t stand around acting the star when I had no money. The war was coming to an end and somebody said, “I’m going into the statue business,” so we started a little company in Camden Town. We used to open the window for ventilation when we did spray painting, and once the neighbour came round covered in gold paint! For a few years it went fine, but we was becoming villains, we were getting raided for our stock by the police. The purchase tax on items was 125%, so we didn’t have chance – until we learnt that some articles had no tax, like fruit bowls. They weren’t being made yet they were on the invoice! It was our little ploy.
Everything was plaster, we made elephants, dogs and cats. After the war, people had money to spend but nothing to buy so they queued to buy these figurines – all this stuff was rubbish! Then I moved into making statues, I wanted to be more classy and artistic. I called myself a reproduction artist in the end, because I not only cast the statues, I painted them too. I set up on my own, at first on the Caledonian Rd and then in a factory in Stratford, and I made proper statues. I had staff, there were about four of us, and we made Beethoven and Shakespeare. I’ve still got the mould for Shakespeare in my wardrobe, I don’t know why. Cupid, Hermes and Michelangelo’s David were also popular.
I was the second eldest of a family of eleven children, which can be a problem because my mum and dad were still young, and they had only to look at one another and they conceived. When I was eighteen and old enough to know what went on, I said to my dad, “You’ve got to stop. You’ll kill her.” and the doctor told him too, “You’ve got to get condoms and use them.” When he died, I found four thousand condoms in his private cupboard. But I have a lovely family, although we’ve got bad eyesight and heart trouble – I’ve lost three out of eleven. I’m a lucky boy, I’ve still got all my faculties at eighty-six.
Remarkably for one in such advanced years, Bruno still exudes the irrepressible vitality that characterises him in photographs spanning eighty years. It is this brave magnanimous spirit, combined with a passion for football and running, that has carried Bruno Besagni through the ups and down of life with such enviable panache.
Bruno’s mother’s identity card, giving the date of 1919 when she emigrated to Britain from Italy.
Bruno’s father, Guiseppe Besagni, an asphalt layer.
The boys of Back Hill, the centre of the Italian community in Clerkenwell.
Bruno with his sister Lydia who was afflicted with rickets, induced by deficiency in vitamin D.
Bruno in his school football team aged ten – he is second from right in the second row.
Bruno was a keen cyclist in his teens – he is on the right.
Bruno at an Italian Navy Summer Camp in 1937- he is on the left.
Becoming a young man, Bruno stands outside Victoria Dwellings in Clerkenwell with two friends.
Bruno, aged nineteen.
Bruno stands at the centre of the group of Conscientious Objectors at Chepstow.
The Evening Standard reports Bruno signing for Fulham.
Bruno with one of the lamps he made at his factory in the fifties.
A newspaper feature from the seventies, showing Bruno with some of his top-selling casts.
Bruno with an eagle lamp base.
Bruno’s cast factory at Stratford.
Bruno with a herd of casts of horses.
Bruno with one of his statues in his living room.
Bruno & Olive Besagni
New Portraits copyright © Colin O’Brien
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