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So Long, Bruno Besagni

May 17, 2017
by the gentle author

I was saddened to learn of the death of Bruno Besagni last weekend, just a few months after the death of his wife Olive Besagni on 12th December and I publish my profile today as a tribute to him, with photographs by the late Colin O’Brien

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 showed me a similar lamp in his living room 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 the traditional Italian technique which has its origins in religious art. In fact, alongside his career making lamps and figurines for sale, Bruno also made and repaired devotional statues for churches, including the painted effigy of Our Lady of Mount Carmel 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 this magic that 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 exuded the irrepressible vitality that characterised him in photographs spanning eighty years – and it was this brave magnanimous spirit, combined with a passion for football and running, that 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 Besagni

Bruno & Olive Besagni

Portraits copyright © Estate of Colin O’Brien

You may also like to read about

Olive Besagni, Film Editor

When Rupert Blanchard met Bruno Besagni

6 Responses leave one →
  1. James Harris permalink
    May 17, 2017

    Thank you for recounting the story of Bruno Besagni and his wife Olive. Lives lived with love and lustre.

  2. Mark s permalink
    May 17, 2017

    What a wonderful, human story- provides much to reflect on….

  3. May 17, 2017

    Goodness, I feel that I KNOW Olive and Bruno after these two evocative posts. All I can say is -
    I am thrilled that two such simpatico people found one another and spent a whole lifetime together. Brava and Bravo!

    I am always so thrilled to explore the vintage photos and other personal ephemera that you highlight, here on the blog. The fragile news clippings, brittle and weathered, remind us of
    earnest long-ago scrapbooks; stored in closets or cardboard cartons. But, oh my, the photo of
    “the boys of Back Hill” — Now that would be a photo that would have a place of honor on my mantle. Never out of sight, always good for provoking one more smile.

  4. May 17, 2017

    A wonderful Life Story of two wonderful People!

    Olive & Bruno Besagni — R.I.P.

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  5. Gary Arber permalink
    May 17, 2017

    It was terrible the way that Italians were imprisoned during the war. As a boy I used to visit my grandparents in our shop in Roman Road . Next door was George Gargano who ran a cafe and sold ice cream,, he was a lovely man, I called him Uncle George and always had some ice cream from him. He was interned during the war and died there of a broken heart.
    Gary

  6. May 17, 2017

    Thank you

    Precious

    What a beautiful artist

    Rest In Peace Bruno Besagni

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