Maria Bjornson

After Maria's death, Robert and Olivia Temple wrote her obituary in the London INDEPENDENT newspaper. Due to the unexpectedness of Maria's death and the lack of anyone knowledgeable about certain matters to talk to prior to the deadline for publication, a few inaccuracies appeared in the obituary as printed. Subsequently, these have been rectified. Here is an expanded and corrected obituary:










































































































Maria Bjornson was regarded by her peers as Britain’s most inspired set and costume designer for theatre, opera, and ballet, as revealed in a survey of their opinions in the late 1980s. She has died unexpectedly in her bath at the age of 53, early in the morning of Friday the 13th of December, having always had a deep superstitious dread of the number 13. Maria electrified the public with her wild and imaginative stage and costume designs for Phantom of the Opera in 1986 and went on to dazzle all who saw the many productions she designed over the years, those who worked with her, and her large circle of passionately devoted friends. They admired and loved her for her lack of ego, her unique creative genius, her unrestrained generosity, her desperate emotional vulnerability, and her wonderful sense of humour. Maria Bjornson’s life was one of intense creative fulfilment, but also a story of love and tragedy worthy of one of the operas she had designed.

Maria and Mia
Little Maria and her mother Mia

Maria grew up as Maria Prodan, called by the nickname Nini, daughter of a beautiful and brilliant Romanian woman named Mia Prodan de Kisbunn (born 1917), a descendant of an arch-ducal family. Mia’s father was Attorney General and Chief Justice of Romania and her grandfather Paul Prodan de Kisbunn was director of the Romanian National Theatre and close friend of the composer Georges Enescu. Her grandmother, Dr. Maria Cutzarida-Cratunescu (1857-1919), was the first woman in Romania to acquire a medical degree and practise medicine, and has an iconic reputation in Romania similar to Florence Nightingale in Britain. Mia commenced a career in the diplomatic corps and was posted to the Copenhagen Legation as Assistant Consul in 1943, but with the takeover of Romania by the Nazis in 1944, she became stateless and found herself a refugee, working in the Royal Romanian Legation in neutral Sweden until 1946. After the communist takeover of Romania was complete, Mia could no longer return there. Her brother Nicolae (‘Piki’) was sent to the Soviet Gulag for twenty years, and her parents lost all their money and property and were reduced to living in one room of their house separated by a curtain from a peasant couple who spied on them. Mia had been smuggled across the border from Sweden to Norway by a Danish friend, to await a chance to flee to Paris (because she spoke perfect French), during which time she worked for the Romanian Embassy there until the forced abdication of King Michael of Romania in 1947, when she could no longer be employed. She was then entrusted to her Danish friend’s friend, a Norwegian named Bjorn Bjornson, who was much older than her and supposed to look after her, but, unknown to her, was a compulsive seducer and womanizer. He seduced the inexperienced Mia, promising marriage and that he would leave his loveless and childless marriage. When Mia became pregnant, he disowned her and insisted that the child was not his. (She took him to court in Oslo after Maria’s birth and won a judgement ordering him to pay approximately £12 per month for the maintenance of his unborn child, which is the only financial contribution he ever made during his lifetime, and the monthly sum was never increased.) Mia fled to France, studied French and phonetics at the Sorbonne between 1948 and 1950 despite the birth of Maria, who was born in Paris on February 16, 1949.

Bjorn Bjornson
Maria's father Bjorn Bjornson

Mia came to London in June, 1950, desperately ill with tuberculosis and almost penniless, a young baby in her arms, and went to a female relative named Iliescu, who took her in as a household servant and abused and mistreated her, so that she fled to the only other person whose name she knew in England: Ion Ratiu, another refugee who had been at university with her sister Helena in Cluj, Romania, and had wanted to marry Helena but was rejected. Ion Ratiu and his English wife Elisabeth took care of little Maria for two years while Mia recovered her health sufficiently to have her back. Having bonded with her mother as an infant and then been deprived of her between the ages of 1 to 3, and having been abandoned by her heartless father, whom she did not meet until she was past thirty, Maria suffered from overwhelming insecurities and anxieties during her lifetime. She was stigmatized as an illegitimate child at a time when that was still a basis for social ostracism, which she certainly experienced when young. She also experienced traumatic abuse at the hands of an older male whom she trusted, which damaged her attitude towards men.

Maria in costume
Maria's first experiment with costume
(Maria on left)

Mia then worked as a cleaner at the BBC, where her linguistic skills and high intelligence eventually were noticed and she became a stalwart of the BBC World Service broadcasting to Romania, from 1952 to 1963. She also very occasionally taught Romanian at the Berlitz School of Languages. Struggling against poverty and TB in her leg, which had given her a limp, in order to earn the money to pay for Maria to be able to go to art college, in 1963 Mia accepted a three year contract as an interpreter for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Government of Niger, West Africa, and left Maria again with the Ratiu family during her teenage years. During her childhood, Maria spent her summers with her mother in a cottage in Heronsgate, Hertfordshire, which was made available without charge for impoverished people with chronic illnesses, and there her friends were the Killick family next door and also a child in the village, my wife Olivia, who became her playmate and childhood friend. These tenuous links with the few sunny and happy days of an otherwise deprived and desperate childhood had a unique emotional significance to Maria later in life. She loved to reminisce with Olivia about the cow in the paddock, the fresh clotted cream in the kitchen, picking strawberries and blackcurrants, and the relaxed sunbathing that created the illusion every summer that life could be vaguely normal for a while.

Maria and Olivia Temple as children
Maria and Olivia Temple as children

As essentially penniless refugees weighed down by what was in those times the horrible social curse of illegitimacy, the mother and daughter lived an insular and isolated existence, struggling to find enough money to eat, having few friends and no social life. They became intensely bonded as ‘the fearless pair’ who struggled together against the world to survive. They discussed and did everything together. Mia was a fiercely independent intellectual, fluent in several languages, and she never married. Maria secretly blamed herself for being a millstone round her mother’s neck. Maria was born with a cleft palate which gave her a strangely nasal voice, and until she was an adult she was inhibited by a stammer. Her loneliness as a child compelled her to create an inner life peopled by imaginary and exotic friends.

An early childhood sketch
An early childhood sketch

From early childhood, she drew ceaselessly page after page of brightly costumed people, each with his or her own story. She and Olivia would discuss them as if they knew them all personally. Each face was different, each expression was of a specific emotion, and the drawings were sometimes overpowering in their vitality. It was a world full of colour, drama, and whirling fabrics, jewels, and feathers. Maria’s first stage sets were the interiors of a large doll’s house. At the age of fourteen, Mia took Maria to meet the artist Cecil Collins for advice about her future. Cecil was then unknown and teaching at two art colleges including the Central School of Art in London. Cecil told us later that he recognised immediately that Maria was a genius with a very specific talent, and he suggested to Mia that she should encourage her to become a theatrical designer rather than a painter, which Mia then passionately did, and went to raise the money in Niger for her to study at the Central School.

In 1987, against the wishes of her mother, Maria became a British citizen. Mia had wished them both to remain as stateless persons as a protest against the Ceausescu tyranny in Romania, to which she hoped they could both return as free Romanian citizens one day. However, Maria’s difficulties in obtaining travel documents for her work abroad meant that she had to abandon the dream.

When she reached adulthood, Maria was informed by her mother that she had actually been registered at birth (in Paris) with the name of her father’s family, so she then began to use it. The surname was one to be proud of, for her great-grandfather Bjornstjerne Bjornson (1832-1910) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1903 for his works of fiction and drama. Also, her great-uncle Bjorn Bjornson was the first director of the Norwegian National Theatre. Maria could never free herself, nor did she really wish to, from the superhuman emotional bonds which joined her with her mother. None who knew them well ever witnessed such intense love and devotion between two people. Mia had a stroke several years before Maria’s death, and afterwards, although alert mentally, was unable to speak or write. Maria had already bought her a house across the street from her own in London, and called in to see her several times each day, held her hand, stroked her head and lovingly told her every event of the day with an intensity which amazed the carers and all of Maria’s friends. Tied so passionately to her mother to whom she would still whisper daily ‘we’ll make it’ or ‘we’re the fearless pair’, Maria had difficulties with personal emotional relationships.

Maria and her partner Malcolm
Maria with her partner Malcolm

Seven years before her death she finally formed a lasting one with senior scenic artist Malcolm Key, who became her loving partner until she died, although they lived apart. This enabled Maria to become less nervous and anxious, and at last to feel that she was a woman who on a long-term basis could be loved by someone other than her mother. It brought her the peace and happiness she had never previously known, though she constantly struggled with the practicalities and often asked friends for advice on how she could be ‘better at relationships’.

Maria and hero
Maria with her beloved dog
Hero in the park

From total and abject poverty, Maria became wealthy from her work and a belated inheritance from her rich and feckless father, but she hated money and struggled to give as much away as she could. She gave £50,000 to one Romanian charity, supported a Romanian children’s home and funded Romanian screenwriters and authors, and gave substantial charitable donations for speech therapy in Sri Lanka and for the support of professional carers in Britain, whom she had come to appreciate from her constant association with them in the care of her mother. She also devoted a lot of her energies to advising students at the Central St. Martins School of Art in London, where she was an Honorary Professor. She helped innumerable students and aspiring designers who wrote to her out of the blue, met with them and gave them advice for their careers.

Maria becoming an Honorary Professor
Maria becoming an Honorary Professor

A month before she died, Maria delivered the complete designs for the new opera The Little Prince, which opened in Houston and was later filmed by the BBC, directed by Francesca Zambello. Her brilliant work featured in countless famous productions, some on the grand scale and others very small; her range was enormous, and the list of credits is encyclopaedic, two of the most famous opera productions being The Cunning Little Vixen and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. She over-worked compulsively, with the passion of someone who seemed to sense that she had too little time left, and the day before she died, though suffering from chickenpox, she worked for fifteen hours without a break.

Maria becoming an Honorary Professor
Details of two portraits of Maria by her friend the theatre designer and artist Yolanda Sonnabend

The one dark patch of her career was when some years ago she was falsely blamed in a BBC television documentary about Covent Garden, The House, for causing chaos by designing two productions at once, Anthony Dowell’s ballet Sleeping Beauty and the opera Katya Kabanova. The fault was instead bad production planning of the opera by others. She was so depressed at this undeserved public humiliation that she stopped work for more than a year, before being persuaded with difficulty to resume. Bad press reviews of her sets for Sleeping Beauty had been countered by large numbers of rapturous letters from the public, which she often used to mention had cheered her up. She always wanted to become a serious sculptress, but never had the time, although she had recently bought a studio for herself which she intended to share with some art students. For those of us who knew her and her special and unique brand of imaginative fantasy, if perchance we see a particularly fine sunset some evening before long, with the clouds all tinted and veiled in a spectacular way, we will know that she has found her new vocation in one of those imaginary lands about which she dreamed for the whole of her life on earth.

Maria's grave - click to enlarge
Maria and her mother's grave in
Kensal Green Cemetery

Maria Elena Viviane Eva Bjornstjerne-Bjornson, born February 16, 1949, in Paris; died December 13, 2002, in London. She was survived by her mother Maria (‘Mia’) Prodan de Kisbunn (died June, 2004), her uncle Ion Nicolae Prodan de Kisbunn (died 2003), her partner Malcolm Key, and her beloved dog Hero.


In association with Prodan Romanian Cultural Foundation charitable foundation, Vaduz, Liechtenstein