Oskar Neumann was born into a Jewish family in Osijek, now in Croatia, on 13th March 1906. He began to sculpt as a teenager. Despite being largely self-taught, he staged two exhibitions of portraits and figurative work while still at school. Both shows were enthusiastically reviewed by the local press. Nemon’s instinctive flair for portraiture additionally led to several private commissions.
After taking his baccalaureat, Nemon left Osijek for Vienna aged eighteen. Culturally vibrant, but traumatized by the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the first World War, the city was marked by rising anti-Semitism. Unable to gain access to formal tuition, Nemon apprenticed himself to Anton Hanak, a local sculptor, then set up his own studio where he experimented with Expressionism and made commissioned portraits.
In Vienna Nemon’s uncle owned a bronze factory, meaning he could cast his work. An admirer of Sigmund Freud, they were introduced by Paul Federn in 1931, when Nemon sculpted Freud for his seventy-fifty birthday. Nemon’s original wood carving of Freud’s bust is now on display in the Freud Museum in London, and a large seated bronze is sited outside the Tavistock Clinic in London.
After a year in Vienna, Nemon moved to Brussels in 1925 to study sculpture at the Académie des Beaux Arts where he won the Gold Medal. Continuing to develop his figurative work, Nemon also established his distinctive style of portraiture. This fuses abstract forms with accurate representation to create studies from life which also form autonomous works of art.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Nemon also experimented with Constructivism and Cubism, whose influences can be seen most clearly in his portrait of fellow sculptor Pierre de Soete, and his relief of the aviator Charles Lindberg in 1927.
Nemon changed his name from Neumann to Némon in 1931, following his first major exhibition in 1930. A subsequent show, staged at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Bruxelles in 1932, led to sitters including Albert I and Queen Astrid, the politician Van de Velde, and many less well known Belgians, including numerous children.
In 1933, as the political climate darkened, Nemon designed a dramatic modernist structure, the Temple of Universal Ethics, which he promoted as the headquarters for a movement for global peace and tolerance. Throughout his time in Belgium Nemon also designed bronze reliefs and medals.
Facing increasing difficulties in Brussels, where some elements of society were becoming increasingly anti-Semitic, Nemon moved to England from 1936. He now shed the acute accent of his revised surname. He had intended to go on to America but the war intervened.
In London he met Patricia Villiers Stuart. They settled on Boars Hill outside Oxford in 1941 when their first child Falcon was born. Two daughters – Aurelia and Electra – followed. Oscar Nemon died on 13 April 1985.
Daughter Aurelia, now Lady Aurelia Young, expands on the story in the following well illustrated article:
Living on Boars Hill in the 1940s
My father, the sculptor Oscar Nemon, left his native Yugoslavia when he was 17 and made his way across Europe arriving in London in the mid 1930s. In his memoirs he wrote:
‘At the beginning of the Second World War I found myself in England in a rather precarious situation. It had not been decided which side Yugoslavia would take in the struggle, and I was a Yugoslav National. It became clear that my best move would be to slip away into the country and wait to see how things would develop’.
He went to Abinger in Surrey where he was taught English by Max Beerbohm and his American wife Florence. Max Beerbohm suggested Nemon should visit Oxford and sculpt the German Professor Hermann Fiedler who had taught the Prince of Wales German in 1913. Professor Fiedler often invited Nemon to the musical evenings he held at his home in Norham Road where his daughter, Herma, played the cello. It was at one of these musical evenings that Nemon met the German chemist and pianist, Dr Ernst Chain.
Whilst in Oxford Nemon made friends with Maud Levy, the daughter of the distinguished Nietzsche scholar, Dr Oscar Levy. Maud spoke perfect French, German and English and was able to help Nemon with his correspondence. Maud married Albi Rosenthal made their first home at White Rock on The Ridgeway, Boars Hill.
My mother Patricia Villiers-Stuart joined Nemon in Oxford when she was awaiting the arrival of their first child in 1941. This is how Nemon described the baby in a letter he wrote to Lady Beerbohm which I found in the Merton College Archives.
“I have done a lot of sculpture in clay and one in real living material which looks like a baby and it seems to be actually my best piece of work. When the time came to give a name to this piece of work I chose the name of a bird, Falcon, and I hope he will live up to his name”
After Falcon’s birth Nemon and Patricia moved to Boars Hill and rented rooms from Emma Mathews at her home, West View (now Broom Close) at the top of Old Boars Hill.
Emma Mathews’ daughter Mary Bright Rix wrote a booklet about her mother The Life of Emma Mathews in which she included letters written to her many children. On Jan 27th 1943 Emma Mathews wrote to her son Basil “My lady tenant went into the Radcliffe maternity ward on the 19th. A daughter was born on the 21st” That was me, Aurelia.
In April 1943 Emma Matthews wrote to Basil “On Monday evening Mr Nemon showed us a plaster cast he made of Dr Armstrong, organist at our Cathedral and conductor of the Bach Choir, I though it lovely. I wonder if you know Dr Armstrong? He has a pleasant face and the artist has caought a lovely expression, it is just the head and neck, he is looking upward as if conducting a choir and the singers are at their best and Dr Armstrong is among the angels”
When I discovered my father had sculpted Dr Thomas Armstrong I got in touch with his son Lord (Robert) Armstrong who sent me a photograph of the bust which he has now donated to Christ Church Choir School.
When Falcon and I were very small Patricia fell ill with double pneumonia and pleurisy and lay dying in the Acland Nursing Home in the Banbury Road. When the doctors told Nemon that there was no hope for her he was in despair, what would he do with two small children in a foreign country in the middle of a war?
Nemon was told about a new wonder drug called penicillin which had recently been jointly invented by his pianist friend Dr Ernst Chain. On hearing this news Nemon immediately rushed to Chain’s home in the Banbury Road and breathlessly knocked as his door apologising for the sudden intrusion but he wondered if Chain could save Patricia’s life? Chain told Nemon that although he had co invented penicillin he was now not allowed to see it or touch it. However he said that he would go to the Dunn Laboratory in South Parks Road, and steal it!. Patricia was given an early version of penicillin and it saved her life.
Falcon and I loved visiting Mrs Molly Long who lived at Holycote, next door to West View. She had a very sad life as her only child, her son Alick, was killed in the war when he was still a teenager.
We saw a lot of Maud and Albi Rosenthal who later moved from White Rock and moved further up the Ridgeway to ‘Half Acre’.
Patricia’s wealthy parents decided to punish her for marrying a penniless Yugoslav Jewish artist so her modest allowance was reduced to a frugal minimum. As there was so little money Nemon and Patricia could not afford to buy a proper home. When I was seven we moved into a house made of two redundant asbestos Army huts on the Ridgeway. My parents called this house ‘Pleasant Land’ as my mother was a great fan of William Blake and his poem ‘Jerusalem’.
I had a happy childhood growing up in this cold but happy house on Boars Hill. Falcon and I and our friends used to clamber up to the top of Jarn Mound and then tumble down the sandy banks in the days before the mound was covered by shrubs. Falcon and I and the Rosenthal children and the children of another Boars Hill resident, the Nobel Prize Winner, Dorothy Hodgkin started our school lives at the Crescent School in Norham Gardens, Oxford.
Nemon and Patricia were able to rebuild Pleasant Land in the early 1970 and it now holds the Oscar Nemon Museum and Archive.
I have recently written a book ‘Finding Nemon’ about my father’s life which is available on the Oscar Nemon website. www.oscarnemon.org.uk
We are grateful to Lady Aurelia Young for kindly writing the above article specially for the BHA website.