Discovering a father – Oscar Nemon and his daughter Aurelia

By Anne Sebba, T2 The Times, August 2011

Discovering a father – Oscar Nemon and his daughter AureliaAsk any biographer. Children, although present, are the least useful witnesses to their parents’ inner lives and rarely know anything about why they acted as they did. Discovering the truth can be painful, as Aurelia Young, 68, is finding out.

“My father always walked around with a fistful of clay, moulding it, squeezing it,” recalls Aurelia, daughter of the Croatian born sculptor, Oscar Nemon, who has more work in the House of Commons than any other sculptor. “His studio was an extension of the house and I remember there were often several discarded plaster heads thrown away in boxes, which we thought was normal.” But beyond understanding that theirs was an artistic existence and there was never enough money, Aurelia asked few questions.

Then in 2006, twenty one years after Nemon’s death, Aurelia was invited to give a talk about her father to the local history society at Boars Hill, Oxford where the family had lived in a pair of converted Nissen-type huts. “I thought it would be churlish to refuse. I got through that evening by holding up postcards of his work, including busts of Freud and statues of Churchill.  I realised then how little I knew!”

But in the intervening years Aurelia has learned a vast amount about her father, mother, both sets of grandparents and the close knit Jewish world into which Oscar Neumann was born in Osijek in 1906. Fatherless from the age of 9, Oscar, already an accomplished artist as a schoolboy, left home at 17 encouraged to study in Paris by Ivan Mestrovic, then the pre-eminent Yugoslav sculptor. But he went to Vienna instead only to find he was declined a place at the city’s prestigious art academy, which operated a Jewish quota, and instead spent some time working at his uncle’s bronze foundry in Vienna. He then moved to Brussels in 1925 to study at the Academie Royale des Beaux Arts, where he won a gold medal for sculpture and soon after changed his name to the more French sounding Némon. Brussels became his home and for much of the 1930’s he shared a house with the painter René Magritte. In 1931 Nemon met and first sculpted Freud, a head that prompted Freud to write that ‘the goatee-bearded sculptor’ had made “a very good and astonishingly lifelike impression of me.” But the rise of fascism in Europe forced Nemon to move suddenly to England in 1938, leaving behind a large amount of work in progress.

After the Boars Hill talk, Aurelia was given a further invitation – to speak at a festival one year later. With time in hand, she decided to research her father’s life seriously, helped by her husband, Conservative MP Sir George Young. Over the next five years Aurelia – who until that time had been a hard working Conservative party wife and councillor, bringing up four children and helping with grandchildren – learnt how to use Power Point and honed her research skills. ‘Although I wish I could speak Serbo-Croat,’ she adds ruefully. Today she is not only the leading authority on Nemon but has started writing a biography of her father and is in demand the world over to give illustrated talks about him. But the journey has led to some deeply disturbing as well as exhilarating discoveries. And she has found a frustrating number of still unidentified busts, especially of children, some of whom, she hopes, might still be alive.

“ I started my research with a visit to Osijek in 2006 – my first to Croatia.  My father never took us there, terrified after the war that the Communists would kill us. I had an address of a cousin which I found in an old diary. The cousin had survived and told me much.”

Visiting the new Jewish Community Centre Aurelia was shown a bust of a girl called Nada Korski who Nemon had sculpted in 1923 when he was 17. The commission came from Nada’s wealthy father trying to help a local boy with talent. “Amazingly, I found Nada three months later still living in Croatia. Even at 95, after a life of incredible suffering, she looked like the bust done 83 years earlier. She said I looked like my shy, teenage father!”

Soon after came the most shocking revelation: her father’s Alien’s File at the National Archives in Kew. At first she was denied access on grounds that the material would be too painful for her mother. When Aurelia supplied proof that her mother was dead they allowed her to read how her English grandparents, Lt Col Patrick and Constance Villiers Stuart, had applied to the Home Office to have Nemon deported since their only daughter, “a lady of artistic temperament… will ultimately inherit the family property which is of quite considerable value.”

But as Aurelia now knows, it was Patricia Villiers Stuart, the rebellious debutante, who was desperate to marry Nemon, not the other way around. As a result she was cut off without a penny by her parents. The couple had met in London, where Patricia had been sent for treatment following a breakdown, introduced by Dr Ernest Jones, the psychoanalyst.

Inevitably, Aurelia now questions why she and her siblings – older brother Falcon and younger sister Elektra – did not quiz their parents more. “Of course we were aware of tensions. We knew there was never any money as sometimes the leather toes were cut from our shoes to give us growth room, but we were not impoverished in a general sense because our grandparents paid for our private schooling and holidays were spent in Norfolk – Beachamwell Hall, with its small army of servants – where Nemon was never allowed to set foot.”

As Aurelia pored over exhibition catalogues and newspaper cuttings full of clues about her father’s life and work, she also discovered an early girlfriend; Jessie Stonor, daughter of an ancient English Catholic family.  More thrilling still was finding a 1930’s diary of Stonor’s in which she wrote of their deep mutual love adding that they had been together a long time and had made a pledge.  He was teaching her to sculpt – a profession which gave meaning to her life. At the same time she understood his deep need for her in the face of widespread Jewish persecution and murder.

Nemon and Stonor visited Croatia together in 1937 and made a cine film of Nemon’s grandmother, to whom he was very close, which – miraculously – survived the war. In addition to the film Aurelia has some desperately sad letters from her grandmother, written in the midst of war, about the birth in 1941 of her first grandchild, Falcon, whom she was never to see. These are especially precious as Nemon’s mother, grandmother and many other close relations were all killed at Auschwitz.

“Of course, we knew that my father was Jewish and had suffered from anti- Semitism,” explains Aurelia. “We’d been told about fights at school, including one where glass had been embedded in his lip leaving a permanent scar. But it was not a subject of discussion. One of the reasons my father and mother did not get married immediately was because my father worried about the consequences of having Jewish children. But in 1944, when my mother was desperately ill with pneumonia, they decided marriage was essential fearing that if my mother died we’d have had to go to my grandparents.”

In the 1940’s and 1950’s Nemon created a series of delicate relief works, which he called “Les Fleurs de mon Coeur.” (The Flowers of my Heart). But after the war he changed his style, perhaps in response to the massive and tragic losses, and made sculptures of a spectacular list of high-profile world leaders including Queen Elizabeth 11 and the Queen Mother, largely working at a studio he was lent in St James’ Palace. He also sculpted war leaders – Eisenhower, Earl Alexander of Tunis and Montgomery – politicians – Macmillan, Truman and Thatcher – and many other key figures of the post war world such as newspaper magnate, Lord Beaverbrook and child psychiatrist, Donald Winnicott. But he is best known for his series of more than a dozen public statues or busts of Winston Churchill, including examples in the House of Commons, the Guildhall, at Westerham near Churchill’s home at Chartwell in Kent, and in Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. The life-sized statue in the Members’ Lobby of Parliament is remarkable for showing the great leader’s vigour and energy in his sixties and, not surprisingly, was much admired by Churchill himself.

But in spite of Churchill’s longstanding friendship and patronage, Nemon was never fully recognized by the British art establishment, his work rejected by the Royal Academy in 1953. Nemon himself remained elusively both outsider and insider, arguably a position occupied by many of the best artists but deeply painful at times. His memorial to those who perished in the holocaust, called Humanity, stands in the newly renamed ‘Oscar Nemon Square’ in Osijek.

Aurelia insists her mission is simply to understand, not to make her father more famous. Her talks, which include clips of Churchill praising Nemon’s work, resonate with some very human moments of a vanished world perhaps none more so than the sepia photograph of the Osijek horse-drawn carriage. Her father was called Oscar because when her grandmother was enduring a protracted labour she heard the driver shout: ‘Come on Oscar’ to his horse.