Beginning Over in London and Oxford: Oscar Nemon’s War Years in a New Exhibition on Boars Hill.

For anyone of European and Jewish heritage, the 1940s would prove a harsh and terrifying decade.  Even for those lucky enough to reach safety as refugees from Occupied Europe, the losses remained enormous. For many, the communities and families amongst which they had grown up were destroyed wholesale. This was the case for sculptor Oscar Nemon. He was born in Yugoslavia in 1906, and came to Britain as an émigré from 1936, settling permanently once war was declared in 1939. 

Nemon with his baby son Falcon in 1941

When Nemon arrived on Boars Hill outside Oxford, with Patricia Villiers-Stuart and their baby son Falcon in 1942, the Nazi genocide which would eradicate almost all his family was in full swing across the Channel. Between fire-watching and seeking commissions in London, Nemon found a measure of refuge and healing in what was then open gorse and woodland, interspersed with farmed fields. He would ultimately make Pleasant Land, on Boars Hill, his base and home until his death in 1985.  In the years that followed the second world war, Nemon’s sitters would include Churchill, Montgomery, Winnicott and Eisenhower – and also Elizabeth II, who would grant him an additional studio in St James’ Palace from the 1960s. She is the subject of a special Platinum Jubilee display at the Nemon Archive (of which more below). 

Detail of Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee display at Pleasant Land

Born in Osijek, and moving during the 1920s to Brussels by way of Vienna, Nemon had sculpted Freud and other leading psychoanalysts from life through the 1930s, together with statesmen and the Belgian royal family. But it was the intervening period from 1939 to 1950 – much of which was spent between London and Oxford – that arguably formed his mature style. Public figures always had clear expectations of their commissioned portraits. But his less well-known sitters gave Nemon much greater flexibility. During the 1940s they included penicillin co-discoverer Ernst Chain, who was working in Oxford, and the writer Gilbert Murray, along with caricaturist Max Beerbohm and actor Leslie Howard further afield. Depicting them, Nemon found the freedom to absorb and synthesise the multiple influences that informed his pre-war work. These included constructivism, first experienced in 1925 through Melnikov’s Soviet Pavilion, and Viennese Expressionism, together with Rodin’s works – amongst many other sources.

Florence Kahn by Oscar Nemon, 1940s.

During the 1940s Nemon worked in a series of studios in Oxford and London, and as well as in the family’s rented rooms on Boars Home, and then their home at Pleasant Land from 1948. Reflecting both limited funds, and the postwar climate of austerity, this was created from two former prisoner of war huts. Originally used for Italian POWs, they were set at right angles to each other on brick foundations. The site has housed the Nemon Studio Museum since 2016, and was originally a sloping field looking down over a distant view of Oxford. Here Nemon would progressively shape from what he found in his sitters, and what he had absorbed in Vienna, Paris and Brussels, a three dimensional ‘voice’ or style that came to define his resonance as a sculptor.  Speaking through plays of mood and inflected light, and earthing the haunted energies of the decade, Nemon aimed to create portraits that are also compositions in their own rights. As such, they transcend the simple identities of their sitters, to communicate with viewers with depth and power, and resonate in their memories as expressions of feeling.   

Oscar Levy, Nietzsche scholar, Celia Cook, studying History at St Anne’s 1941-44 and Paul-Henri Spaak.

Visible within Nemon’s major public sculptures around the world – from the Capitol in Washington to Mexico City, Moscow, Ontario and the Houses of Parliament in London – Nemon’s achievement can also be experienced in Oxfordshire over the summer and autumn of 2022. The works pictured here are on display in the Nemon Studio Museum and Archive at Pleasant Land on the Ridgeway on Boars Hill. This is between Abingdon and Oxford, close to the A34, and with abundant green spaces and footpaths for walking nearby. The Nemon complex is open for free, guided booked visits on the last Saturday afternoon of every month from April until November. There are more details at the end of this blog, or by clicking the link above. It’s also available to pre-arranged groups of ten or more at other times.  

‘Dancing with Shadows’: Oscar Nemon during the 1940s at the Nemon Studio Museum.

For 2022, the Nemon Studio Museum is featuring Dancing with Shadows, an exhibition of Nemon’s work of the 1940s. During this decade, he would lose twenty-four members of his family to the Holocaust. They included his mother, Eugenie, brother Deze and grandmother, Johanna. With reference also to Nemon’s luminous and moving portraits of women, including Oxford history student Celia Cook, Headington musician Margaret Maitland, actor Florence Kahn, and friend Barbara Kitson, Dancing with Shadows explores how making art helped Nemon retain a connection with life – even as darkness seemed to be closing around him.  It also allows visitors to examine the original materials of his war years as a refugee and beyond. These include the Naturalisation Certificate of 1948 by which Nemon became a British Citizen, and portraits of his baby son Falcon. Falcon was born on 27 March 1941, the day that Hitler authorised the invasion of Yugoslavia, sealing the fates of Nemon’s relatives. Visitors can also see the mourning sketches Nemon created during the war, and for many decades after.

Photos of Nemon’s brother Deze and mother Eugenie with portraits of baby Falcon.

Alongside Dancing with Shadows in the Studio Museum, the Nemon Archive features a Platinum Jubilee Display, as mentioned. This pays tribute to Nemon’s decades of portraying Elizabeth II – from the portrait he created of her for Christ Church College, Oxford to the Cunard bust and beyond.  Showing a series of plaster and plasticine works in progress, alongside folders of Nemon’s original source materials of vintage magazine covers, historic photographs, and tear sheets from newspapers, the display is designed to help viewers become active participants in the process of making a portrait. Through this they can share in the stages with which Nemon built his understanding of his Royal sitter, and wrestled with how to represent her as both a living woman, and a public symbol, while also creating an autonomous work of art.

Nemon’s sketches of Elizabeth II when older, alongside a tearsheet and profiles when younger.

They first met when Elizabeth II asked Nemon to carve a marble bust of Churchill for Windsor Palace, and then again when he was asked to portray Elizabeth as the ‘Visitor’ in Christ Church Hall, Oxford. Nemon received the commission in 1956, but only delivered the final bronze in 1961, after an interim model had been rejected, and he had temporarily abandoned the challenge in despair. All parties were ultimately delighted with the resulting bronze, but subsequent portraits were no more straightforward. Elizabeth II remembered sitting for the Cunard commission for the ocean liner which bore her name: 

I have now sat seven times for this bust and, each time, he finds something wrong with it. ‘That’s no good,’ he says and wrenches my head off. At which point, the Queen used both gloved hands to demonstrate him wringing her neck.

[Interview with Elizabeth II about QEII portrait by Nemon cited in Finding Nemon by Aurelia Young]. 

To book a free guided visit to the Nemon Studio Museum and Archive, with the option of tea and cake either in the wild garden at Pleasant Land, or in the Nemon Archive, depending on weather, please go directly to our booking page here. or read more in the visits page of this website. Public dates for 2022 are 28 May, 25 June, 23 July, 20 August, 24 September, 29 October, and 26 November from 2.30 to 5.30 pm. Groups or ten or more are very welcome to book days in addition to these.

Photos and text by Alice Hiller.

Nemon Studio Museum and Archive Wild Garden at Boars Hill, near Oxford.