Randolph Churchill being sculpted by Oscar Nemon in a garden

‘Mr Churchill and no less myself’: Oscar Nemon and Winston Churchill in Oxford and beyond, seventy years after their first meeting in 1951.

Seventy years after Nemon met Winston Churchill in 1951, Oxford has gained its first Nemon portrait of the wartime premier.   Installed at the Old Parsonage Hotel, the bronze is accompanied by a permanent display of historic photographs and other materials celebrating the collaboration between Nemon and Churchill, and Churchill’s relationship to his son Randolph, whom Nemon also sculpted.  The archive materials, which also document how Nemon created his sculptures, are displayed within the premium Winston and Randolph suites, as well as in the communal areas. The bronze is cast from an original which Nemon created,  which was subsequently enlarged for Blenheim Palace, the Roosevelt Library, New York State, and Jerusalem. 

Churchill by Oscar Nemon in the Old Parsonage Hotel, Oxford.

Other portraits of Churchill by Nemon stand in the Capitol, and the House of Commons.  Oxford’s luxury hotel setting for the bronze is as unique as it is apt – given that Churchill and Nemon originally met at La Mamounia Hotel in Marrakech in 1951.  Nemon was the guest of the psychoanalyst René Laforgue.  Churchill, who would be re-elected later that year, was ensconced amidst family and friends.   A Yugolav Jewish émigré become refugee, Nemon had only recently lost his mother, brother, and grandmother to the Holocaust –  amongst a total of twenty-two murdered relatives.  He therefore had a deep appreciation of Churchill’s leadership, together with the protection England offered those admitted to its shores.  Reflecting this gratitude, Nemon naturalised as British in 1946, forfeiting his original nationality for that of the country which had sheltered him.

Admirer of Churchill though he might be, by 1951 Nemon was no stranger to distinguished men.  Intuitive, intelligent, and a witty, subversive raconteur,  he had sculpted Freud from life on multiple occasions during the 1930s in Vienna, and formed a warm relationship with the psychoanalyst, as he would later with Churchill. Nemon’s real excitement at meeting Churchill for the first time is  nonetheless suggested by a postcard he sent from Marrakech to his close friend, and fellow Jewish émigré, the musicologist Albi Rosenthal.   On the reverse of an image of camels and nomadic herders, Nemon wrote with subversive glee:

My very best and cordialest wishes for 1951 from the sunny Marrakech where Mr Churchill and no less myself are getting inspired for our future masterpieces.

As with all his sitters, Nemon’s first portrait of Churchill began with pencil sketches.  Executed surreptitiously in La Mamounia’s communal dining room, on hotel note paper, and now in the Churchill College Archive, these produced the foundations of the small terracotta bust Nemon sculpted in his bedroom.  A mutual friend, staying with the Churchill party, showed this to Lady Churchill.  She was  delighted, and asked to keep it, saying it “represents to me my husband as I see him and as I think of him.” Her support would help forge a creative connection between the two men which lasted for the remainder of Churchill’s life, and beyond.  

Nemon’s first public commission to sculpt Churchill was granted by Elizabeth II in 1952, to create a bust for Windsor Castle.  His seated portrait of the politician for the Guildhall in London was unveiled by Churchill in 1955, in a speech hailing it as a “a very good likeness.”   During the 1950s and 1960s, Nemon would be invited as a private guest to Chartwell, as well as to Churchill’s London home.  His unpublished memoirs have been mined for anecdotes and quotes by Churchill scholars.   Nemon is shown sculpting Randolph Churchill below.

Randolph Churchill sculpted by Oscar Nemon

In his unpublished Memoir, Nemon recorded finding Winston “bellicose, challenging, and deliberately provocative”. The resulting sculptures became “not merely a likeness, but a biography of his life” — as Nemon had told a journalist he hoped they would when interviewed while working with Churchill during the 1950s. Nemon was himself the subject of Churchill’s only sculpture, created while Nemon was sculpting Churchill, and now on display at Chartwell and in the Churchill Museum.

The Old Parsonage location of the bronze bust is additionally resonant because Nemon came to Oxford in 1940,  where his partner Patricia Villiers Stuart had settled to await the birth of their child. That year, the Blitz began over British cities.  Like Churchill, Nemon experienced London during the bombing. Having been exempted from military service due to a heart condition, he travelled up to fire-watch by night and work by day in the studio he had taken over from Anglo-French painter Paul Maze in Kinnerton Street.  Maze had met Churchill during WWI, and became his artistic mentor as well as friend. 

Nemon and Patricia then moved to Boars Hill, just outside Oxford in 1942, where Nemon would continue to base himself until his death in 1985, and where his Archive and Studio Museum are now housed in his former home and studio.  Originally renting rooms in a private house, the couple bought a field they christened Pleasant Land in 1948, installing two former prisoner of war huts for Nemon to sculpt in while they raised their family.  These were  a far cry from the luxuries of La Mamounia.   

Nemon Studio Museum, Pleasant Land, Boars Hill, Oxford showing Churchill and the maquette for Nemon’s Holocaust memorial, ‘Humanity’.

Beyond the war years, Nemon continued to keep a studio in London – from the late 1960s in St James’s Palace – in addition to working in America and around the world. Aside from Churchill, his postwar sitters would range from Winnicott to Eisenhower, Truman, Beaverbrook, Montgomery, Ernst Chain, John Rothenstein, Kathleen Ferrier, Alexander and Mountbatten, together with Shinwell, MacMillan and Thatcher.  Following on from his first sculpture of the monarch for Christchurch, Nemon would go on to create further portraits of Elizabeth II, and additionally sculpt the Queen Mother and Prince Phillip.  Nemon’s final sitter at the time of his death in 1985 was Diana, Princess of Wales. 

Pleasant Land, rebuilt by Nemon in 1970 on the site of the original ex-prisoner of war huts.

In 1970, Nemon and Patricia were able to build  the current white modernist house and studio at Pleasant Land, which Nemon designed with their architect, shown here during Nemon’s lifetime.   The spirit of the original huts lives on in the oval metal pavilion, now the Nemon Studio Museum, which Randolph Churchill gave Nemon as temporary accommodation and storage during the rebuilding.   In addition to a changing, themed exhibition, visitors can experience a recreation of Nemon’s working studio, and see plasters and drawings dating back to the prewar years, together with Nemon’s postwar works, correspondence and painted reliefs. 

The Nemon Studio Museum, at Pleasant Land off The Ridgeway, is open for free drop-in visits every last Saturday of the month from 2.30 to 5.30, with tea served in the Archive and garden, and separately by appointment for pre-booked paying groups. Please contact alice@oscarnemon.org.uk for further details or book through the visits section of this website.

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