Autumn is always a time of old memories and new beginnings at Oscar Nemon’s Sculpture Studio Museum and Archive at Pleasant Land. The trees of Boars Hill, an area of fields and woods between Oxford and Abingdon, shade the forested sections with bands of gold, flame, and russet. For those who know Nemon’s history, the colours call to mind the fires of London in the Blitz. In the autumn of 1941, fears of bombing prompted Nemon, and his wife-to-be Patricia Villiers Stuart, to look for somewhere safely rural to be based with their baby son Falcon, born that March.
At the time, Boars Hill was open gorse land, and mainly smaller houses, with the exception of the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans’ home within Youlbury. Many of the people who lived locally were academics, or employed by Oxford University, including a number of refugees and emigrés. Some of the houses let out rooms, which was all Nemon’s and Patricia’s wartime budget could stretch to. Nemon had only moved permanently to England in 1939, and was still establishing himself as a sculptor, while Patricia’s wealthy parents remained profoundly hostile to him as a foreigner.
The growing family, who were subsequently joined by daughters Aurelia and Electra, would remain in their rented rooms at West View until 1948. Nemon and Patricia were then able to buy the sloping field on which Pleasant Land now stands. For the first twenty years at Pleasant Land, the Nemon Stuart family lived on the site in two former prisoner of war huts, repurposed into a home and studio, whose temporary structure is echoed by the current Nemon Studio Museum. It was not until 1970 that the current modernist structure, designed by Nemon in recollection of European architecture of the 1930s, was built.
Patricia often told me how, when they travelled to Boars Hill from Oxford for the first time, the autumn colours, gave them a feeling of peace, and space, and creative possibility. In addition to larger worries about the course of the war, as someone of Jewish heritage, Nemon was deeply concerned for his mother and brother and grandmother and other relatives in Yugoslavia, which was by then under Nazi control. Although Nemon did not discover this immediately, almost all his family members would in fact be killed in the summer of 1942, either in internment camps within Yugoslavia, or in Auschwitz. Of his immediate family, only his sister Bella would survive.
How Nemon may have lived with his awareness of what was happening within mainland Europe is suggested by his haunting, portrait of the Nietzsche scholar, Oscar Levy, father-in-law to his friend Albi Rosenthal, and fellow Boars Hill resident. Carved like a rock of ages, battered and worn, but persisting, the portrait was made on Boars Hill and in Nemon’s Oxford studio during the war years. It is also an elegy to the peoples, and cultures, that were being systematically annihilated across the Channel, and Nemon’s way of keeping faith in a time of darkness and despair. Other European sitters of the 1940s, included Ernst Chain, the refugee Jewish chemist who was later awarded the Nobel prize for his work on penicillin, and Professor Herman Fiedler, who taught German, but also organised musical evenings at his home in Norham Road.
While Patricia based herself primarily on Boars Hill, both during the war years, and after, Nemon moved between Oxford and London, sculpting sitters in both cities. In London he was invited to hold an exhibition of his work at Yugoslav House in 1943, and also undertook fire-watching, having been ruled unfit for military service. His son Falcon Stuart, later a photographer and film-maker, and the manager and producer of the punk band X-Ray Spex, remembered being carried on his father’s shoulders through the celebrating streets of London when Victory in Europe was finally declared.
Nemon, Patricia and Falcon are no longer with us, but their memories are honoured in the memoir, Finding Nemon, which Nemon’s daughter Aurelia has written, which can be purchased through the shop section of this website. Their presences also continue to live at Pleasant Land, where Nemon’s works, including his portraits of his wife and baby son, are on display in the Studio Museum and Archive, and in the photographs which Falcon took of his father’s works.
Nemon’s works from the 1930s are currently the subject of a special display at the Nemon Studio Museum at Pleasant Land on Boars Hill, and works from the 1940s can be seen in the Nemon Archive. Please email if you would like to book a visit.