Birth name Oscar Neumann
Born 13 March 1906
Died 13 April 1985 (aged 79)
Oscar Nemon (born Oscar Neumann; 13 March 1906 – 13 April 1985) was a Croatian sculptor who was born in Osijek, Croatia, but eventually settled in England. He is best known for his series of more than a dozen public statues of Sir Winston Churchill.
Nemon was born into a close Jewish family in Osijek. He was the second child, and elder son, of Mavro Neumann, a pharmaceutical manufacturer, and his wife, Eugenia Adler. He was an accomplished artist from an early age, and began modelling with clay at a local brickworks. He exhibited early works locally in 1923 and 1924, while still at school. He obtained his baccalaureate in Osijek. He was encouraged by Ivan Meštrović to study in Paris, but he moved to Vienna instead. He applied to join the Akademie der bildenden Künste but failed to secure a place, and spent some time working at his uncle's bronze foundry in Vienna. While in Vienna, he met Sigmund Freud and made a sculpture of Freud's dog Topsy. He also made a sculpture of Princess Marie Bonaparte. Later in his life, Nemon changed his surname from Neumann.
After a short period studying in Paris, he moved to Brussels in 1925 to study at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, where he won a gold medal for his sculpture. Brussels became his home until 1939; he shared a house there with the painter René Magritte for much of the 1930s. He made the monument "June Victims" for his home city of Osijek in 1928, commemorating the murders of Pavle Radić, Đuro Basariček and Stjepan Radić in Belgrade in 1928; all three were Croatian members of the Yugoslav Parliament who were fatally shot in the debating chamber by a Montenegrin Serb, Puniša Račić. Nemon returned to Vienna in 1931, to create a large seated sculpture of Freud, now in Hampstead. He staged a one-man exhibition of portrait heads at the Académie, including his Freud and a bust of Paul-Henri Spaak. He made portraits of King Albert I, Queen Astrid of the Belgians, Emile Vandervelde and August Vermeylen, and also exhibited at the Galerie Monteau in December 1934 and January 1939.
Concerned at the approaching threat of Nazi Germany, he escaped to England in 1938, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. He abandoned over a decade of work in progress in his studio, including a 20-foot (6 m) clay model, "Le Pont". Most of his family remained in Europe and died in the Holocaust.
He married Patricia Villiers-Stuart, daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Villiers-Stuart, in 1939 and settled in Hollywell Street in Oxford. They had a son, Falcon, and two daughters, Aurelia and Electra.
He made a bust of Max Beerbohm in 1941 (now at Merton College, Oxford); Beerbohm taught him English. The growing family moved to Boars Hill, near Oxford, in 1941, first living in rented rooms, and then Nissen huts on land bought from Robert Graves which he named "Pleasant Land". He designed and built a combined house and studio on the site in the 1960s. He exhibited some portraits at Regent's Park College in Oxford in 1942, and made portraits John Rothenstein, director of the Tate Gallery, and Sir Karl Parker of the Ashmolean Museum. He became a naturalised British subject in 1948.
After the war, he made sculptures of a spectacular list of high-profile figures. He made portraits of the members of British Royal Family, including Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen Mother, and the Earl Mountbatten of Burma, at a studio in St James's Palace. He also sculpted war leaders such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Earl Alexander of Tunis, Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, Lord Freyberg, Lord Portal of Hungerford, Lord Beaverbrook, and other political figures including Harold Macmillan, Harry S. Truman and Margaret Thatcher. He is best known for his series of more than a dozen public statues of Winston Churchill, including examples in the House of Commons, at Westerham (near Churchill's home at Chartwell), and in Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. His last major piece, a monumental memorial to the Royal Canadian Air Force in Toronto, was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in 1984. Meanwhile, in the 1940s and 1950s, he also created a series of lesser-known relief works, which he called "Les Fleurs de mon Coeur" (The Flowers of my Heart).
He was made an Honorary Doctor of Letters at the University of St. Andrews in 1977, and a retrospective was held at the Ashmolean Museum in 1982. He was honoured by the tenth Biennale Slavonaca. He died at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. The same year, a memorial exhibition was held at the Galerija Likovnih Umjetnosti in Osijek.
His hands on his hips, about to stride forwards, Oscar Nemon’s 1970 bronze of Sir Winston Churchill stands at the heart of British democracy - in the Members’ Lobby of the House of Commons. It is a fitting place for the work of the twentieth century’s most distinguished portrait sculptor, and a man who earned Churchill’s respect as well as his friendship.
Nemon wrote in 1953 that he considered Churchill “one of the most remarkable personalities of all time”, having admired him throughout the war. The two men first met at the La Mamounia Hotel in Marrakech early in 1951. Born in Yugoslavia, Nemon had lived in Britain since the 1930’s, but had lost almost all his family to the Holocaust, leading him to view Churchill with the depth of feeling which brings his portraits of the statesman so intensely to life.
|Lady Churchill asked Nemon if she could keep the terracotta bust he made at La Mamounia because it “represents to me my husband as I see him and as I think of him.” Shaped in Nemon’s hotel room, it began a creative collaboration between the two men which made Nemon Churchill’s choice of sculptor when Elizabeth II commissioned a bust of Sir Winston for Windsor Castle in 1952.||
Unveiling Nemon's statue of Churchill in the House of Commons, 1970
Other notable portraits followed, including a 1955 seated bronze for the Guildhall, which Churchill unveiled, calling it “a very good likeness.” They reflect the energy of the sittings during which they were created. In his unpublished Memoir, Nemon recorded finding his distinguished subject “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 sculpting 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 Musuem.
Nemon’s bronzes of Sir Winston Churchill are now to be found all over the world. They stand in Bletchley Park, Chartwell, Churchill College Cambridge, the Cabinet War Rooms, The Guildhall, and the Houses of Parliament in London, St. Margaret's Bay, Dover, in Westerham, Kent, at Windsor Palace, in Brussels, Copenhagen, Luxemborg, Monte Carlo, Moscow, Paris, Zagreb, Israel, Quebec, Toronto, Edmonton, Fredericton, Halifax, Kansas City, Hyde Park, New York State, Canberra and Mexico City.
Bronze resin and resin casts of Nemon’s busts of Churchill are for sale through the Estate of Nemon website, and at the Churchill Museum, Chartwell, Blenheim Palace, and Bletchley Park.
Growing up in Osijek on the borders of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Vienna was the centre of Nemon’s cultural universe. Nemon became interested in Freud’s writings when he moved to the city to study and sculpt in his teens in the 1920’s, reading Freud’s works in German. He approached Freud’s disciple, the analyst Paul Federn, with a view to sculpting Freud, but as an unknown young sculptor was turned down by Freud.
Nemon then travelled on to Bruxelles, where he established himself as a leading portrait sculptor, changing his name in time to Némon from Neumann. He was summoned back to Vienna in 1931 by Federn, who had secured provisional agreement for him to sculpt Freud for his for his 75th birthday. Freud remained doubtful, and Nemon sketched him initially in pencil in his garden, returning to the hotel to produce a preliminary clay overnight - which won Freud over. With Freud’s approval he continued to work during “brief sessions between one patient and the next”, finding Freud “reserved and uncommunicative” – as Nemon notes in his unpublished autobiography. Freud was nonetheless deeply pleased with the finished portraits, variously in carved wood, bronze and plaster, and chose to keep the wood carving for himself, which is now on display in the Freud Museum in Hampstead.
The initial portraits of Freud, visible also in photographs of Nemon’s Brussels Studio in the 1930s, show him in glasses, but Nemon continued to return to his subject over the years, visiting Freud each time he passed through Vienna on his way back to Osijek, and finally in London in 1938, both men having been obliged to leave Europe. These later sittings would lead to a final, harsher more abstracted portrait, a terracotta of which remains in Nemon’s studio, and which became the head for the seated bronze now sited in Hampstead near the Freud Musuem.
Archive material relating to Nemon’s sculptures of Freud – sketches, photographs, correspondence – is held by the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, and the Freud Museum in London, having been donated by the Nemon Estate.
Nemon believed that the vocations of the portrait sculptor and analyst were closely allied. In his portraits of Freud, Winnicott, Ernest Jones and other analysts, he sought to create studies which are informed by, but travel beyond, the sitter’s published works and public personae to challenge the viewer to see them in a new light.
Freud commented in his diary of the initial 1931 Nemon portrait “The head, which the gaunt, goatee-bearded artist has fashioned from the dirt – like the good Lord – is very good and an astonishingly life-like impression of me” [24/7/31], while Anna, his daughter, wrote from Vienna on 25 September 1934:
Dear Mr Nemon,
to my great surprise I have received the small bust of my father as a present from you in Lucerne and I thank you most sincerely for the extraordinary delight that you have given me. The bust is admired by everyone who sees it. To me it appears – I hardly dare say this – even more human and animated than the larger one.
My brother says that the small bust can be re-ordered from you. May I do this on the present occasion? I would like to give it as a present to my sister and would be delighted if I could receive it for October the 16th [her birthday]. In case this is not possible I will keep the present for Christmas.
Once again please accept my most sincere gratitude.
[translated from the German by Katrin Wehling].
Freud’s housekeeper, Paula Fichtl, commented that the sculptor had made the professor look too angry. Freud’s response was: ‘But I am angry. I am angry with humanity.’ [The Diary of Sigmund Freud, 1931 edited with notes by Michael Molnar].
Nemon’s portraits of Freud are now available through the Estate of Nemon website and are on sale at the Freud Museums in London and Vienna.
Nemon and Freud
Freud and Nemon in Freud's garden
His technique depended on modelling from life directly in clay, quickly making many small studies with no preliminary drawings. He produced works in clay (often fired into terracotta), plaster, and stone, but most of his finished works were cast bronze, often at the Morris Singer art foundry or occasionally at the Burleighfield art foundry (now merged).
His son, Falcon Stuart, had a varied career, first as a photographer, then as a film maker, and finally as a music promoter. His daughter Aurelia married Conservative MP Sir George Young, 6th Baronet.
His house and studio, Pleasant Land, remained closed for 17 years after his death. It reopened in 2003 as a museum of his life's work, exhibiting many studies and models for his finished works. It also houses the archive of his papers. Other papers, relating to his sculptures of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, are held by the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge .
Oscar Nemon's Montgomery in Whitehall, London. Bernard Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein situated in Whitehall, London. Sculptor was Oscar Nemon. Unveiled in 1980.
Seated statue of Sigmund Freud by Oscar Nemon, in Hampstead, Sigmund Freud statue with Tavistock Clinic behind it.
Nemon with a relief self-portrait
1^ a b "Zaboravljeni kipari međuraća" (in Croatian). www.matica.hr (Matica hrvatska).
2^ "Oscar Nemon". www.oscarnemon.org.uk. Retrieved January 27, 2011.
3^ "Moj otac iz Hrvatske, Oscar Nemon, kipar je svjetske slave" (in Croatian). www.vecernji.hr (Večernji list).
Gerald Taylor, "Nemon, Oscar (1906–1985)", rev., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. (Accessed 16 August 2007.)
Biography of Oscar Nemon 1906–1985.