Even though I had a close relationship with my father, I discovered I knew very little about his early life. He was reluctant to share with me the hurdles that had confronted him, as he struggled to establish his reputation as one of the foremost sculptors of our time.
With the help of his unpublished memoirs, I gained an insight into those hurdles — as a Jew and a foreigner in every country he lived in, after leaving his native Croatia.
My Hungarian grandfather, Mavro Neumann, was an industrial chemist who worked for his father in law, Leopold Adler, at his chemical factory in Osijek in Croatia. Mavro married Leopold’s eldest daughter, Eugenie Adler and together they had three children, Bella, Oscar — my father — and Deze.
When I asked my father why we weren’t called Neumann, he explained that when he lived in Belgium after the First World War, he found his German sounding surname a handicap so he changed it to Némon. From then on he was known as Nemon; just Nemon, not Oscar.
On his way to England, he studied in Vienna where he sculpted Sigmund Freud in 1931. Freud kept the carved wooden bust which is now in the Freud Museum. Nemon returned to Vienna in 1936 to make the statue of Freud which now stands in Hampstead. I was delighted when a copy of the statue was installed on the campus of the Medical University of Vienna in June this year.
Nemon was a warm and loving father, devoted to his three children. When I was little, he would rock me to sleep singing a song to the words “Night is falling and my gold is sleeping”. I only recently discovered that this was a translation of a Croatian lullaby Tiho noci, which his mother must have sung to him as a child.
My first clear memory of my father is the joy he expressed when we left our rented rooms on Boars Hill near Oxford and moved into two redundant army huts, recently vacated by Italian prisoners of war. They were made out of asbestos sheets on the outside and compressed cardboard on the inside. My parents thought they were in heaven with so much space, after the cramped rooms we had been living in. Nemon used one hut as his studio and we lived in the other. Nemon called our new home ‘Pleasant Land,’ echoing William Blake’s famous poem. I was always made welcome when I went into his studio where he worked on his clay busts of Winston Churchill, the Queen and many other celebrities. Even now, the smell of wet clay and plaster of Paris, so often found in sculptors’ studios, brings back memories of my happy childhood.
Nemon suffered from terrible migraines for which he was constantly looking for a cure; but however many doctors he visited, none had the answer. At home, he would lie on the floor and I would walk up and down his spine in my bare feet to relieve his pain.
He loved listening to records whilst he worked. He was especially fond of Elijah by Mendelssohn. When I was eleven, Nemon took me to see Rigoletto. From then on, I associated him with the jester who tried to protect his daughter from the wickedness of the world.
My English mother, Patricia, adored Nemon, but life was a perpetual struggle for her as her rich parents had cut her off with very little money, objecting to her liaison with a penniless Jewish refugee. Trying to stop the relationship, Patricia’s parents asked the Home Office to deport Nemon saying that he was an undesirable Yugoslavian Jewish sculptor and a spy for the SS. As a result, he was ordered to leave the country in October 1939.
Had he done so, he would have suffered the same fate as his mother and younger brother, Deze, who were captured and shot in the notoriously barbaric Banjica Concentration Camp in Serbia. I know from Nemon’s letters to his sister that he adored his widowed mother and the discovery of her murder must have been a terrible trauma for him.
Instead of leaving England in 1939, he went to Abinger in Surrey, where he was taught English by the author and caricaturist, Max Beerbohm. Whilst in Abinger, Nemon met and sculpted the héeart-throb film star, Leslie Howard. Beerbohm suggested that Nemon should sculpt his friend, Professor Herman Fiedler, so Nemon went to live in Oxford, which was considered safe during the War.
My mother joined Nemon in Oxford where my brother Falcon was born in 1941. I came next and then our sister, Electra. When we were children, our father often worked abroad in America. His return was always eagerly awaited, as he would bring back exotic presents for the family. Nemon was extremely generous — in fact sometimes too generous, putting a strain on my parents’ delicate finances.
Nemon sculpted the Israeli Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, in America in the 1940s. Suzie Eban, Eban’s widow told me how much she liked the bust of her husband. It can be seen in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.
In the winter of 1950, Nemon was a guest at the La Momounia Hotel where Winston Churchill and his family were staying. Nemon sketched Churchill and made a small head by observing him in the dining room. When Clementine Churchill saw the little head, she asked if she could buy it, saying ‘Your bust represents my husband as I see him’. This was the start of a long friendship with the Churchill family. When the Queen succeeded to the throne in 1952, she commissioned Nemon to make a bust of Churchill for Windsor Castle.
After Churchill’s death in 1965, a Parliamentary Committee, chaired by the MP Manny Shinwell, invited Nemon to make a statue of Churchill to stand in the Members’ Lobby of the House of Commons.
Nemon was fiercely proud of his Jewish heritage. The statue that meant most to him was his Holocaust Memorial near the Jewish Community Centre in the Oscar Nemon Park in Osijek. Nemon called the statue Humanity. I am proud to be a child of my father who never lost his own compassion and humanity, in spite of the terrible fate suffered by his mother, brother and so many of his relations.
As few people know much about Nemon I decided to write a book, with the help of Julian Hale, about my father. Finding Nemon is published this week.
Finding Nemon: The Extraordinary Life of the Sculptor Who Sculpted the Famous by Aurelia Young with Julian Hale is published by Peter Owen
Aurelia Young will give an illustrated talk about her father and his work at the Freud Museum on October 16, www.freud.org.uk