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Talk: Oscar Nemon by Lady Aurelia Young
Saturday 21st July 2012. 19.30
In aid of Leukaemia Research
Ticket Information: £15.00 Tel: 01983 740609
Nowadays, not many people know who Oscar Nemon is – but they almost certainly know his work. His statue of Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery stands outside the Ministry of Defence, gazing unblinkingly at the Cenotaph on Whitehall. Nemon's statue of Winston Churchill, striding through the rubble of London in the Blitz, is in the House of Commons where his foot is polished by MPs for luck.
During a lifetime that spanned most of the 20th century, Croatia-born Nemon, who fled to Britain before the Second World War, sculpted dukes, kings, queens, lords and field marshals. Nemon collected famous subjects like Fabergé eggs: from American aviator Charles Lindbergh and the King of Belgium in the Twenties; Sigmund Freud in the Thirties; Max Beerbohm in the Forties; Churchill, the Queen and Monty in the Fifties and Sixties; to Margaret Thatcher and Diana, Princess of Wales in the Eighties.
The Queen was a particular fan. Last night, she was at the House of Lords to unveil a bronze bust of herself that Nemon sculpted in the Sixties. She regularly invited the artist and his wife, Patricia, to parties, and leant him an old storeroom that he turned into a studio at St James's Palace. Its doors opened onto the garden of the Queen Mother, whom he sculpted, and who would often pop in to see how he was doing.
He came into contact with the Queen through Churchill, whom he met while on holiday in Marrakesh in the late Fifties. Nemon secretly made a small bust of Churchill, which his wife, Clementine, adored.
A series of commissions of statues of Churchill followed. Among them was a marble bust for the Queen, now on display at Windsor Castle (the Queen always said that Nemon was the only person who could get Churchill to do as he was told). Churchill returned the favour when he sketched and sculpted a likeness of Nemon that is still on display in his studio at Chartwell.
Politicians and war heroes were like putty in his presence. Harold Macmillan, the former prime minister, was a fan. "When my words are forgotten I will be remembered as an excellent example of Nemon's middle period," he said, unveiling a bust of himself in 1959 at the Oxford Union.
Even the irascible Monty succumbed. "How long will it take you to finish this sculpture?" he asked Nemon. "How many sittings did the Queen give you?" he barked. "Ten," replied Nemon (she had only given him seven). "What a waste of time!" observed the Field Marshall, "but I'll give you 10 sittings, too."
Nemon's heads started as small pieces of Plasticine, which he would carry to his subjects' homes before casting them in plaster of Paris. His daughter, Aurelia, the wife of Conservative politician Sir George Young, tells how her father "always had a piece of clay in his hand, ready to modify whatever bust he was working on". His daughters are still trying to track down all of his busts (they found the one of the Queen in an attic).
In 1979, Nemon was commissioned to sculpt Margaret Thatcher. George Young, then a junior minister, committed near-career suicide during a lunch with her in the Members' dining room. "Margaret – how is your bust coming along?" he asked. There was a gasp from his lunch colleagues – and Young was sacked in the next reshuffle.
Nemon never retired. In 1985 he was commissioned by Wedgwood to make a relief of Diana, Princess of Wales. He made a sketch of her at one sitting, but died, aged 79, of a heart attack before the next. Diana was distraught. "I was greatly looking forward to my next sitting with your father," Diana told Aurelia. His obituary in The Times was headlined "Sculptor of the nation's leaders". The Queen wrote to Nemon's widow, Patricia, telling her: "His work will ensure that his name and reputation survive." Yesterday, she was as good as her word.