Author Spotlight > An interview with Aurelia Young
AURELIA YOUNG (Lady Young, b. 1943) is the author of Finding Nemon, the first biography of her father the renowned sculptor Oscar Nemon. She grew up wandering in and out of her father’s studios at the family home in Oxford and later in London. Since his death in 1985, she has been researching her father’s life and gives talks about his life and work in the USA, Paris, Brussels, Israel and across the UK. She married George Young in 1964, an MP for forty-one years and now Lord Young of Cookham.
Here she answers some questions about her father and the experience of working on Finding Nemon.
PO: what was it like to be the daughter of a famous sculptor?
AY: I was never fully aware of his reputation. I felt I had a mysterious and interesting foreign father. But as a child he was just ‘Papa’, always at work in his studio. We had a very good father/daughter relationship. He was very particular about the colour of clothes I wore; he used to say pale colours go with my dark hair. For most of my childhood he had two studios. One at our home on Boars Hill near Oxford and another one in London. He always had a piece of clay in his hands ready to alter whichever bust he was working on at the time. The studios smelt of a mixture of wet clay and plaster of Paris. He was generally working on three or four heads at the same time and each clay head had to be kept damp or the clay would dry and would be impossible to work on, so his studio was full of shrouded heads.
Later in life, was there a particular moment when you decided to find out more about your father?
I became interested in finding out more about my father after I was invited to give a talk about his life to the Boars Hill Association and then I realised how little I really knew about him. This was thirty years after his death and my mother was also no longer alive to help me with my research. Since that first talk I have made many discoveries about his life and have given talks about him in many different countries.
Has it been an enjoyable journey of discovery?
It’s been an amazing voyage of discovery. Naturally, I found plenty of material about Nemon’s life in the Library of Congress and in the Bodleian Library. But a significant part of my discoveries have come from the letters he wrote to the many women in his life and which they archived – I didn’t know he was quite so attractive to women. Probably the most important life-long friend was a woman called Simonne Rikkers who had herself found Nemon living in a cellar in Brussels. She took him under her wing and even brought him to England with her, after she married an Englishman. Simonne kept all Nemon’s letters and gave them to the Royal Library in Brussels. Simonne also kept letters written to her by my grandmother who was shot in a particularly cruel concentration camp in Serbia. It is difficult to imagine how my father coped with the terrible knowledge that his mother was killed in this way.
In what ways has the journey been surprising and perhaps uncomfortable for you? What sort of a man do you feel you have found at the end of it all?
I found that he struggled all his life from the disadvantages of being both a foreigner and a Jew. Most shocking of all was discovering that my mother’s parents [the Villiers-Stuarts, a well established family out of Norfolk], in the late 1930s, during the time Nemon was effectively taking refuge in England from the rise of anti-Semitism around Europe, had asked the Home Office to deport him. I read his Alien File at the Royal Archives in Kew. The file was ‘Censored’ as it was thought too sensitive for my mother to read. Heaven knows what she might of thought had she known her parents had accused Nemon of being a spy for the Nazis – an ironic charge to say the least. My English grandparents simply did not want their daughter marrying a foreign Jew, or an artist for that matter. The Home Office (I discovered) then ordered Nemon to leave the UK by January 1940. This would have been to his certain death, as he would have joined his mother in Yugoslavia. Thankfully he was able to ‘disappear’, and the edict was forgotten for other graver matters.
My Grandfather died when I was seven. My English grandmother never relented in her disapproval of her son-in-law and he was never ever invited to visit them in Norfolk. Nemon could never understand why they took such a hostile view of him.
How well do you think he fitted in to British society? Do you see him as an outsider?
He loved his home country, Croatia, and when it was safe to return there after the Second World War he often went back to see his few surviving cousins. I think he felt that he suffered a great deal from anti-semitism although he wasn’t a practising Jew. He always felt he was an outsider even though many people were fond of him including many members of the Churchill family. I often meet people, both men and women, who say ‘I loved Nemon’. He was a very good listener and had a very gentle and caressing voice.
How did he come to sculpt Winston Churchill? Why do you think they got on so well?
He made his first bust of Churchill in Morocco in 1951 when Churchill and Nemon were both staying at a hotel in Marrakesh. Observing him during meal times, Nemon made a little bust of Churchill. Clementine Churchill saw this little head and asked Nemon if she could buy it; she said ‘it represents my husband as I see him’. Nemon gave her the bust and that was the beginning of a long friendship with the Churchill family. The Queen commissioned Nemon to make a bust of Churchill for Windsor Castle. Nemon was commissioned to make a statue of Churchill for the Guildhall, London, in 1955 and a statue for the Members Lobby of the House of Commons which was unveiled by Lady Churchill in 1969.
Churchill’s secretary in the early 1950s, Jane Portal, now Lady Williams of Elvel, told me how she used to sit mesmerised as Churchill chatted amicably with Nemon; he spoke to my father in a way in which he rarely spoke to anyone else.
Have you met many of his sitters? How do they remember Nemon?
I’ve met many of his sitters – even the Queen remembers him – and they all remember him fondly. He had a very good sense of humour, was always making jokes. One of the people whom I met who remembered Nemon was Nada Korski, whom Nemon sculpted in 1923, when she was eleven and he was seventeen. She told me, aged 95, how different he was from other teenage boys; how serious and quiet he was and how he seemed to want to extract her whole psyche. Which may be what his other sitters also felt.
Finding Nemon by Aurelia Young is available to order now.
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