I first met Oscar Nemon in 1981 when my boyfriend, Nemon’s son Falcon, took me to the studio near Oxford where his father had worked and lived from the 1940s. We drove from London, passing the Cowley car works, which in the 1980s stretched either side of the ring road, and then turned off along smaller and smaller roads into Boars Hill. Falcon now drove under overhanging trees. At one moment I saw the college spires down across open fields.
Finally, we turned down a dirt track, marked by breeze blocks painted PLEASANT LAND. Leading off it was a circular driveway. Almost leaning against trees, a huge white plaster figure, three stories high, raised a bird to the early spring sky. Watched by smaller sculptures sited in the overgrown grass, Falcon took my hand. We walked through a gap in a line of tall cypress trees, down a tiled path to a white, rectangular, modernist building which seemed all windows.
At a glass door an elderly man was waiting for us. He wore an ankle-length, torn, clay-streaked padded navy coat. Falcon introduced us, and Nemon held my shoulders briefly to scan my face, then greeted me in quiet, accented French. Falcon had told his father my grandmother was from Paris. This was his welcome to me as a fellow European.
We followed Nemon into his Spartan living room, heated by a Calor Gas stove. He offered us a cakes and biscuits already laid out on the battered Formica-topped dining table, and asked me about myself as we ate.
After tea, Nemon took us into his double height studio, which occupied the greater part of the building. Until then, I had only ever seen art in galleries. To find myself surrounded by sculptures, some covered in cloths, others staring, or leaning, or gesturing, and everywhere the distinctively dry, dusty smell of clay and plaster, was an overwhelming experience.
Looking out through the partly drawn canvas curtains onto the wild, overgrown trees and brambles, and then back to the plaster figures on their plinths and turntables, with Nemon explaining one piece then another in his soft voice, I felt as if time was melting. People I recognised such as Churchill, the Queen, Freud and Thatcher, were outnumbered by unknown faces. Past and present stood side by side. We were their future.
Alice Hiller from the forthcoming Oscar Nemon, The Early Years co-written with Daniel Zec.