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Oswald Birley - Gifted Gallery

David Cecil, 6th Marquess of Exeter by Sir Oswald Birley

Sir Oswald Hornby Joseph Birley, born 31 March 1880, was an English portrait painter and royal portraitist in the early part of the 20th century.

Portrait of the artist’s father by Sir Oswald Birley

Birley was born in New Zealand to Hugh Francis Birley while his parents were on a world tour. He was born into an old Lancashire family. Upon returning to England, he was educated at Harrow School, London and Trinity College, Cambridge.

Birley served in France in World War I, first with the Royal Fusiliers, later transferring to the Intelligence Corps, obtaining the rank of captain and being awarded the Military Cross in 1919. During World War II he served with the rank of major in the Home Guard.

In 1921, the 41-year-old Birley married the 21-year-old "Irish beauty" Rhoda Vava Mary Lecky Pike. Birley painted this portrait "The Green Mask” of his wife Rhoda Vava Mary Lecky Pike in 1922, just a year after they were married. Rhoda became a frequent subject of Birley’s work.

Charleston Manor

The couple bought and refurbished Charleston Manor in East Sussex. The manor had been empty for some years and in 1932 they employed the architect and garden designer Walter Godfrey to restore it and to create a concert hall out of an old barn. Rhoda tasked herself with rebuilding the gardens. Rhoda was a keen and eccentric gardener and would feed fish stew to her roses. Her daughter said that she would forget what the stew was for and would add cognac and garlic to the concoction and the "Roses almost cried out with pleasure".

The couple had two children, Maxime Birley, a model and actress, and Mark Birley, an entrepreneur and founder of Annabel's in London. Rhoda later founded the Charleston Manor Festival there, originally it was first called the Sussex Festival. The festival emerged from poetry recitals, readings and talks that she organised at their home over four or five weekends starting around 1935.

A favourite of the Royal Family, Birley was well known for his portraits of King George V, Queen Mary, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and Queen Elizabeth II.

He painted several highly regarded portraits of Sir Winston Churchill (to whom he also gave lessons), and also a life-size portrait of Mahatma Gandhi which was the first to be hung in the Lok Sabha shortly after Indian Independence on 28 August 1947.

Other subjects were many war-time leaders such as Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery, as well as Admiral Mountbatten and Air Marshal Trenchard. He also painted the wealthy American financier Andrew Mellon and J. P. Morgan, Welsh architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis and the psychiatrist Sir James Crichton-Browne. Birley painted the portrait of Leeds Lord Mayor Sir Charles Lupton. Birley was knighted in 1949.

Self Portrait by Oswald Birley, 1920

Birley died at his home in London on 6 May 1952, a week after returning from six-week trip to the United States where he received medical assistance. A major retrospective exhibition of Birley's work was held at the Philip Mould & Company gallery on Pall Mall in 2007:

"From 1919 until the early 1950s he was the go-to artist of the time, commissioned by the Royal family, the aristocracy, politicians, artists, scientists –leading figures of their day. His work hangs in many of the UK’s major palaces, country houses, institutions and private homes; his paintings rarely leave the walls which they were designed to adorn."




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