As a fashionable painter Sir Oswald Birley needs little introduction. A favourite of the Royal Family he is well-known for his portraits of HM. King George V and Queen Mary, HM. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, and our present Queen and Prince Phillip.
He painted several highly regarded portraits of his friend Sir Winston Churchill and Prime Ministers Baldwin, Chamberlain and Atlee. His portraits of war leaders include those of General Eisenhower, Montgomery and Lord Mountbatten and in the fields of art and collecting Sir Gerald Kelly, Andrew Mellon, J.P. Morgan and a remarkable portrait of Mrs. H. E. Huntington which now hangs with Gainsborough's "Blue Boy" in the Huntington Library in California.
These formal works have tended to eclipse other facets of the artist's oeuvre and only those lucky enough to have visited his studio at Wellington Road. St. John's Wood or attended the various exhibitions of his work at the Charleston Festival will realize the full scope of his artistic accomplishment.
The Early Years
Sir Oswald Birley was born in New Zealand on the 31st March 1880 son of Hugh Francis and Elizabeth Birley, a Lancashire family of the Mount, St. Asaph, North Wales. He later attended a traditional education at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge. He turned to painting whilst studying the Old Masters in Dresden and Florence and enrolled in the Academie Julien in Paris where he studied under the Beaux Arts trained master Marcel Basschet (1862-1941).
In Paris he came under the influence of such painters as Bourguereau and his example and the proficiency which academic artists achieved in the late 19th century show in his earliest exhibited work, the superlative full-length nude which earned it's young painter an honourable mention in the Paris Salon of 1903.
After Paris Birley travelled in Spain and like many others fell under the influence of Velasquez and the golden age of Spanish painting. His "Rag Sorter" exhibited in 1905 and portraits of Mabel Beardsley as an Elizabethan page exhibited in 1915 exemplify this and also show the close affinity to Sargent which most of Birley's pre-work demonstrates.
On his return to London we find him at the St. John's Wood School of Art in the company of such artists as William Orpen and James Pride: Birley's tour-de-force "Interior of James Pride's Studio" is particularly reminiscent of Orpen's compositions. Glyn Philpot was another painter strongly influenced by Sargent, and working during this period in a similar vein to Birley.
The Great War 1914-1918
World War I interfered and Birley enlisted in the 10th Battalion the Royal Fusiliers in September 1914 where he was gazetted Lieutenant after a short period in the ranks. He transferred, in June 1915, to the Intelligence Corps obtaining the rank of Captain in 1916 serving in France until 1919 when he was awarded the Military Cross.
After the war he resumed his earlier career and became well-established as a fashionable portrait painter. In 1921 he married an Irish beauty, Rhoda Vava Mary Lecky Pike, who was twenty years his junior. Rhoda was the daughter of Robert Lecky Pike of Kilnock, Thurlow, Co. Carlow, Eire. As could be expected, he painted many portraits of her, the best perhaps showing her striking profile.
The Birleys took an enormous interest in the theatre and the ballet, and their studio at Wellington Road with it's panelled rooms and the house and gardens at Charleston were the background for many concerts and entertainments involving the Russian ballet on their various visits to the United Kingdom. This again resulted in commissions from the leading dancers of the day, and Danilova, Leon Woizikiovski and Kyra Nijinski are all represented in his work. The music room of the Garden House at Charleston manor was specifically built for Danilova during the portrait sittings.
Sir Oswald and Lady Birley's house and studio in Hampstead was designed and built in 1924 by Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis architect and builder of Portmeirion, the location of cult television serial "The Prisoner".
Sir Oswald and his wife travelled extensively in the orient and a number of paintings of Balinese and Siamese dancers were conceived including a portrait of H.M. The King of Siam. They also travelled to America and Mexico.
The Birley's also mixed with other travellers on 8th January 1930 they were at dinner at Lady Sibyl Colefax's residence at Argyll House, Chelsea with Harold Nicholson (husband of Vita Sackville-West), Lord and Lady Lloyd (Lord Lloyd has just returned from Egypt where he had been High Commissioner for Egypt and the Sudan) and Rudyard Kipling. Rudyard Kipling lived fairly close to Charleston at 'Batemans', Burwash, Sussex, it is likely they met on other occasions. Batemans is now a National Trust Property and is open to the public.
Sir Oswald was himself the subject of portraiture and sat for Sir Robert Witt in 1932, the painting now in the Witt Library Collection. The library is a collection of photographs, reproductions and cuttings, largely black and white but with some colour, of paintings, drawings and prints, covering western art from about 1200 Ad. to the present day. The collection now contains over 1.8 million reproductions. Contact: Dr. Catherine Gordon, Deputy Witt Librarian Email: email@example.com. Sir Oswald also painted Sir Robert Witt, rather a "you do me and I'll do you!" situation.
World War Two 1939-1945
Sir Oswald served as Major in the Sussex Home Guard from June 1940 until 1943.
He died on the 6th May 1952, and in the last years of his life he and Rhoda were frequent visitors to the south of France and he painted with Sir Winston Churchill, to whom he gave valuable lessons. Birley was knighted in 1949 just three years before his death, and, portraits apart, he has not received the attention due to him. We hope that at sometime in the future his pictures will finally show his place in the chronology of English Painting.
The Twilight Years
Lady Birley continued her interests in the Theatre, the Arts and her in the gardens never waned after her husbands death.
The house and gardens at Charleston were almost continuously open to the public sometimes for special occasions such as The Charleston Festival. These open days were host to many famous persons and on one such occasion the visitor was Sir Shane Leslie attending the 1971 Irish Day Fete. It was the location of the last photograph taken of him as is noted on the back by his wife, Iris Leslie.
Lady Rhoda Birley died in 1980 and she was buried next to her husband in West Dean Churchyard.
Please note the information on this page is incomplete and is subject to continual alteration.
Acknowledgements and Further Reading:
The Studio Volume 65 ;1915 Pages 168-178 Author: Arthur Reddie
Who was who, 1951 - 1960 Page 105
Christie's Sale Catalogue - Charleston Manor 3rd October 1980
Handbook of Modern British Painting 1900-1980 Ed: Alan Windsor Pub: Scolar Press
Dictionary of British Artists - Working 1900-1950 Grant M. Waters Pub: Eastbourne Fine Art