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 Oswald (Sir) Hornby Joseph Birley  (1880 - 1952)



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Lived/Active: England/New Zealand      Known for: portrait painting-royalty

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Sir Oswald Birley is primarily known as Oswald (Sir) Hornby Joseph Birley

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Oswald Hornby Joseph Birley, MC, RA was an English portrait painter in the early part of the 20th century.

Birley was born in New Zealand 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.

He served in France in the 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.

A favourite of the Royal Family he was well-known for his portraits of King George V, Queen Mary, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother and the present monarch Queen Elizabeth II.  He painted several highly regarded portraits of his friend Sir Winston Churchill (to whom he also gave lessons).

Other subjects were many war time leaders such as Generals Eisenhower, Montgomery, Admiral Mountbatten, Marshal Trenchard. In addition to the wealthy American financier's Andrew Mellon & J.P.Morgan and Welsh architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis.

He was knighted in 1949.

He was the great-grandson of Hugh Hornby Birley, who led the troops at the Peterloo Massacre.

He married the Irish beauty Rhoda Vava Mary Lecky Pike in 1921.  The couple had a son, Mark Birley, and a daughter, Maxime, who later became a fashion model and design muse as Maxime de la Falaise.  His grandchildren, and his son's offspring, include Robin Birley and India Jane Birley, who inherited her grandfather's creative talent and became an artist. Other descendants include the fashion designer and muse Loulou de la Falaise and her daughter, fashion model Lucie de la Falaise.

When the portrait painter Oswald (later Sir Oswald) Birley and his wife Rhoda acquired their East Sussex home, Charleston Manor, in 1931, the house was in disrepair.  With the Sussex architect Walter Godfrey, the energetic Birleys restored it.  They also turned the barn into a concert hall and Lady Birley created the gardens. The Birley's had a lot of artistic friends and a number of them got involved in the summer seasons of talks and music started by Lady Birley in about 1935.  Each weekend over a period of four or five weeks there would be recitals, gardening talks, poetry readings – even on one occasion a country dance for artists of the Russian Ballet.

Lady Birley's entertainments lasted well into the 1970s despite the death of Sir Oswald in 1952 and her own increasing ill health.  Lady Birley died in 1980, and there followed a fallow period until the mid 1980s when the Manor's new owners, the Headlams, set up a new summer season of concerts. I

Literature references:
^ Birley, Oswald Hornby Joseph in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958.
^ John Steegman, (1957), A Survey of Portraits in Welsh Houses, page 240 (The National Museum of Wales)



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