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Oswald Birley

Oswald Birley English portrait painter and royal portraitist in the early part of the 20th century

English portrait painter and royal portraitist in the early part of the 20th century
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro English portrait painter and royal portraitist in the early part of the 20th century
A.K.A. Sir Oswald Hornby Joseph Birley, Sir Oswald Birley, Capt. Sir Oswald Hornby Joseph Birley, Capt. Sir Oswald Birley, Oswald Hornby Joseph Birley
Countries United Kingdom
Occupations Military officer Soldier Painter Officer
Type Arts Military
Gender male
Birth 31 March 1880, Auckland
Death 6 May 1952, London (aged 72 years)
Children: Maxime de la Falaise
The details

Sir Oswald Hornby Joseph Birley MC RA (31 March 1880 – 6 May 1952) was an English portrait painter and royal portraitist in the early part of the 20th century.

Early life and family

Birley was born on March 31, 1880 in New Zealand to Hugh Francis Birley (1855-1916) 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 was the great-grandson of Hugh Hornby Birley (1778-1845), who led the troops at the Peterloo Massacre.


Portrait of John Leigh-Pemberton by Birley in 1940
Portrait of Ernest Rutherford by Birley in 1936

Military service

He 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.

Painting career

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), 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 financiers Andrew Mellon and J. P. Morgan, the psychiatrist Sir James Crichton-Browne, and Welsh architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis.

He was knighted in 1949.

In April 2013, it was reported that Sir Oswald had painted the portrait of Leeds Lord Mayor Sir Charles Lupton (1855–1935) who was the great great greatuncle of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.

Personal life

In 1921, the 41 year-old Birley married the 21 year-old "Irish beauty" Rhoda Vava Mary Lecky Pike (1900-1981). Rhoda later founded the Charleston Manor Festival. The couple had two children:

  • Maxime Birley (1922-2009), a model and actress who married Count Alain Le Bailly de La Falaise (1905—1977) They divorced in 1950, following a series of her infidelities, including an affair with British ambassador Duff Cooper (1890-1954). She later married John McKendry, the curator of prints and photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • Mark Birley (1930-2007), an entrepreneur and founder of Annabel's in London, who married Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart (born 1934). They divorced in 1975 after her affair with Birley's friend Sir James Goldsmith (1933-1997).

Birley died at his home in London on May 6, 1952, a week after returning from six-week trip to the United States where he received medical assistance.


Birley's descendants include Robin Birley (born 1958), who married Lucy Ferry, and India Jane Birley (born 1961). Other descendants include the fashion designer and muse Loulou de la Falaise (1948-2011), who was married to Desmond FitzGerald, 29th Knight of Glin (1937-2011), and later to Thadée Klossowski de Rola, a French writer who is the younger son of the painter Balthus (1908-2001). Loulou's niece is the fashion model Lucie de la Falaise (born 1973).

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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