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Saturday, October 15, 2016

Sir Oswald Hornby Joseph Birley

Between 1934 and his death in 1952, Birley painted the whole
royal family including Queen Mary (not shown), wife of King
George V (lower-right).
In commenting upon portrait painters, someone (maybe me, I forget) once noted that portrait artists attain fame not by how they paint but by who they paint. That is, by moving the "w" two places to the left, so to speak. That's admittedly something of an oversimplification in that how portrait artists paint determines to a great extent who they paint. That is, if the artist doesn't paint well...well, he doesn't least no one of any great significance. It seems to me that the English, perhaps more than any other nation of art appreciators, have long set great importance on the painted portrait. From the time Anthony van Dyck rendered the first of a dozen or more portraits of King Charles I, until the present day and the more than nine-hundred portraits of Queen Elizabeth II, such works have become the mainstay of British art. One artist, Sir Oswald Hornby Joseph Birley, would probably have agreed with all of the above. At any rate, he certainly benefited from this British infatuation with portraiture.

India Dewar is seen restoring a portrait of Winston Churchill
by Oswald Birley.
Sir Winston Churchill,
Oswald Birley
Although there were dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of excellent portrait art-ists working in England during the first half of the 20th-century, none of them enjoyed the consistent patronage of the royal family, House of Windsor, more than Birley. Along with this royal favor came dozens of other commissions from the British upper classes, especially those in government, the military, and financial sectors. Along with King George V, his wife, Queen Mary, their son, King George VI, his wife Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother), and their daughter, the present monarch, Princess Elizabeth (before she became queen), Birley could count among his other famous subjects Sir Winston Churchill (to whom he also gave lessons), Mahatma Gandhi, Gener-als Eisenhower (below) and Montgomery, 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.

Dwight Eisenhower, 1951, Oswald Birley,
whom he painted shortly before his death in 1952.

Oswald Birley,
photo of a self-portrait
Oswald Hornby Joseph Birley was born into an old Lancashire family in 1880 almost by accident in New Zealand, while his parents were on a world tour. Upon returning to England, he was educated at Harrow School, London, and Trinity College, Cambridge. During WW I, Birley served in France, first with the Royal Fusiliers (soldiers originally armed with light, flintlock muskets called fusils). Later he transferred to the Intelligence Corps. He obtained the rank of captain and was awarded the Military Cross in 1919. During World War II he served with the rank of major in the Home Guard.

Painting of a Young Man,
attributed to Oswald Birley
Most of Birley's portraits were painted between the wars, his last being a portrait of NATO Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1951. Lest you get the idea that Birley painted only royalty and wizened old men, two portraits from a younger generation stand apart for their exceptional strength and youthful character, that of Woolworth heiress, Barbara Hutton (below), painted as a teenager, and that of an unknown young man (right). The Painting of a Young Man is an attribution in that it was originally a full-length portrait, but was cut down. The artist's signature was on a portion discarded as scrap.
Barbara Hutton, Oswald Birley



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