SIR OSWALD HORNBY JOSEPH BIRLEY
New Zealand 1880 — 1952 London
oil on linen. 25 1/4 x 30 1/4". inscribed by the artist and signed: To Ernest Crosfield from Oswald Birley 1921.
A very notable British portrait artist of the early 20th century, Birley was particularly known as the portraitist of royalty and the upper classes. He painted King George V, King George VI, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and the present monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. He was a friend of Churchill of whom he also painted a portrait and taught painting. Other portraits were commissioned of Mahatma Gandhi, Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery, financiers Andrew Mellon and J.P. Morgan, to name a few more of his illustrious patrons. Few realize, however, that he was a very capable and evocative painter of landscapes, which were likely done for the sole pleasure of the artist and often presented to friends. Such is the case with the present subdued and eloquent painting which is signed and inscribed: to Ernest Crisfield. The landscape, which may have been painted en plein air, is probably an east Sussex view, not far from the artist's home, Charleston Manor.
Born into an old Lancashire family, Birley was born while his parents were travelling in New Zealand. He was educated at Harrow School in London and Trinity College at Cambridge. His life was one of privilege and accomplishment. He was knighted in 1949. His children were to become social celebrities. Mark opened Annabel's and later Mark's Club and Harry's Bar in London, reinventing the members only club in London in 1963. Maxime de la Falaise was a wild beauty and charismatic social power. Her daughter and Oswald's grand daughter was Loulou de la Falaise, the well-known fashionista connected to Yves St. Laurent. Mark's daughter India Jane is a figurative painter who has worked for Prince Charles. Brother Robin opened Loulou's, a chic private club in Mayfair, in which hang numerous works by Sir Oswald, including a self-portrait.
A number of portraits by Oswald may be found in London at the national Portrait Gallery. There is also one by his grand-daughter. A pair of portraits from 1924 are conserved at the Huntington in Pasadena. The Mellon Center in New Haven have none. Many, many portraits are in public institutions throughout the British Isles. Few landscapes are, though they exist.