Sir Oswald Birley MC RA (English, 1880-1952)
Portrait of Edward Charles Grenfell, 1st Baron St Just (1870-1941)
Oil on canvas
Framed 57 x 47 inches
Painted by the Royal Family’s favourite portraitist, Sir Oswald Birley, “the man to paint the faces of the English governing classes” this portrait remained in the Grenfell family’s private collection until recent acquisition.
Edward Charles Grenfell, (1870-1941), banker and politician, was born in London 29 May 1870, the only son of Henry Riversdale Grenfell, banker and member of Parliament, by his wife, Alethea Louisa, daughter of Henry John Adeane, landowner and member of Parliament, of Babraham, Cambridge. Lord Desborough, a notice of whom appears below, was his cousin. Grenfell was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he won the Greaves essay prize in 1891 and obtained a second class in history in 1892. Electing to follow his father's profession of banking, he went first to Brown, Shipley & Co and, after two years, moved in 1894 to Smith, Ellison's Bank at Lincoln, eventually becoming manager of the Grimsby branch.
Meanwhile Grenfell made the acquaintance of Walter Hayes Burns, partner in the Anglo-American banking firm of J. S. Morgan & Co. in London, who, forming a high opinion of his abilities, appointed him manager of that house in 1900. He was given a partnership in 1904; and in 1909, when the house style had to be changed under the provisions of J. S. Morgan's will, it was renamed Morgan, Grenfell & Co. Grenfell quickly made his mark in the City and acquired other interests. He was a director of the Bank of England from 1905 till 1940 and served on the board of the Sun Assurance group. He was also a director of the White Star Line, and was closely concerned with the purchase of that steamship company by the American corporation, International Mercantile Marine, Inc., on the London committee of which he sat.
During the war of 1914-1918 it was decided that all British and allied purchases of American war materials should pass through the Morgan firm in New York; and Grenfell with his fellow partners was closely concerned with the great task of organization involved in this immense series of transactions.
Grenfell's reputation in the City of London was such that, when he aspired to Parliament in 1922 he was adopted as Conservative candidate for that constituency. At a by election in May 1922 he was returned with a majority of 3,936; and in the general elections of 1922 and 1923 both he and Sir Frederick Banbury (later Lord Banbury q.v) were returned unopposed. He remained in the House of Commons until 1935, when he was raised to the peerage as Baron St Just, of St Just in Penwith, in the county of Cornwall.
Grenfell continued throughout his life to take a lively interest in the affairs of Harrow School, and served as a governor from 1922 until his death, which took place at Bacres, Henley-on-Thames, 26 November 1941.
Grenfell's life was bound up with the City and with Parliament, but both in business and in politics he moved with great caution and circumspection. He held definite views on finance, which he made known behind the political scenes rather than in the House, feeling that many of his constituents would not concur with them. In a period of changing manners and values he was jealous to preserve at all costs the solid reputation of his firm. His standing derived mainly from his great loyalty and integrity, which inspired trust and confidence in those with whom he had dealings. Always formally and correctly well dressed, he appeared to superficial acquaintances a conventional and reserved man; but to those who knew him well there was revealed a fund of affectionate friendship.
In 1913 Grenfell married Florence Emily, elder daughter of George William Henderson, merchant importer, of London. He was succeeded in the barony by his only child, Peter George (born 1922).
Oswald Hornby Joseph Birley was born in Auckland, New Zealand, in March 1880 into an upper-middle-class family. Both his parents came from wealthy mercantile and business backgrounds – they were in New Zealand briefly as part of a world tour undertaken after their wedding in 1879. Hugh Francis Birley (1856–1916) was born in Lancashire; his father owned a textile-spinning mill in Salford. Birley’s mother, Elizabeth McCorquodale (1856–1928), was a Scot from the north-eastern Highlands. Her family owned land in Sutherland and Caithness in North Wales near St Asaph, and they had an interest in a paper mill at Penicuik near Peebles.
Young Oswald was educated first at Rugby School (his father’s old public school) and then transferred to Harrow School in 1893, possibly because it was felt to be more receptive to the needs of a boy with definite ‘artistic’ leanings. Oswald appears to have greatly enjoyed his time at Harrow, which then had a reputation for producing idiosyncratic, individualistic traditionalists. It was at Harrow that he first displayed a particular penchant for portraiture. Birley left Harrow in the summer of 1896 and took a tour of Western European art galleries and museums with his father for the best part of a year. There is evidence for his close study of portraits by Anthony Van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, Frans Hals, Rembrandt van Rijn and Diego Velázquez in Amsterdam, Berlin, Dresden, the Hague, Haarlem, Munich and Paris.
In October 1898, he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, to study History, but left at the end of his first year. He had already begun to paint and exhibit his first formal portraits, usually of family and friends which seem indebted not so much to the old masters he had recently scrutinised, but more to John Singer Sargent. By 1900, Birley had a studio on the Left Bank of Paris in the Saint-Germaindes-Prés area, within easy walking distance of the Académie Julian, where he enrolled as a pupil of Marcel Baschet 1900–05. Fellow pupils at the Académie at the time with whom he was friendly included Gerald Kelly, Glyn Philpot, Philip Connard, Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell and Alfred Munnings. Birley later told his daughter Maxime (christened Maxine, she changed her name to Maxime by which she was always known) that, when a teenager and budding art student in his early 20s, he could never have enough exposure to 18th- and 19th century English portraiture, in particular Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Maxime also noted that it had long been rumoured that, as an art student in Paris, her father had had a long affair with the beautiful French singer and early star of French cinema, Mistinguett, whose legs had, at the height of her fame, been insured for half a million francs.
From 1905, Birley spent a year living in Madrid, obsessively painting copies of works in the Museo Nacional Del Prado by Diego Velázquez, as two of his other artistic heroes had before him: Édouard Manet in the 1860s and John Singer Sargent in the late 1870s. Two of these copies would be prominently displayed from circa 1923 on the far wall of Birley’s new studio at 62 Wellington Road, St John’s Wood, London. By autumn 1906, he had settled down in St John’s Wood, living with his parents in a large 14-room house on Circus Road, with a studio on the nearby Grove End Road. Works of this period indicate an ongoing engagement with evolving French Impressionism – especially the more intimiste imagery of the so-called Nabis such as Édouard Vuillard.
Rise to prominence
Birley first came to critical and public attention for his engaging images of fashionable, up-and-coming actresses performing theatrical and music hall roles, and sometimes dressed in eye-catching period costume, such as Beatrice Collier and Mabel Beardsley. He also produced an ambitious group portrait of figures involved with the London theatrical world, which included the successful Australian born playwright Charles Haddon Chambers, and fashionable man-about-town the Hon. Wilfred Egerton. By 1914, Birley’s star was in the ascendant. He had been identified by several leading art critics as a portraitist of great promise, and likely to rank alongside slightly older pretenders to Singer Sargent’s mantle such as Augustus John, Sir William Orpen, William Nicholson and Ambrose McEvoy.
In 1912, he had been elected a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters (RSPP) and the same year nominated for the first time to be made an Associate of the Royal Academy.
With the outbreak of the First World War, Birley first tried to obtain a commission in the Rifle Brigade. He passed his medical examination but was turned down on account of being a few years too old. He returned to volunteer as a Private in the Royal Fusiliers, this time knocking five years off his age. He was accepted and, by the end of November 1914, had been given a commission as a Second Lieutenant. He finally reached France early in July 1916, when he was posted as an Intelligence Officer to XV Corps Headquarters. It was probably not a coincidence that the Corps Commander, Major-General Henry Horne (1861–1929), was related to Birley by marriage to his mother’selder sister. It was while attached to XV Corps Headquarters in the summer of 1916 that Birley painted the trench sign Tattenham Corner – an evocation of race horses thundering past the sharp turn at Epsom on Derby Day. In January 1917, Birley was promoted to the rank of Captain and transferred to the Intelligence Corps. He was posted to the headquarters of the First Army – commanded by his uncle, now Lieutenant-General Henry Horne (he had been promoted after Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig believed he had done well at the Battle of the Somme). Birley focussed on making maps and models of positions to be assaulted by First Army troops. Later in 1917, preparing for an attack to capture the German-held city of Lens, Birley joined a flight of two-seater Bristol F.2 Fighters at the disposal of the First Army’s Commander of Royal Artillery. He flew over 40 missions in the rear observer’s seat of one of the aircraft, taking photographs and making simplified sketches of enemy gun batteries to be shelled and neutralised by British guns immediately prior to the British and Dominion Infantries’ commitment to an assault – a technique known as counter-battery fire. In December 1917, Birley was recommended for a Military Cross for the sustained coolness under fire and effectiveness as a rear seat observer he had displayed while attached to the flight of Bristol Fighters. The medal was awarded in January 1918 and Birley thereafter treasured the initials MC that followed his name.
Birley was freed from the Army late in March 1919; and it was then a question of trying to revive an artistic career that had been largely in abeyance for four years. It would seem he was soon in touch with fellow Académie students Kelly and Philpot with an idea that they should exhibit together in America. He had encountered some senior American military officers in Paris earlier in 1919 and been struck by how much money they seemingly had to throw about. London appeared rather battered and diminished after the war; America held out the hope of being a land of plenty and promise. Birley was soon back to painting the fashionable young and female, such as debutante Muriel Gore in an expensive Fortuny dress. After painting a portrait of the daughter of gallery-owner Philip Agnew, Birley was invited to hold an exhibition at his gallery in October 1919. The 26 exhibits combined some of his best pre-war work, of which he was particularly proud: such as The Rag Sorter, An Interior at James Pryde’s and a benignly thoughtful Lord Knutsford, alongside more recent portraits of the spirited sculptor Clare Sheridan and Hazel, Lady Lavery, the beautiful Irish-American wife of Birley’s old friend Sir John Lavery. The critic of The Times was full of praise for Birley’s work (as were many other critics) but preferred to focus on those in power – the ‘great and the good’ – and, on that basis, came to the simplistic conclusion that Birley was ‘evidently the man to paint the face’ of the ‘English governing classes… his portraits are very like the truth, yet not quite true’.
The joint exhibition Birley held with Kelly and Philpot in New York in June 1921 at Knoedler on Fifth Avenue was widely judged a success by the local press. At the time, Birley was not able to afford to stay in New York, but the show had brought him to the attention of appreciative American art critics and, more to the point, had caught the eye of the immensely influential art dealer and art world power broker Sir Joseph Duveen (1869–1939). By the spring of 1921, Birley was emerging as one of the portrait painters one had to be painted by if seeking to make an entrance into British society. One of his friends was fellow portrait painter Olive Snell (1887–1962), whom he painted in 1922 in a manner reminiscent of Sir Peter Lely. Snell’s husband, Major Ebenezer Pike, an Anglo-Irish Guards Officer, had a younger sister, Rhoda, (1900–81), whose father Robert – known as ‘Piko’ – was keen for her to be noticed in London society. Birley produced a haunting portrait of Rhoda, widely acknowledged as one of the London society beauties of 1921, which references the grave and dignified portrait by Velázquez in the Wallace Collection. Birley fell for Rhoda; she reciprocated; and they were married in London in September 1921.
Triumph in Manhattan
Early in 1922, Birley painted a portrait of American millionaire George W Elkins in the old studio he was still using on Grove End Road – a new studio home at 62 Wellington Road was being remodelled and partially rebuilt by young and rising architect Clough Williams-Ellis. This would not be habitable until the spring of 1923. Elkins was so delighted with the portrait that he invited Birley to come to America with Rhoda, to paint his wife and two daughters at their mansion in Philadelphia. In November 1922, Birley and Rhoda set sail for New York on the Cunard-White Star Line ocean liner RMS Aquitania. They stayed in what to a British person at the time would have been the immensely tall 18-storey Plaza Hotel, just around the corner from the Duveen Galleries. Birley visited Duveen, who announced that he had been so taken with what Birley had exhibited in New York in 1921 that he was prepared to give him a small show in his gallery in January 1923. Birley’s small show of 11 paintings, Portraits By Oswald Birley, at the Duveen Galleries at 56th Street and 720 Fifth Avenue was given excellent reviews by the local art press. Duveen had also ‘lined up’ an immense list of sitters to be painted by Birley, including the head of one of the most powerful banks in America, John Pierpont Morgan II and the dour, lugubrious, United States Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. Birley was praised for having made the glacial and undemonstrative Mellon appear human. The sitter is depicted accompanied by a beautifully rendered Chinese porcelain frog on the table – an indication that Mellon was an art collector as well as a giant of finance. Birley and Rhoda returned to London in late May 1923. They had been away from the United Kingdom for over seven months and Birley had painted over 30 portraits. He speculated anxiously to his wife that he might have been forgotten in London society; this was not at all the case, and commissions cascaded in. Early the following year, Birley and Rhoda returned to New York. In February 1924, after arrangements had been made by Duveen, they travelled to San Marino, California, to paint Henry Edwards Huntington and his formidable wife Arabella. Huntington was so pleased with his portrait – destined for the planned library and museum to bear his name – that he asked Birley to paint a copy for his New York residence. The two portraits were completed by 10 March and then rushed to New York to be included in Birley’s second exhibition Portraits by Oswald Birley, held 20 March–3April 1924 at the Duveen Galleries (35 exhibits in total). One American critic writing in American Art News in March 1924 admired both Huntington portraits: ‘you see here the man who could strive to make money in order that he could spend million on millions for paintings and rare books. Mr Birley’s picture… is an historical document for which the nation is deeply indebted.’ The critic of the New York Times wrote that Birley was quite a find: ‘Birley paints materials with an astonishing accuracy. Cloth of gold, chiffon, coats or ties become something one would like to order for oneself were they not, of course, of a kind far too expensive. They are always perfectly fitting to the occasion, day or evening and beautifully fitted to the person. The heads themselves and the hands are made with the same amazingly skilful realism.’
In mid-November 1924, Birley and Rhoda returned to New York, this time staying at the Madison Hotel on East 58th Street. Birley painted a series of portraits suggested by Duveen. By Christmas, Duveen was urging Birley to travel with Rhoda to Palm Beach, Florida, in January 1925; according to Duveen, between January and March every year, Florida was where the wealthy liked to flock. By mid-January 1925, they were staying at the exclusive Everglades Club on Worth Avenue, Palm Beach, as guests of another of Duveen’s contacts, the multimillionaire Paris Singer of the Singer Sewing Machine empire. Birley took a room at nearby hotel The Breakers to use as a makeshift studio and, early in February 1925, held a small exhibition of 15 portraits at the Whitehall Hotel – the former palatial home of Henry Flagler, the ‘father of Palm Beach’, until his death in 1913.
In mid-February 1925, Birley wrote to Duveen in New York: ‘The show has been a great success – 15 pictures in all. Practically everyone in Palm Beach who matters has seen it and there has been very genuine appreciation… We are having a truly wonderful time here – what with golf, tennis, swimming and going out trying to catch large sharks and sail fish in the fast motor launches that can go about 40 miles an hour. It’s by far the nicest place I’ve ever been in and more delightful people.’ In mid-March 1925, the New York Times reported that: ‘Mr and Mrs Edward F. Hutton left a week ago aboard their yacht Hussar for a weekend cruise to the Bahamas taking with them as guests Mr and Mrs Oswald Birley and Mr and Mrs Harris Hammond.’ The Hussar V at the time was the largest private yacht in the world. A few days later, Birley wrote to Duveen: ‘As far as our plans are concerned, it is difficult to say anything very definite. I have so much work in prospect that it is just a question whether it will be painted here, or in New York on our return. So far I have practically completed four portraits: Thompson [a millionaire Chicagoan who owned a chain of restaurants in the city], Harris Hammond, Mrs Harris Hammond and Mrs Douglas Gibbons. Those still to be done are: Mrs Sloane, Edward Hutton, Mrs Hutton’s two children, and Hutton’s niece Paris Ginger… As you see there is enough to keep me busy for some time. We had a marvellous trip on the yacht, left Miami on 7th March and came into a terrific storm in the Gulf Stream so that we could not get into Nassau Harbour till Monday. We stayed there two days and then sailed down to Havana. Very quaint and interesting.’ He and Rhoda returned to New York in mid-April 1925, and then sailed to England towards the end of May. Duveen had been hoping that Birley would return to New York in December 1925; however, by the end of the first week of the month, he had yet to appear. Birley wrote to explain: ‘Dear Joe, I am afraid you will have thought me very unenterprising not to have burnt my boats and immediately sailed for New York but if you could see the state of the studio at the present moment I know you will understand and appreciate the difficulty I am in. First of all let me say how much I appreciate the fact that you want me to do these commissions when New York, at the moment, is full of foreign painters.’ His departure was then delayed by baby Maxime falling ill from bronchitis, which quickly developed into pneumonia. For a week, it was touch and go whether Maxime would survive. On New Years’ Eve 1925, Birley wrote to Duveen: ‘My Dear Joe, We have been through days of very great anxiety over our small daughter who started bronchitis on Christmas Day to be followed by pneumonia two days ago… she is holding her own well… I think I told you last year that [the banker] Horace Harding had approached me last winter about painting the portrait of the President of Mexico. In June  he wrote me that this was probably washed out owing to unfriendly relations between Mexico and the States. A few days ago, however, he cabled me asking whether I would be prepared to go to Mexico City at the end of February, or the beginning of March, to which I replied “yes”.’
Birley and Rhoda sailed for New York in mid-January 1926. Rhoda remained in Manhattan while Birley travelled to Chicago to paint another sitter suggested by Duveen. Birley returned to New York and took the train to Palm Beach. At the end of March, he and Rhoda took their own personal train, provided by Horace Harding, to Mexico City where, early in April 1926, Birley painted ‘the wonderfully sinister’ (as Rhoda put it) President of the Mexican Republic Plutarco Elías Calles (1877–1945), who revelled in the nickname his authoritarian tendencies had earned him: ‘El Jefé Maximo’.
Birley and Rhoda returned to London towards the end of June 1926. Birley was keen to complete works such as the portrait of Lord Lloyd, the British High Commissioner, for exhibition with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in November of that year. Lloyd also encouraged him to visit India, a prospect that greatly appealed to Birley and Rhoda. Lloyd provided him with several letters of introduction and Birley was reassured he would have a friendly welcome from George Goschen, 2nd Viscount Goschen (1866–1952), Governor of Madras (April 1924–June 1929), whom Birley had painted in 1921 and whose daughter Cecily he had painted the following year.
Birley and Rhoda set sail for Bombay (now Mumbai), from Marseille on 18 December 1926. They arrived early in January 1927 and were both immediately bowled over by the heat and the overpowering sights and sounds of the subcontinent. Birley hired a private first-class railway carriage that was attached to an express train bound for Madras (now Chennai), where he and his wife would stay at Government House as guests of Lord and Lady Goschen. Rhoda’s diaries for the period of January– March 1927 suggest she spent much of her time in India trying to keep in the shade with a cool drink in easy reach. Birley was usually up early, between 5am and 6am, for a hunting expedition in the interior of Madras Province. If not hunting in the morning, he would persuade either Lord Goschen or his wife Lady Charlotte to sit for a portrait. In the afternoons, Birley and Rhoda would venture into the countryside in an official car complete with a chauffeur and a couple of cavalrymen for protection. Early in February, Birley wrote to Duveen from Madras: ‘Am very busy working but the heat and the intense glare of the sun make it very difficult. Between 12 and 4 pm it is almost impossible to work at all!’
Early in March, they travelled by train to Benares (Varanasi), and after to the new imperial capital of Delhi. There, they were introduced to the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, whom Birley would later be commissioned to paint. After a few days in Delhi, they moved on to Agra to inspect the Taj Mahal; Rhoda noted that evening that Birley had been: ‘entranced by the Taj by moonlight’. She preferred ‘sitting in the garden’ and afterwards enjoying an excellent dinner of ‘bacon and eggs’.
Towards the end of March, they returned to Bombay and took ship to Egypt, where they stayed for a week as guests of Lord Lloyd in Cairo. Before sailing for France and home, Birley arranged a week in Jerusalem and Palestine, places he informed Duveen he had ‘always wanted to see’.
Only two months after his return to London, in July 1927, Birley received a welcome commission from Lord Kenyon of the National Museum Wales, Cardiff, to paint a former President of the Museum’s Council: Lord Pontypridd (President 1907–12). He then agreed to paint a series of other Past Presidents of the Museum’s Council at a specially discounted rate (one third of his usual fee of 300 guineas for a half-length portrait).
Lord Kenyon was evidently very taken by Birley’s charm and willingness to please and arranged in August 1927 for him to undertake an even more prestigious commission: a portrait of King George V (1865–1936) to acknowledge that the King had laid the foundation stone for the Museum’s new building in June 1912 and cut the ribbon officially opening the edifice to the public in April 1927. When Kenyon informed Lord Cromer, the Lord Chamberlain, of the Museum’s choice of artist to paint the King, Cromer was pleased and relieved, replying ‘I know Oswald Birley as a fine artist + a nice fellow, so I am glad you have selected him.’
Between 1927 and 1931, Birley painted six past presidents of the council of the National Museum Wales. It may be revealing that the two sitters he most enjoyed meeting, Lord Pontypridd and Sir William Reardon-Smith, and whose portraits proved the most distinguished and appealing, were both self-made men who had risen to positions of eminence from very humble beginnings. Birley had been particularly impressed with Reardon-Smith, who had started life as an ordinary seaman, risen to captaining a Clipper sailing ship and retired owning a large part of Cardiff Docks. Reardon-Smith, in his old uniform as a Clipper captain, had appealed to Birley for his ‘splendid Conradian qualities’.
1928 Work on the portrait of King George V had to be delayed owing to pressure of the King’s commitments, which precluded sufficient time for the five or six hour-long sittings Birley thought he would require. In the meantime, Birley was delighted to be asked to begin a commission he had first been asked to undertake by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in June 1923: a portrait of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (1867–1947). The Prime Minister finally sat for Birley at 62 Wellington Road and then at 10 Downing Street early in January 1928. It was an experience both artist and sitter seemed greatly to have enjoyed; Baldwin found Birley a ‘most engaging personality’, while the artist was in awe of the Prime Minister. Baldwin’s portrait was hardly finished when Birley and Rhoda left for New York, as Duveen had offered him another exhibition – his third at the Duveen Galleries on Fifth Avenue – Oswald Birley: Recent Studies and Portraits. This opened in March 1928 to almost universally fulsome reviews. The New York Times thought ‘Mr. Birley appears as a talented technician who never seems to make a mistake’ and was particularly impressed by his ‘imposing’ portrait of leading financier and art collector Joseph Widener which caught both his ‘shyness’ and ‘determined character’. Duveen had provided him with another long list of wealthy American clients who, he maintained, were clamouring to be painted by Birley. Though he worked quickly, even Birley could not paint them all before he and Rhoda returned to the UK.
For some years afterwards, even after the Wall Street Crash of October 1929, Birley painted American millionaires who had made the pilgrimage to 62 Wellington Road, such as the West Virginia coal magnate James Walter Carter – who wished to be painted as though he were a Georgian landowner of the late-18th century sitting to Reynolds or Romney – and his wife Margaret, whom Birley evidently enjoyed painting in the age of flapper chic, complemented by delicately rendered peacock feathers.
Birley and Rhoda arrived back in London in mid-May 1928. A fortnight later, on 2 June 1928, King George V gave him the first of four sittings lasting one and a half hours at Buckingham Palace. Birley found his sitter a ‘little hard going at first’ but the King thawed and became much more talkative as they discussed the intricacies of shooting driven pheasants, as opposed to the more challenging woodcock, clearly the King’s preference. The King gave Birley a last sitting at the end of June 1928. Nearly two months later, the completed work, framed according to the artist’s specifications, arrived at Buckingham Palace for the King to inspect. His Majesty objected to the amount of grey in his beard but relented when his Private Secretary Frederick ‘Fritz’ Ponsonby referred him to a mirror – the artist had only painted what he saw before him and the fact was the King did look somewhat beyond his years. With daily exposure, the King warmed to the portrait to the extent that he insisted it be exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1929, where it was much admired by the press. When the portrait was finally delivered to the National Museum Wales in September 1929 and installed in the Museum’s Court Room, the Director Dr Cyril Fox wrote to Birley to express how pleased he was with the painting, which he described as a ‘magnificent achievement… [which] studied in isolation impresses one even more that it did at the Academy as an admirable and vivid presentation of the Man’.
In 1929 Birley and Rhoda set sail for Bangkok to paint the King of Siam, King Rama VII of the House of Chakri (1893–1941). The last absolute monarch of that country, he was compelled to abdicate in March 1935. One of Birley’s American millionaire admirers/sitters had apparently first mooted the commission in February 1928. As Birley wrote to Duveen early in February 1929, he had arrived in Bangkok early in January and had: ‘started at once on my work: first of all two big standing full-lengths of the King and the Queen who are, however, only just five feet high! Then a picture after my own heart of the King in full Coronation robes, crown etc on his throne: a marvellous arrangement of Oriental colours. I did a huge canvas and the King is so thrilled with it that he insisted on my sending it to the Royal Academy in London where I hope you will see it. Although of course it’s difficult to judge if anything in these strange surroundings and difficult light. I feel it is one of the best things I’ve ever done… We are nearly at the end of our time here and I am not sorry as working in this hothouse atmosphere and blinding light is very trying and tiring.’
They left Bangkok towards the end of February 1929, stopping off en route to England, ‘chiefly to see the Ajanta Caves and the early paintings, which I know only from reproductions’, as Birley explained to Duveen. In March, during a brief trip north of Calcutta (now Kolkata) to the princely state of Cooch Behar, Birley painted on his own initiative an attractive portrait of the state’s formidable and beautiful Maharani Regent Indira Devi Sahiba. Maxime later suspected her father had rather fallen for the ‘siren of Cooch Behar’.
It was while in India in 1929, returning from Thailand, that Birley and Rhoda first encountered the phenomenal popularity of Mohandas Karamchand ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi (1869–1948). Later interviewed by Maxime, Rhoda’s maid Jackson, or ‘Jacky’, recalled: ‘some time in March we were approaching one station when the train suddenly stopped. It was overflowing with hundreds of Indians who covered the tracks… we were just three white people among so many Indians. Their bearer told them the Indians were all waiting for someone called Gandhi who was on a much smaller train behind ours… we had never heard of him but Oswald had heard of him and wanted to paint a portrait of him’.
In November 1931, Birley was commissioned to paint Gandhi by the Chief Minister of Gujarat Sir Prabhashankar Pattani (1862–1938). Birley sketched Gandhi in London during the Second Round Table Conference (October–November 1931) at the same time as the Mahatma sat for Birley’s friend and sculptor Clare Sheridan for a bust. Birley submitted the portrait to the Royal Academy for inclusion in its summer exhibition of May 1932. As the New York Times reported, the portrait was initially approved by the Selection Committee but was suddenly overruled by the Academy’s Council. President of the Academy Sir William Llewellyn claimed ‘there was no political motive behind the rejection [and] repudiated any notion that Government influence had anything to do with the Academy’s decision’. Pattani took the portrait back to India in 1935. However, he died three years later as he was about to leave for a trip to meet with Gandhi and present him with the portrait. The painting would eventually be displayed with great ceremony inside the new Indian Constituent Assembly in late August 1947, only a fortnight after India’s formal independence from British rule.
By 1930, Birley had emerged as one of the British portrait painters of the day to approach to undertake a prestigious commission – alongside Augustus John (made increasingly unreliable through deepening alcoholism) and an ailing Sir William Orpen (who would die in September 1931). After the widely perceived success of his portrait of King George V for the National Museum Wales, a veritable queue formed of other organisations who wanted Birley to paint them a portrait of the King. First, the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes (1930), then the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (1932), the Royal Regiment of Artillery (1933), Lincoln’s Inn in London (1933–34), followed by the Royal Fusiliers (1934). By the last named commission, the King had grown tired of repeated sittings for Birley and other artists and suggested Birley create his full-length portrait from a study of his head that the artist could make from one two-hour sitting. During this period (1932–34) Birley also painted a series of striking and well-received portraits of scientists such as Sir Ernest Rutherford for the Royal Society, London, academics such as Professor Lionel Curtis for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, and a dynamic Sir John Reith as Director-General of the British Broadcasting Corporation, who appears as if he cannot abide remaining seated any longer and wishes to spring up and into action (Reith was grateful to Birley for having deftly concealed major damage to the left side of his face caused by a German sniper’s bullet during the Battle of Loos in October 1915).
In 1934, Birley and Rhoda, with Maxime and young son Mark (born in 1930), were able to stay for the first time in a new summer ‘country hideaway’: Charleston Manor, near West Dean in East Sussex. Birley had bought the 20-room property – complete with stables, a barn, a Norman-era dovecote and a walled orchard – from Lady Lloyd, the wife of a friend, for £3,000 late in October 1931. Charleston became his weekend retreat from the clamour of life in London during the summer months from circa 1933 onwards; and during late summer/early autumn, when not staying in a villa he rented at Beauvallon-sur-Mer on the Côte d’Azur, near what was then the tiny fishing village of St Tropez. For Birley, Charleston quickly became his ‘little portion of heaven in Sussex’. Rhoda was not so enamoured with the place; soon after her first visit, she became convinced Charleston was haunted: ‘her bedclothes were stripped from her body many nights by invisible and hostile hands’.
Birley and Rhoda still entertained regularly at 62 Wellington Road during the 1930s. One particularly welcome guest from 1934–36 was the vivacious Duchess of York – the future Queen Elizabeth (1900–2002). Birley had been commissioned in the early spring of 1934 to paint the Duchess as Honorary Colonel-in-Chief of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. The Duchess and Duke of York (the future King George VI (1895–1952)) were both very taken with the portrait Birley had painted at Windsor Castle. The Duchess of York appears to have enjoyed Birley’s company and jumped at the idea proposed by the courtier Sir Richard Molyneux that he paint a group portrait or ‘conversation piece’ in honour of the ‘Windsor Wets’ – a semi-secret, initially entirely light-hearted society dedicated to sampling fine wines from the Castle’s vaults. The Duchess was its honoured patron.
It took Birley almost two years to complete Conversation Piece (The Windsor Wets), as it took him some time to secure sittings with the core members of the society. The Duke of Rutland, however, was so pleased with the project that he commissioned a separate half-length portrait of himself from Birley, which caused a stir when exhibited with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in November–December 1936, where he was widely perceived as the epitome of self-assured, aristocratic elegance. The Wets had three female members by autumn 1934, but etiquette dictated it would not be seemly for them actually to attend dinners. In Conversation Piece, the Duchess of York as patron is represented by her portrait, which hangs on the back panelled wall that dominates the composition. She is flanked to her right by her husband the Duke, wearing evening dress and decorations, and to her left by the Duchess of Beaufort. Peeping flirtatiously around a screen on the left hand side is the third female member of the Wets, the beautiful Countess of Eldon. A rebuff from the Royal Academy Perhaps it was linked to his spat with the Royal Academy over the barred portrait of Gandhi in April 1932, but Birley was never elected an Associate, despite coming close at least four times between March 1934 and April 1939.
Meanwhile, there was never a shortage of interesting and diverting guests to entertain, and sometimes paint, at Charleston Manor. Among celebrities of the day staying for long weekends at Charleston – where they were guaranteed delicious meals sometimes cooked by Birley, with more experimental and eccentric menus contributed by Rhoda – were Osbert Sitwell, Lord David Cecil, Sir Philip Sassoon, Sir Edward Marsh, Cecil Beaton and Rex Whistler, one of the few younger contemporary artists for whom Birley had any time. By the late 1930s, Birley was trying to exhibit a greater variety of portraiture at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Images of the powerful and the fashionable were joined by the occasional group portrait or conversation piece such as At Printing House Square alongside depictions of his beloved daughter Maxime and superb ‘character studies’, such as that of his old Nanny, who ended her days as part of the staff at Charleston, though without any specific duties apart from looking after Birley’s many dogs, as shown in a photograph from 1937. Perhaps Birley was aware that the perception of him – which had, understandably, grown over the years – as a ‘courtier’ painter to the British Royal Family might not necessarily have been to the advantage of his overall critical reputation.
Late in 1938, he almost seemed relieved when he learned that the Royal Veterinarian Society (RVS) had decided to ask Philip de László to paint a portrait of King George VI as their patron. However, de László, in poor health, then died and Birley was asked by the RVS and the Royal Agricultural Society of England to paint the King in April 1939 for looming centenary occasions. He, of course, readily agreed; whatever his concerns as to his artistic reputation, he still deemed it an immense privilege as well as a duty to undertake such portraits, even if he might have been happier to focus on producing evocative portraits of sinuously exotic and graceful ballet dancers.
The 1930s appeared to be ending on a high note for Birley: in mid-July 1939, he was awarded a Gold Medal by the French National Salon for his contribution to French cultural life since before the First World War (as the British champion of the caricaturist Sem). However, as Maxime later recalled, when present in the Long Room at Charleston on the morning of 3 September 1939 to hear Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sorrowfully declare that Britain was again at war with Germany, she was surprised to see her ‘father’s face… streaked with the only tears [she]… ever s[aw] him shed… nibbl[ing] his moustache … a clear sign he was agitated’.
With the world at war again Birley was soon writing to his influential contacts in an effort to find a place for himself in the nation’s war effort – despite the fact that, at 59, he was far over the regulation age for active military service. As the Battle of Britain was reaching its height in the skies over south-eastern England, Birley was eventually approached by Sir Kenneth Clark’s War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC) of the Ministry of Information in mid August 1940 to work on a short-term basis as an official artist attached to the Royal Air Force. It would seem the Chief of the Air Staff Sir Cyril Newall had put in a word for Birley, as he had been very much impressed by the artist’s recent portrait of the aircraft manufacturer and pioneer of aircraft design Sir Geoffrey de Havilland. Birley accepted the offer even though he was already very busy as a Captain and a Company Commander in the Sussex Home Guard, which he had promptly joined when the creation of the organisation (then known as the Local Defence Volunteers) was announced by Secretary of State for War Anthony Eden on 14 May 1940.
Between November 1940 and June 1941, Birley painted seven portraits for the Air Ministry and the WAAC; they were nearly all senior officers. The Air Ministry was pleased with Birley’s work; in fact, many in the Ministry appeared to prefer his portraits of senior RAF officers to the more unsparingly realist images produced by the full time war artist allotted to them by the WAAC, Eric Kennington.
Sir Kenneth Clark, however, did not take the hint and, when Birley’s contract expired towards the end of July 1941, it was not renewed. A change in vision Birley returned to his Home Guard duties. He was regarded as a good leader, so much so that, upon his return, he was promoted from command of a company to that of a sector and from Captain to Major. His sector was also chosen for deployment of a new anti-tank weapon, a fearsome-looking device called the Blacker Bombard, which its operators quickly discovered was more of a threat to them than the enemy. Birley learned this for himself on the afternoon of 15 October 1941 when he was supervising a demonstration of the Bombard: a 20-pound, highly-explosive bomb from the weapon detonated immediately on being fired, and all those standing nearby were riddled with bomb fragments. Two of Birley’s men were killed, the Inspector General’s Aide lost his jaw and Birley was hit in both eyes. The damage to his right eye was so serious that it had to be removed in hospital later that day. For a while, there were fears that the sight in his remaining eye had been affected. However, the left eye responded to treatment and Birley was soon declaring that it would not be long before he was painting portraits again and that they would be better than ever. Maxime later recalled that her father was: ‘soon trying to paint with one eye, the empty socket covered with a patch… At first he had little sense of the distance between brush and canvas and his flesh tones were so red that his sitters all looked as if congested with high blood pressure.’47 Perhaps tellingly, one of the first portraits he painted after his accident with which he was satisfied to the extent he exhibited it with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in November 1942 was an affecting and poignant self-portrait – the only one he ever painted in which he is wearing spectacles, which skilfully obscure the damage to the right side of his face and the fact that he had lost his right eye entirely. Another dimension to the ‘People’s War’ Later that year, Birley went on to paint two fine images of youthful aristocratic British military masculinity: Lieutenant Sir Anthony Meyer and Lieutenant the Earl of Euston. It was as if he wished to highlight that the British aristocracy was making a contribution to a conflict the Ministry of Information was at pains to describe as the ‘People’s War’.
Elsewhere, he painted portraits of more elderly aristocrats who, in their own way, continued loyally to serve the wider community, such as the 2nd Marquess of Zetland, a past Secretary of State for India and President of the Royal Geographical Society and the impressively dignified owner of Gunby Hall, Lady Diana Montgomery-Massingberd. In April 1944, Birley had another opportunity to offer support to a longestablished British institution with his brush. The Commandant of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, Captain Augustus Agar VC, asked Birley if he would paint a posthumous portrait of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound. Birley readily agreed and then suggested he paint a whole series of Admirals at a discounted rate for the College Officer’s Mess. He further proposed a portrait of King George VI as an Admiral of the Fleet to hang in pride of place – given that King George had, in July 1939, officially opened the new Mess.
The King was (understandably) busy and sittings could not be arranged until November 1944, but they resulted in one of Birley’s most impressive and moving portraits of a British sovereign. The King, seriously underweight, appears gaunt and careworn but also resilient, kindly and steadfast. Indeed, the King was so impressed with the portrait painted for the College that he gave Birley an additional three sittings to paint a slightly different copy to hang at Windsor Castle for his own personal pleasure
Throughout the last year of the Second World War, there was little sign that Birley’s career had been in any way impeded by the Blacker Bombard accident in 1941; plentiful and invariably prestigious commissions continued to land at his door. In early January 1945, a Conservative Member of Parliament asked Birley to paint a portrait of Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) for the Speaker’s House via the Speaker of the House of Commons. As it transpired, Churchill was far too busy with running the war and attending summits with America and the Soviet Union and so could not provide Birley with sittings for the portrait until June 1946 – almost a year after his shock defeat in the General Election of July 1945, a defeat which Birley found incomprehensible (he most likely voted for Churchill).
When professional painter first met amateur artist and ex-Prime Minister, Churchill’s daughter Mary noted that her father was a little testy with Birley. Soon, however, he warmed to the artist’s urbane good manners and to discussion of Birley’s fine First World War military record: ‘the relationship between sitter and painter got off to a rather sticky start because Winston became awkward and did not want to be distracted from his own ploys… I have spent today chasing Papa to sit for Mr B[irley]… However, B’s quiet charm and my father’s respect for an artist soon melted away any difficulties and I was able to leave them to it. On my return later that day from a trip to London I found Mr. B. and Papa well-pleased with each other and the portrait.’
Churchill gave Birley two further sittings to complete the portrait – one more than the artist had requested – as his sitter so enjoyed their conversation. Birley had also recently completed a magisterial portrait of probably the favourite among his Second World War Generals – the handsome, debonair, Anglo-Irish aristocrat Field Marshal Viscount Alexander of Tunis. Churchill was especially impressed by the skill with which Birley had painted the fur on the bulky flying jacket Alexander was wearing. Birley was rather nervous before showing the portrait of Churchill to the sitter and his wife, Clementine Churchill, whom Birley correctly identified as an even more unforgiving audience. He need not have had any anxiety on the matter; his respect for Churchill and compassion for his plight – he was still nursing the emotional wound of being rejected at the polls only a year earlier – are all too evident in the finished painting.
Birley found little respite that summer from the pressure of commissions. He just had time to attend his daughter’s wedding in late July 1946 (he had asked her to postpone it by six weeks on account of work demands). After a short break at Charleston Manor, he was then off to Oxford to prepare a portrait of Churchill’s former sparring partner in the Conservative Party and in government, Lord Halifax, who had recently stepped down as a successful British Ambassador to the United States. Birley knew the ‘Holy Fox’ of old – this would be his third portrait of him – but he found that, with the passage of time, Halifax’s long face had acquired myriad lines and furrows that gave him even greater character and gravitas. The portrait, however, does not conceal the fact that one motivation for its commission was that Halifax’s distinguished political career had by then effectively come to an end. Despite the Fellowship conferred upon him by All Souls College, Oxford, Halifax’s air of rueful disappointment, subtly captured by Birley, is palpable. From Oxford, Birley moved northwards to Alnwick Castle in Northumberland to paint a more youthful and stylish example of North Country aristocracy: Hugh Percy, 10th Duke of Northumberland (1914–88) in Hunting Dress. Birley and the Duke found much to admire in each other and the artist was asked back the following year to paint the Duchess and other members of the ducal household. Birley’s thoughts turned to the possibility of another trip to India and a return to the ‘glorious sunshine’ of Palm Beach. He was never to explore an India independent of British rule when partitioned into two new countries from August 1947. However, he retained a keen interest in the politics, art and culture of the subcontinent.
Early in 1948, Birley resumed a long-standing connection with the Cunard-White Star Line, which commissioned him to paint a large portrait of Queen Elizabeth for the main lounge of its new transatlantic liner of the same name. A brief trip to New York on the Queen Elizabeth, as guests of the Cunard Line in late summer of that year, whetted his and Rhoda’s appetite for a longer visit to America. In New York, he had made contact with the former Mrs Edward Hutton, now calling herself Marjorie Merriweather Davies. She invited Birley and Rhoda to stay with her at her luxurious Palm Beach villa Mar-a-Lago from January–February 1949.
One reason Birley had been so keen to return to Florida was that the climate seemed to suit his health, which had been in poor shape since the middle of the Second World War, when he found himself subject to recurrent attacks of bronchitis that led to spells of debilitating breathlessness. Returning to England in the late spring of 1949, they were greeted with the welcome news that Birley had been awarded a knighthood, principally due to a recommendation from Churchill.
Birley’s spells of ‘bronchial trouble’ kept recurring, and this was likely to have prompted him to organise a retrospective exhibition of his work from the previous 50 years at the Royal Institute Galleries in May 1951. Maxime later noted her father was pleased, even relieved, by the generally favourable critical reception the exhibition was given. The verdict of The Times was echoed by many of the leading broadsheet critics. Birley was evidently the artist to ask ‘when painting very eminent men and women [because] for the most part… [h]is likenesses are startlingly exact’. The review concluded by complimenting Birley on his ‘accomplished…landscapes, still life paintings and interiors’, many of which had not been exhibited in public. This the reviewer thought a great pity, as the landscapes and still life paintings revealed a side to Birley that the public would doubtless have appreciated, alongside his many essays on the emulation of Van Dyck.
Once the retrospective closed, Birley and Rhoda spent some time staying with Winston and Clementine Churchill at Chartwell, which was enjoyed by all. Birley began work on a more informal half-length study of the great man looking ‘rumpled but indomitable’ and wearing one of his wartime blue siren suits.
Birley intended this as a Christmas present for Clementine. However, he would not finish the painting until the end of December 1951 on account of ‘feeling tired and under the weather’. Even Churchill was impressed by, and concerned about, Birley’s relentless and daunting work rate, and hoped he would find time to ‘spare himself’ to enjoy his goldfish at 62 Wellington Road.56 However, Birley could not be persuaded to slow down. Early in September, he set off for Paris as he had managed to persuade General Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969) to sit for him as Supreme Commander of the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This was one of Birley’s occasional private initiative portraits. As ever, he worked quickly, so that the portrait was exhibited in that year’s annual exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in November 1951, and was widely praised as a ‘superb likeness’ and a decidedly skilful essay in various ‘pleasing shades of green’. ‘A great artist has been taken from us’ The warmth of this reaction encouraged Birley to imagine exhibiting the portrait of Eisenhower alongside that of Churchill in his siren suit ‘somewhere in Washington DC or New York’.
Churchill, who had been narrowly elected as Prime Minister in October 1951, thought this was an excellent idea that would doubtless help cement AngloAmerican relations. Birley was preparing to leave for America when he fell ill again and had to undergo a major operation on his chest to help with his breathing. The surgery was judged a success, and Birley and Rhoda sailed for New York on the Queen Mary liner towards the end of February 1952. Returning to England in late April, Birley fell ill with a ‘throat infection’. This turned into pneumonia and, as his daughter later recalled, he died on 6 May 1952 from ‘flu he contracted on the way back from New York on a liner. He took to his bed at home in Wellington Road and died peacefully in his sleep – his dog lying on the floor near his bed.’ Rhoda understandably was distraught, but found some comfort in the many telegrams and letters of sympathy that followed. Birley’s obituary notices were also extremely complimentary and admiring. According to Sir Gerald Kelly (then President of the Royal Academy), writing in The Times, he was ‘one of the most successful portrait painters of his time… he had good ideas of arrangement and a masculine bluntness of statement that won respect’. Perhaps the final epitaph should go to that consummate wordsmith Winston Churchill who, despite the many matters weighing on his mind as Prime Minister, found time to write to Rhoda: ‘I cannot express to you the grief suffered in the loss of your dear Oswald, still less can I imagine your own… Of your own sorrow I cannot speak but I feel that a great artist has been taken from us whose pencil, guided by deep instinct, could discern the character of his subjects and invest their portraits with all the charm that light and colour can bestow.’