Friday, January 9, 2015

Oswald Birley, 20th Century Painter of Royals and Society

Sir Oswald Hornby Joseph Birley (1880-1952) is yet another of the surprising number of British portrait artists I've written about who managed to thrive in the 20th century when photography began to dominate even the portraiture of wealthy or titled people.

It probably helped that Birley's background included Harrow (where Churchill attended) and Trinity College, Cambridge, so he was socially acceptable to potential clients. His art training included some time spent at the Académie Julian in Paris.

A brief biographical note is here, and another one is here. Perhaps even more interesting than Birley are some of his descendants. For a dab of dirt on that subject, click here.

Although he was no John Singer Sargent or Philip de Laszlo, he was a competent portrait artist who delivered the anticipated goods to rich, famous, or royal clientelle. As you might notice regarding the images below, Birley usually portrayed his subjects from the knees or waist up, and left plenty of largely empty space around their heads.


The Spanish Plume - 1912
A fairly early example of Birley's work.

Miss Muriel Gore in a Fortuny Dress - 1919

Portrait of a lady - 1923

Barbara Hutton - 1925
Painted when she was a teenager. For more on the life of this Woolworth heiress, click here.

George V - 1928

Ernest Rutherford - 1932
The scientist shown with some laboratory equipment.

Dancer in the Coq d'or Ballet - 1938

Miss Winifred Mercier, Principal of Whitelands College - 1938
This seems to be a posthumous portrait, as Mercier died in 1934. I include it because it shows Birley's skill at depicting human skin, not an easy matter.

George VI - 1939

Winston Churchill - 1946

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein - 1948

Princess Elizabeth - 1950

Dwight Eisenhower - 1951
When Ike was in command of NATO. One of Birley's last paintings.

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