Oswald Birley

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

Oswald Birley

Personal details
Oswald Hornby Joseph Birley

(1880-03-31)31 March 1880
New Zealand
Died6 May 1952(1952-05-06) (aged 72)
London, England
Rhoda Vava Mary Lecky Pike (m. 1921)
ChildrenMaxime Birley
Mark Birley
EducationHarrow School
Alma materTrinity College
Known forRoyal portraitist

Early life and familyEdit

Birley was born on 31 March 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.[1]

He was the great-grandson of Hugh Hornby Birley (1778–1845), who led the troops at the Peterloo massacre.[2]


Portrait of General Harold Alexander by Birley in 1940

Military serviceEdit

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 careerEdit

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5] Birley painted the portrait of Leeds Lord Mayor Sir Charles Lupton (1855–1935).[6]

He was knighted in 1949.

A major retrospective exhibition of Birley's work was held at the Philip Mould & Company gallery on Pall Mall in 2007.[7][8]

Personal lifeEdit

In 1921, the 41-year-old Birley married the 21-year-old "Irish beauty"[9] Rhoda Vava Mary Lecky Pike (1900–1981).[10] Rhoda later founded the Charleston Manor Festival.[10] The couple had two children:

Birley died at his home in London on 6 May 1952, a week after returning from six-week trip to the United States where he received medical assistance.[3]


Birley's descendants include Robin Birley (born 1958), who married Lucy Ferry (1960–2018), 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).[12]


  1. ^ "Birley, Oswald Hornby Joseph (BRLY898OH)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  2. ^ "Entry on Birley family genealogy". Archived from the original on 13 March 2016.
  3. ^ a b "SIR OSWALD BIRLEY, NOTED PORTRAITIST: Artist Who Painted Members of British Royalty and LeadingI World Figures Dies at 72". The New York Times. 7 May 1952. Retrieved 8 August 2016.
  4. ^ "MAHATMA GANDHI (1869–1948)". Portraits : Central Hall. Lok Sabha. Retrieved 6 March 2019.
  5. ^ John Steegman, (1957), A Survey of Portraits in Welsh Houses, page 240 (The National Museum of Wales)
  6. ^ Reed, Michael (5 April 2013). "Duchess of Cambridge not posh? Her ancestor was lord mayor of Leeds". The Guardian. London. ISSN 0261-3077. OCLC 60623878. Retrieved 9 July 2013.
  7. ^ Black, Jonathan (2007). The Life and Works of Sir Oswald Birley MC (PDF). Philip Mould & Company.
  8. ^ Black, Jonathan; et al. (2007). Power & Beauty: The Art of Sir Oswald Birley (PDF). Philip Mould & Company. pp. 76–77.
  9. ^ a b Fox, Margalit (1 May 2009). "Maxime de la Falaise, model, Designer and Muse, Is Dead at 86". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 August 2016.
  10. ^ a b "Rhoda (née Lecky Pike), Lady Birley". npg.org.uk. Retrieved 8 August 2016.
  11. ^ Burke's Landed Gentry. 1952. p. 186. Archived from the original on 23 February 2005.
  12. ^ a b Horwell, Veronica (8 May 2009). "Maxime de la Falaise". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 August 2016.
  13. ^ Orth, Maureen (1 February 2008). "Hurly Birley". Vanity Fair. p. 152. ISSN 0733-8899. Retrieved 25 June 2008.

External linksEdit