Birley was born in New Zealand 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.
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.
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.
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.
He was knighted in 1949.
List of works
Professor Smith, 1911, oil on canvas. Collection of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
In 1932 Sir Oswald Birley was commissioned to paint the portrait of Rupert Arthur Llewellyn, then legal advisor to Stoke-on-Trent City Council. The portrait remains in the family collection.
He married the Irish beauty Rhoda Vava Mary Lecky Pike in 1921. The couple had a son, Mark Birley, and a daughter, Maxime, who later became a fashion model and design muse as Maxime de la Falaise. His grandchildren, and his son's offspring, include Robin Birley and India Jane Birley. Other descendants include the fashion designer and muse Loulou de la Falaise and her daughter, fashion model Lucie de la Falaise.
- "Birley, Oswald Hornby Joseph (BRLY898OH)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- John Steegman, (1957), A Survey of Portraits in Welsh Houses, page 240 (The National Museum of Wales)
- Reed, Michael (5 April 2013). "Duchess of Cambridge not posh? Her ancestor was lord mayor of Leeds". The Guardian (London: GMG). ISSN 0261-3077. OCLC 60623878. Retrieved 9 July 2013.
- Professor Smith, 1911, oil on canvas. Collection of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
- Entry on Birley family genealogy
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