With Annabel's and, later, Mark's Club and Harry's Bar, Birley's late son Mark reinvented the members-only club in London in 1963, rendering it luxurious, sexy and delicious, with a handsomeness that bordered on gorgeousness. If you were at Annabel's on the right night you could even thrill to the Supremes—the original Supremes—purring "From This Moment On" in a private concert. It doesn't get any better than that.
Maxime de la Falaise
Mark's sister, Maxime de la Falaise, a W regular back in the day, was a wildly charismatic beauty, social powerhouse and coquette. As she herself confessed to the most capricious, errant behavior, there was nothing critical you could say about her that she didn't say herself. Her daughter Loulou was still in nappies when in 1950 Maxime abandoned her to foster families because, she explained to Alicia Drake in The Beautiful Fall, "I was streaking off with a boyfriend." Loulou died last year, having made the fashion world a much more amusing and decorative place as Yves Saint Laurent's main droit. Taking up the slack are Loulou's cousins, Mark's children, India Jane and Robin Birley. A noted figurative painter whose aesthetic sympathies are not all that dissimilar to her grandfather's, India Jane was Prince Charles's official artist on his 1996 trip to Bangladesh. She has recalled visiting mothy civic palaces in India and seeing Birleys of local grandees that were "improved" upon over the years by local painters who thought that the eyes would be better darker, the lips better if redder. Robin, of course, is the owner of, and visionary behind, Loulou's, his new $48-million private club in Mayfair, named for his effulgent relation.
Not that Sir Oswald, who died in 1952 at age 72, doesn't still claim a portion of the family spotlight as a British portraitist in the courtly tradition of Sir John Lavery and Sir William Orpen. The auction record for a Birley was set in November with his picture of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, painted when she was thirteen wearing velvet, lace, pearls and a slightly troubled expression suggesting inklings of the freakish life ahead of her. It brought $36,250, including buyer's premium, at Bonhams New York. The seller was Vogue's Hamish Bowles, no surprise there. The only thing known about the buyer is that it was not Robin Birley. Many in the saleroom thought it had to be, as Loulou's is hung with numerous works by Sir Oswald, including a self-portrait, a portrait of Maxime as a child and one of her godfather, the legendary caricaturist Sem.
Sir Oswald Birley (1880-1952), Portrait of Barbara Hutton, 1925; Sold for US$ 36,250
The previous records for Birleys were held by A Thai Dancer, executed in Bangkok and sold by Christie's in 1997 for $34,500; Portrait of Lady Cunard, which went for $30,630 this fall at Gorringes, an East Sussex auction house not far from where Sir Oswald lived in the country at Charleston Manor; and a full-length likeness of Countess Annesley that earned $26,482 three years ago, also at Christie's. One of the two leading hostesses of literary and political London between the wars, the American-born Emerald Cunard sided with Wallis Simpson during the abdication crises in the hope of winning a court appointment. The provenance of the Annesley painting was Glin Castle, County Limerick, Ireland. How good are you at connecting the dots? Loulou de la Falaise cultists, whose number has rocketed since her death, are quick to point out that her first, hasty marriage in 1968, when she was all of twenty, was to the dashing Desmond FitzGerald, Victoria and Albert Museum curator, Irish-furniture expert and 29th Knight of Glin.
Loulou de la Falaise
"Birley is good quality, very confident and competent," said Alistair Laird, Specialist of 19th-Century Paintings at Bonhams London. "He did what was required of him, which was to get a reasonable likeness of the sitter."
Though Sir Oswald did not have Sargent's technique or psychological insight, Laird said, it was Sargent who made Birley's career possible.
Sir Oswald was later than Sargent, Laird noted, "but very much a product of that whole explosion."
That the Hutton picture did so well is largely due to the subject, Laird added. "It always rather depends on the sitter. A pretty young girl is going to fetch a lot more than a boring, grumpy old man of the period who owned a baked-bean factory." A Birley of a businessman identical in size to the Hutton portrait, 50 x 40 inches, would make $2,000, Laird said, "if you're lucky."
Madalina Lazen, Senior Specialist of European Painting at Bonhams New York, admitted there can be a "by the yard" factor in the prices portraits bring, as illustrated by A Thai Dancer (80.4 x 51.5 inches) and Lady Cunard (15 x 39.5 inches). While Sir Oswald can be "slightly rigid, without the effortlessness of his contemporary Philip de László, the Hutton picture is exquisite: The beautifully rendered dress, the tactile quality of the velvet, the luminosity of her skin against the dark background. The color of the subject's dress plays a big role in determining how high women's portraits go. Preferably you want reds, whites, lavenders, pinks." Hutton's dress is red.
As Mark Birley's former wife, Lady Annabel Goldsmith, writes in her memoirs, Annabel: An Unconventional Life, Sir Oswald was fifty when her husband was born, and so "inevitably a remote figure, often seeming more like a grandfather" to his son. India Jane recalls Birley senior as "rather removed from his own family, aloof." Sir Oswald was born in New Zealand, educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge, and studied Old Master paintings in Dresden and Florence. Later he enrolled at the Académie Julian in Paris as a student of the Beaux Arts-trained Marcel Basschet, who is remembered for his portraits of the presidents of the Third Republic. One of Birley's earliest influences was the academic painter William-Adolphe Bourguereau, as evidenced by Sir Oswald's first work to be displayed publicly, a nude that received an honorable mention at the Paris Salon of 1903.
According to a website devoted to Charleston Manor (which is often inconveniently confused with the other Charleston, the nearby house where the Bloomsbury group gathered), "After Paris, Birley traveled in Spain and like many others fell under the influence of Velázquez and the Golden Age of Spanish painting. His Rag Sorter, exhibited in 1905, and portraits of Mabel Beardsley [artist Aubrey's sister, the Victorian actress] as an Elizabethan page, exhibited in 1915, exemplify this and also show the close affinity to Sargent which most of Birley's pre-War work demonstrates."
Sir Oswald went on to attend the St. John's Wood School of Art in London. Orpen and James Pryde, "the Edgar Allen Poe of painters," were classmates. He took up his palette again after serving in World War I and in 1921 participated with equal billing in a group show with fellow portraitists Glyn Philpot and Gerald Kelly at the Knoedler gallery in Paris. The same year Birley married Rhoda Vava Mary Lecky Pike of Ireland, forming a couple who were the highest of haute bohemia.
"Oswald was a perfectly adequate performer," in the opinion of the art historian and Picasso biographer John Richardson, "but to my mind Rhoda was the figure." She was famous for her stunning looks, eccentricity, cooking and the garden she created at Charleston with a troika of 20th-century horticultural greats: Gertrude Jekyll, Vita Sackville-West and Sir Harold Hillier. The composition of her mixed borders may have been of greater importance to Rhoda than her children, however, as her diary for 1922 failed even to mention the arrival of baby Maxime. Loulou de la Falaise always looked back with a shudder on her grandmother's dislike of physical contact. Whenever she tried to kiss her, Loulou said, granny backed away while making the sign of the cross. Lady Goldsmith writes that Mark and his father found "a reassuring unity in their feelings towards Rhoda, from whose constant arguments Oswald was always seeking refuge, longing to be be left alone to paint."
The Birleys’ patronage of the Ballet Russes led to portraits of Nijinksi and Danilova, for whose sitting the music room at Charleston was specially built. As commissions didn't arrive in the mail, Sir Oswald and Rhoda were not unreasonably social. Harold Nicholson's diary entry for 8 January 1930 records their attendance at a luncheon chez Sibyl Colefax, co-founder of that most bluestocking and far-reaching of decorating firms, Colefax & Fowler, and Emerald Cunard's competitor. Also present were the Rudyard Kiplings and Lord and Lady Lloyd. It would be interesting to know Birley's luncheon-to-commission ratio.
Charleston was sold out of the family following Rhoda's death in 1980, when India Jane was 19. Having known the house as a child, she "pounced" when it came on the market last year.
"I'm using Oswald's studio for myself," she said recently. "Of his time, there's only him and de Laszlo. He was the last of the great bravura portrait painters. I wish I had his fluency. If anything, I think he took on too much, gaining a reputation, perhaps, for repeating himself--men in military uniforms with their hands clasped. Velazquez was his teacher, and to an extent mine. I like to feel the structure of what I'm painting, and that comes from my grandfather. There's no one else I would have rather been painted by, and I've been painted by Lucien Freud."
Sir Oswald can seem like a bargain today, especially when compared to Orpen (whose auction record, $2.83 million, was set in 2001) and Lavery ($2.18 million in 1998).
"I think one of the reasons we still care about Birley is because of the family members who came later, colorful and interesting personalities who achieved fame in their own lives," said Lazen of Bonhams. "They're helping to keep the memory alive."
Images: Maxime: WWD; Birley portrait: courtesy of Bonhams; Loulou: Condé Nast Archive