Le Beau Monde turn out to mark the first major retrospective of Sir Oswald Birley in decades this week – gathering at Philip Mould’s gallery in Pall Mall, writes Emelia Hamilton-Russell.
London’s elite turned out in force to celebrate the opening of the first major retrospective exhibition of Sir Oswald Birley’s work in more than 50 years. The evening, which was sponsored by Stephen Burton, CEO of Bordeaux Cellars and the Natalia Rotenberg Foundation, showcased a dazzling array of Birley’s most celebrated portraits. Champagne flowed.
Among the guests were Elizabeth Hurley, Fiona Bruce, and Chris Eubank, as well as the historian Andrew Roberts, Zac Goldsmith, Molly and Henry Dent Brocklehurst of Sudeley Castle and Countess of Balfour. Politicos included Sir Bill and Lady Cash, and Damian Collins MP – chair of the select committee on culture, media sport – attended with his wife Sarah. And of course, there were representatives of the Birley clan, notably, Robin Birley, who duly hosted a post-party dinner at his club, 5 Hertford Street.
From 1919 until the early 1950s, Birley was the go-to portrait artist for the elite, commissioned by the Royal Family, the aristocracy, politicians, artists, scientists and meritocrats of their day.
‘Society portrait painting depends on not only the artist, but on the subject as well,’ says Mould. ‘The subject wants to say something about themselves, but the artist may have different ideas. It’s a bargaining exercise, an arm wrestle, and when the two come together what can emerge is a significant “moment” in art history, a distilled glimpse into the darker reaches of the society soul.’
Indeed, in some of Birley’s latter portraits, notably the three of his friend Winston Churchill, there is an unmistakable human understanding and depth of experience which one doesn’t normally associate with polished figurative portraits of the great and good. As Mould says, ‘It’s not just about the art history, it’s about the aspirations of the people.’
Until now, many paintings have never left the walls which they were designed to adorn. Thus, the opening of the show marks an important cultural event, with several newly discovered ‘sleeper’ paintings on display for the first time ever. ‘It was a huge and expensive logistic exercise, but the results are certainly worth it – this is Birley heaven,’ Mould enthuses.
Power & beauty: The Art of Sir Oswald Birley at Philip Mould & Co, Pall Mall will be open to the public from 27th September-10th October. www.philipmould.com