Birley, after his first royal commission in 1928 of George VI for the National Museum of Wales, became well known for painting British royalty and high society from his opulent studio in St John’s Wood. Portraits included those of Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen mother and the present monarch Queen Elizabeth II and the Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, and Clement Atlee.
Birley in the artist’s studio, 1930s © Cecil Beaton
Archive, Sotheby’s London
Birley first came across Churchill’s paintings by surprise, whilst judging an amateur painting competition held at Sunderland House in Curzon Street in 1921. The paintings were unsigned and Birley unwittingly selected Churchill’s entry, ‘A picture of a red house in sunlight with snow on the roof, painted with great vigour – to which I decided … to award the first prize’ (Mary Soames, Winston Churchill His Life as a Painter, London, Collins, 1990, p. 58). The other two judges in the competition were Sir Kenneth Clarke (then a young man) and Sir Joseph Duveen (a benefactor to the National Gallery and the Tate) who at first thought the work was too good to have been executed by an amateur. The prize was to be a portrait painted by Birley which Churchill did not take up until many years later when Birley reminded him of the prize and offered to paint his daughter, Mary. Clementine later gave this work to Christopher Soames, and this portrait hung in Mary’s house on the landing at the top of the stairs.
It was in June 1946, twenty-five years later, that Birley would meet Churchill in person when painting him as a commission for the Speaker of the House of Commons (see lot 169). Birley had enlisted in the Royal Fusiliers and was then transferred to the intelligence corps where he was made a Captain in 1916; he then was awarded the Military Cross in 1919. With their shared experience of the First World War, the two would become great friends as would Clementine and Birley’s wife Rhoda who was considered an Irish beauty and the subject of many of her husband’s portraits. They lived near to the Churchills at Charleston Manor in Sussex where they would host social gatherings and performances of the Ballet Russes to which they were patrons. After Birley’s death in 1952, Rhoda was a regular visitor to Chartwell and would holiday abroad with Clementine. Rhoda was an amateur artist herself (see lots 166 and 168) also became well known for organising an annual festival of music and the arts at Charleston Manor.
As their friendship blossomed, Birley would become a mentor to Churchill and they would paint together in the South of France. Eisenhower, when writing his introduction to the Touring exhibition in the United States of Churchill’s works, wrote how Birley said of Churchill, ‘If Sir Winston had give the time to art that he has given to politics, he would have been by all odds the world’s greatest painter’ (Eisenhower quoted in David Coombs and Minnie S. Churchill, Sir Winston Churchill’s Life Through his Paintings, Ware House Publishing, Lyme Regis, 2011, p. 202).