Sir Oswald Birley portrait

A portrait of Lady Birley by Sir Oswald Birley, estimated at £10,000-20,000 at Cheffins.

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The paintings include eight works by Sir Oswald Birley (1880-1952) with a number depicting Charleston Manor House itself, a Grade II-listed property near Seaford, as well as a portrait of Lady Birley dated 1939 which is the highest estimated lot in the consignment, pitched at £10,000-20,000.

The pictures remained at Charleston Manor House until Lady Birley sold the property in 1980, the year before she died. The contents were then auctioned during a three-day on-the-premises auction staged by Christie’s where these 23 pictures were acquired by Cheffins’ vendor who also happened to be the buyer of the house itself.

The vendor restored the house before selling it in the mid-1980s. Charleston Manor House was then later sold in 2011 to India Jane Birley, granddaughter of Sir Oswald and Lady Birley.

The works at Cheffins have a combined upper estimate of £54,860.

Leading portraitist

Sir Oswald Birley (1880-1952) was one of Britain’s leading portrait painters of his day, receiving commissions from the Royal Family, members of the aristocracy, politicians and painting performers at Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. In 1921, then aged 41, he married Rhoda Lecky Pike (1900-81), an Anglo-Irish model and artist herself, who was 20 years his junior.

Initially settling in London with their two children (Mark Birley, who later set up Annabel’s Club and Harry’s Bar in London, and Maxime de la Falaise who became a model and socialite), they purchased Charleston Manor House in 1931.

The property, parts of which dated from the 12th century, had been empty for some time and was located around five miles from the similarly-named Charleston, the home of the Bloomsbury School artists with whom the couple became associated as fringe members of the group.

At Charleston Manor House the Birleys established a well-known music festival and Lady Birley created a famous garden along with the help of her friend, Vita Sackville-West.

The works at the Cambridge auction feature 15 pictures by Lady Birley including a number of still lifes and flower pictures. Her painting of the couple’s friends Sir Winston and Lady Churchill playing cards in the loggia from 1956 is also part of the consignment, estimated at £1000-2000. (Sir Oswald painted at least five portraits of the wartime prime minister over his career).

Director of Cheffins Brett Tryner said: “These works on offer have a wonderful provenance having been consigned by the previous owner of Charleston Manor House. The paintings have not been on public display since 1980, and the whereabouts of some of the pictures has been previously unknown to academics and collectors. Being part of their private collection, they provide a fascinating insight into the family lives of Sir Oswald and Lady Birley and the collection will be of great interest to collectors.” 

Ahead of the auction, the collection will be on display at Panter & Hall in Pall Mall on September 4-7.