Gazing out at the view over her left shoulder, our striking subject – a young lady named Margaret Elizabeth Barrett - is portrayed in soft strokes of paint. Margaret’s right eye is masterfully rendered in the shadow of her fringe, which falls from her headwrap. Simultaneously inviting and arresting, neither placid nor piercing, Margaret’s gaze confidently diffuses out from the canvas. Her pose owes much to old master painting, whilst the muted pallet pays homage to Diego Velázquez; Birley’s much-admired artistic hero.

Born on 8 February 1903, Margaret Elizabeth Barrett (1903-1980) was 18 years old when this portrait was painted in 1921. Her father, Dr. Edmund Howard Barrett (1842-1921), was a physician who treated Oswald Birley, and in lieu of payment, Birley suggested that he might paint Dr. Barrett’s portrait. Dr. Barrett responded, “I am to old and ugly, paint my daughter instead!” The result is the present work – one of Birley’s most captivating portraits from the early...

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Gazing out at the view over her left shoulder, our striking subject – a young lady named Margaret Elizabeth Barrett - is portrayed in soft strokes of paint. Margaret’s right eye is masterfully rendered in the shadow of her fringe, which falls from her headwrap. Simultaneously inviting and arresting, neither placid nor piercing, Margaret’s gaze confidently diffuses out from the canvas. Her pose owes much to old master painting, whilst the muted pallet pays homage to Diego Velázquez; Birley’s much-admired artistic hero.

Born on 8 February 1903, Margaret Elizabeth Barrett (1903-1980) was 18 years old when this portrait was painted in 1921. Her father, Dr. Edmund Howard Barrett (1842-1921), was a physician who treated Oswald Birley, and in lieu of payment, Birley suggested that he might paint Dr. Barrett’s portrait. Dr. Barrett responded, “I am to old and ugly, paint my daughter instead!” The result is the present work – one of Birley’s most captivating portraits from the early 1920s.

Margaret is shown here in a nurse’s uniform; specifically, a uniform associated with FANY (Female Army Nursing Yeomanry). The Corps was founded in 1907 by Edward Baker, a Warrant Officer in the 21st Lancers, who was wounded during his period of service with Lord Kitchener’s army in the Battle of Omdurman in 1898.[1] The Corps developed in 1911, with direction from the new, no-nonsense leads, Grace Ashley-Smith and Lilian Franklin who helped to introduce a more practical uniform and more serious training.[2] Margaret would have worn her uniform with great pride – her family had a reputation for helping others during times of need. In 1893 her father Edmund opened a home for the dying poor in Notting Hill Gate – a precursor to the hospice movement in many ways – with the aim of helping terminally ill patients who were financially unable to support themselves. This venture marked the establishment of the first institution, opened by a man, for patients who could not be cured.

Struck by the financial security of the more senior American Military officers he had met earlier in Paris in 1919, Birley held out hope for America as a land of plenty and promise. By 1921, he had caught the attention of the great American art dealer and taste-maker, Lord Duveen, in part due to his involvement in a joint exhibition held in New York at Knoedler on Fifth Avenue. Money was tight during these early visits to America and it is this financial instability which engendered the present picture.

Birley was renowned for producing paintings that were masterfully executed, for which the present painting is an unparalleled example, combining an enriching aesthetic with psychological realism. At the peak of his career, his suave society portraits were hailed as more than equal to the achievements of artistic contemporaries like Augustus John and Sir John Lavery. Furthermore, Birley was regarded by many critical heavyweights as the natural successor of a grand tradition of portrait painting giants, whom he so admired, such as Caravaggio, Van Dyck and Velazquez.

[1] Accessed on 4th June 2020 [Available at: https://www.fany.org.uk/history]

[2] Accessed on 4th June 2020 [Available at: https://www.fany.org.uk/history]

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500 Years of British Art