Sunday 19 January 2020

Artistic legacy of the Irish beauty with 'the exotic name'

The portrait painter of the ruling classes and his Irish wife were part of an elite jet-set circle

ARISTO ART: Oswald Birley and his wife Rhoda with daughter Maxine (Maxime de la Falaise) sitting on the floor. Photo: Cecil Beaton/Getty
ARISTO ART: Oswald Birley and his wife Rhoda with daughter Maxine (Maxime de la Falaise) sitting on the floor. Photo: Cecil Beaton/Getty
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

It was the sumptuous portrait of a beautiful woman dressed in Venetian carnival attire by the painter Sir Oswald Birley that caught the eye.

Placed on an easel, the setting is a grand tiled hallway of a stately palazzo. It was exhibited in London last year under the title Birley: Power & Beauty.

"Oswald Birley was the portrait painter of the ruling class of Britain between the wars," said Philip Mould, who hosted the exhibition in his Mayfair Gallery. Well known for his royal portraits, Birley also painted friends such as Winston Churchill and many other luminaries, bohemians and lords and ladies of that era. He remains neglected because his realistic images were overtaken by the avant-garde. But who was the striking woman in that finery?

She, it turns out is "an Irish beauty" with the exotic name of Rhoda Vava Mary Lecky Pike, who married Oswald Birley, then a New Zealand British army captain 20 years her senior, in the Protestant church in Tullow, Co Carlow, on September 14, 1921. Together they would found their own dynasty that reaches through the artistic hierarchies of London, Paris and New York to this day.

Rhoda Lecky Pike, born on February 3, 1899, was the daughter of Robert Lecky Pike, a cricket enthusiast, of Kilnock, Co Carlow, and High Sheriff of the county and Catherine Howard, of Wicklow. They later moved to Ravenswood House near Bunclody, Co Wexford, where Lecky Pike "took an interest in salmon fishing on the Slaney".

Originally bankers from Munster, the Lecky and Pike families eventually came together to found a double-barrelled dynasty and shed their Quaker religious heritage in favour of the more liberal beliefs of the Church of Ireland. Robert Lecky Pike was a member of aristocratic cricket club Na Shuler (Wanderers) who played on the lawns of great houses and counted Charles Stewart Parnell as an occasional member.

Rhoda painted by her husband. Photo: Cecil Beaton/Conde Nast via Getty
Rhoda painted by her husband. Photo: Cecil Beaton/Conde Nast via Getty

After their marriage, Rhoda and her husband Oswald were part of the gilded set, with friends like Winston and Clementine Churchill, Sir Shane Leslie and the writers Rudyard Kipling and Vita Sackville-West. Unconventional in her gardening, as in everything else, Rhoda was said to nourish her roses with "superior fish stew".

The Birleys were part of what obituary writer Veronica Horwell called "the liner-and-express social circle that preceded the jet-set".

As a young diplomat, the writer Charles Lysaght recalls attending one of her 'Irish Afternoons' with his colleague Con Howard, at Charleston Manor, "a perfect small Georgian house" in West Sussex.

"The memorable thing about it was that Robert Flaherty spoke and she showed his film Man of Aran," he says. "Shane Leslie also spoke, as did Elizabeth Bowen, it was quite an afternoon."

Rhoda and her class had what he describes as "a tragic unrequited love of the gentry for Ireland" and she travelled over and back frequently.

When Robert Lecky Pike died at Ravenswood House in January, 1933 he left a fortune of £227,506, bequeathing his personal effects and fishing rights on the Slaney to his son, Ebenezer JL Pike of Hyde Park, London, and £10,000 to his daughter Rhoda.

The money didn't last long.

The Birleys had two rather neglected children (by today's standards, at any rate), Maxine and her younger brother Mark. Maxine became an international jet-setter with a string of lovers and her younger brother Mark founded Annabel's nightclub in London.

"The Birleys repeatedly sailed for India, south-east Asia, and the US," wrote Veronica Horwell in her Guardian obituary of Maxine. "In their absences, and when not at school, Maxine lived like a happy tinker with her Irish grandparents in Wexford."

Later, after she had been a model, fashion designer and writer in New York, the memories of the food served by her grandmother's home were recycled into a series of Irish recipes for her food column in Vogue magazine and eventually ended up in a cookery book, Food in Vogue published in 1980.

Following her death in 2009, Andre Leon Talley wrote an appreciation of Maxine in Vogue about their disco days with Diane von Furstenberg, Bianca Jagger, Yves Saint Laurent and Andy Warhol.

"Andy loved her and director Paul Morrissey cast her in Warhol's 1973 horror film Blood for Dracula," he wrote. "I can also remember her reading me her memoirs, sadly never published, about her father, Sir Oswald Birley, a royal portrait painter and her mother, Rhoda, an eccentric Irishwoman who fed her roses a mixture of lobster thermidor laced with cognac."

Maxine had married Comte Alain de la Falaise and had two children with him, Lou-Lou Vava (Louise) and Alexis, but he divorced her because of her infidelity. In later life she had a short-lived affair with John Paul Getty III.

As a teenager, her daughter Lou-Lou married Desmond Fitzgerald the 29th and last Knight of Glin, of Glin Castle in Co Limerick.

Her mother had warned her against the union, telling her that, like herself, she would be "more at home with the tinkers than with the ascendency".

Lou-Lou, who separated from the Knight of Glin after just a year, became a celebrated model and muse to Yves Saint Laurent. Her niece Lucie de La Falaise was also a model before marrying Marlon Leon Sundeep Richards, son of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards.

Sir Oswald Birley was knighted in 1949. His paintings sold well in the 1930s and 1940s mostly to aristocratic owners with stately homes and crumbling castles. Last year's exhibition in London was the first in decades, although visitors to Annabel's are greeted with a portrait of the owner's mother, the 'Irish beauty' Rhoda, hung in the club's cloakroom.

Sir Oswald Birley died in 1952. Rhoda died in 1981 at the age of 86.

Sunday Independent

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