Sunday, August 23, 2015

Happy Birthday Roy

Roy Strong, 80 today, was once such a precocious and brilliant arts administrator that he was appointed the youngest ever director of, first, the UK’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and then the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) - bringing modern ideas and change to both institutions. In fact, the NPG is celebrating his birthday with an exhibition of photographs of Strong dressed as historical figures! Following his V&A years, he focused on writing, mostly popular books on history and gardening, while the arts establishment kept him at arm’s length - even more so, perhaps, after 1997 when he published his diaries, called ‘bitchy and hilarious’ by one journalist, and ‘venomous’ by The Economist.

Roy Strong was born on 23 August 1935, in Winchmore Hill, now in North London, into a poor and, by his own account, unhappy family. He attended Edmonton County School, and then Queen Mary College, University of London, before going on to work for a Ph.D at the Warburg Institute, which focuses on the influence of classical antiquity on European civilisation. Subsequently, he became a research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research. In 1959, he took up a post as assistant keeper of the NPG, and in 1967 was appointed its director, aged but 32. He set about transforming its conservative image with a series of shows, one of the most important and successful being 600 Cecil Beaton portraits - 1928-1968.

In 1971, Strong married Julia Trevelyan Oman, a television and theatre set designer. They soon moved to live at Much Birch, Herefordshire, where they created the celebrated Laskett Gardens, one of the country’s largest post-war formal gardens. In 1973, Strong became the youngest ever director of the V&A, remaining until 1987. One of his first and most memorable events was the exhibition The Destruction of the Country House, considered a landmark show for the V&A and a watershed in heritage politics (see Ruth Adams). On leaving the V&A, he focused on writing - publishing many books on British cultural history, but also on gardens, such as The Renaissance Garden in England, Creating Small Gardens, and Gardens through the Ages. Among his other books, The Spirit of Britain: A Narrative History of the Arts (1999) and Coronation: A History of Kingship and the British Monarchy (2005) have been very successful.

Julia died in 2003, but Strong has continued to publish widely. Most recently, he has been in the news because of a spat over the legacy of his Laskett Gardens. Having always said he would bequeath them to the National Trust, the Trust told him last year it did not want them - because they failed to ‘reach the high rung of historic and national importance’. In response, Strong let the media know that his will would be changed, to ensure the destruction of the gardens one year after his death (see The Telegraph, for example.)

In a 1996 profile, The Independent gave this assessment: ‘Opinions of Sir Roy have always differed and still do. To passers-by in the street, he is a harmless old buffer; to academic historians he is at best a populist, at worst a charlatan; to gender analysts he’s a puzzlingly camp heterosexual (happily married for 25 years to Julia Trevelyan Oman, the theatre designer); to gardeners he’s a godsend; to his former staff at the Victoria and Albert Museum (of which he was director for 14 years) he was a chilly martinet; to the Queen Mother he’s an affable dinner companion; to AN Wilson, who wrote a gushing encomium in the Evening Standard the other day, he’s a kind of national monument (“part of Our Island Story”) who will be admired forever. To the visiting interviewer, he’s gossipy, tremblingly fastidious and rather a crosspatch.’

For more biographical information on Strong try Wikipedia, Dictionary of Art Historians, Debretts, an autobiographical article in the Daily Mail (taken from his book, Roy Strong: Self-Portrait As A Young Man) or The Laskett Gardens website.

In 1997, Weidenfeld & Nicolson published The Roy Strong Diaries 1967-1987 (see Googlebooks). In his introduction, Strong says the diary began on 9 November 1967, five months after taking office at the National Portrait Gallery, because a lady at a dinner had suggested the idea ‘because I would meet so many interesting people’. A few ‘juvenile jottings’ followed, but the following year, the diary went in ‘a totally different direction’ because of his friendship with Cecil Beaton whose diaries were, at the time, in the process of publication. Beaton’s diaries, Strong explains, were made up of set pieces describing particular events and people or retrospective miniature essays - more concerned with the social panorama than the day-to-day technicalities of his professional life. ‘It was that type of diary which I decided to keep.’ After marriage, he adds, he stopped keeping the diary for a year or two but his wife encouraged him to take it up again. (For more on Cecil Beaton’s diaries see Nerves before a sitting.)

The diaries, Wikipedia says, became infamous for Strong’s often critical assessments of figures in the art and political worlds. The Economist said of the diaries on publication: ‘They are not particularly well written, and Sir Roy is too conceited as well as too insecure to poke fun at himself as some of the best diarists do. But his comments are as venomous, his vignettes as shrewd and his barbs as well directed as anybody’s, even Alan Clark’s.’ And later, Jan Moir in the The Telegraph said his ‘bitchy, hilarious diaries caused a storm when they were published’. According to Knight Hayton Management, Strong is currently working on preparing his more recent diaries for publication. Here, meanwhile, are a few extracts from The Roy Strong Diaries 1967-1987.

18 November 1975
‘I took Dame Bridget D’Oyly Carte, a lively and distinguished lady, out to lunch to celebrate the gift of things to the Theatre Museum. She was fascinating on the subject of Harold Wilson who was now a Trustee of the Company and had been asked to their hundredth anniversary at the Savoy Theatre. He loved it, made a speech on stage and now she needed him to help save the Company. So he keeps on ringing her up, much to her embarrassment, denouncing the elitism of Covent Garden as against the populism of Gilbert and Sullivan.’

7 April 1981
‘The opening of the exhibition of ballet costumes, Spotlight, went off with aplomb. Princess Margaret in gold embroidered ethnic red did an hour’s tour. We couldn’t find Fred Ashton, who turned up after she’d gone, seated at the bottom of a statue quaffing champagne which he loves. There was a wonderful encounter between Marie Rambert and HRH, a rare occasion when the person being presented was shorter. Spotlight is a gorgeous spectacle and everyone loves it, apart from complaints either about the lights and/or the loudness of the music.’

17 October 1984
‘The diary is very thin this year. I should have written much much more. Too much is happening. This is the first year when I have felt restless, a feeling that the V&A period is drawing to its close, but what next? That is the problem. It is not fleeing from problems, it is moving away from the same ones. Even my secretary admitted that nothing new came in any more. It was a recycling of the same old projects and problems. In other words, boredom. That is why the Times articles have been such a joy to do.’

18 June 1985
‘After a weekend of trying to cope with the V&A on the telephone picking up the debris, I returned to Monday’s Evening Standard, which had a whole-page spread on the theme ‘Has the Strong magic gone?’, lunging into the dreariness of the Museum, its sad displays, filthy restaurant, lack of signposting, et al. No one else attracts these pieces, and they could was easily have been written about the National Gallery, the British Museum or the Tate Gallery. In a way I’m not surprised, for there is no doubt that for the next eighteen months we have to go through a major dislocation in building terms in order to put things right. [. . .]

What irritates me is that it was about two years ago that this great series of works began: the Henry Cole Wing, the restoration of the Cast Court, the redisplay of the Dress Collection, the restoration of the Italian Cast Court and the front entrance hall. Then there is to follow in sequence, the Medieval Treasury, the Japanese Gallery, the Indian Gallery, the reopening of the vista laterally across the V&A. A new restaurant in fact opens in September. What more can I do?’

1 April 1987
‘The opening of the Clore Gallery. The rain fell as though Noah and his ark were due. Julia and I went to two of the openings, the first of which, very select, was in the afternoon with about a hundred and fifty and the Queen to open it. Her Majesty was dressed as usual to be seen, in red with a red boater with a feather askew to one side. She wore glasses the whole time, which may have brought her a sense of relief because she was able to see everything and everybody, although vanity is not part of her make-up. [. . .]

The evening opening took the form of a reception at 8.30 p.m., a time which normally signals sustenance, but on enquiring practically everyone established that it only meant nibbles. We were bidden in black tie none the less. Nancy Perth, on to the same ploy, rang and asked us to dinner before, so we went. I love her dearly and in spite of the fact that the dinner turned out to be tinned soup and a plate of prosciutto with a roll, there was a bottle of 1953 vintage champagne to compensate. [. . .]

Compared with twenty years ago I was struck by how few people looked extraordinary. Fashion now is so unimaginative. There was certainly an explosion of shoulders, the wider for women the better, and a great amount of beadwork and glitter in the art deco vein. Men are very dull these days. Timothy Clifford in a green velvet smoking-jacket with black frogging just looked a curiosity. The look otherwise is sharp and shiny with hair well gelled, shirt with a wing collar, and immaculate blacks, but no bizarre opulence compared with such a gathering ten or twenty years ago.’

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