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Roy Strong in 1994: Self-aware high-flyer (©Julia Trevelyan Oman)


I should begin this review with a declaration of interest. I have known Roy Strong since the early 1980s when he interviewed me in a gloomy room in Whitehall for a post he had created at the Victoria and Albert Museum to help run its postgraduate course in the History of Design. Unlike the majority of my colleagues, I very much liked and respected him as Director of the V&A for his ability to chair a meeting with a sharp intelligence and good humour, and I have appreciated his friendship and moral support ever since, making an early appearance in his Diaries when I asked him to act as a referee (he doesn’t actually say this) for my application to be Director of the National Portrait Gallery in what he describes as a thin field. I make occasional fleeting appearances throughout his diary, mainly as a negligent host, not properly schooled in the social proprieties, and later as an unsuccessful candidate for the Directorship of the V&A.

In his opening sentence, he says that “After leaving the Victoria and Albert Museum at the close of 1987 I ceased to be at the centre of the arts world.” In some ways, he retired, to cultivate his and his wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman’s, garden at The Laskett near Hereford and to write books, which he has done with great energy and gusto ever since. But he continued to be a semi-public figure, more than he admits, invited to never-ending lunches with the Queen Mother and other social grandees of the 1960s, keeping up with the gossip of the London arts world, a friend of Gianni Versace and a celebrity in Australia.

He gets off to a swing with Elizabeth Esteve-Coll’s controversial reforms to the V&A, about which he reveals his ambivalence. On the one hand, he had known and liked Elizabeth and appointed her as Director of the National Art Library. As is clear from his earlier volume of diaries, he had detested many of the Keepers who were fired. On the other hand, which he doesn’t reveal here, his father-in-law, Charles Oman, had been a very conservative Keeper of Metalwork, which meant that his ultimate loyalties were with the old guard, and he writes well about the object-based scholarship of the departments which were being abolished.

He takes up his pen properly in 1993, when he leaves working for Olympia and Yorke, the developers of Canary Wharf, and begins writing The Story of Britain, the first of two books of grand narrative history. But even now there are frequent interludes — when, for example, he is photographed by Lord Snowdon for an Italian fashion magazine, dressed in his favourite Versace black leather blouson. He describes the result as “a cross between Heathcliff and a rent boy in old age”.

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