Traveller, Gossip, Gardener and Wit

Roy Strong's diaries reveal an odd but witty and engaging character moving amidst high society

Charles Saumarez Smith

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”.

There are at least three Roy Strongs on display in this book. The first is the social Roy Strong, endlessly going to lunch parties, where he describes who was there and sometimes the conversation. This part of the diary is enjoyable, not least because it is quite catty.  

The second is Roy Strong the traveller, from whom one gets a sense of his historical interests and scholarship, as a conscientious recorder of what he is seeing, both in Britain and overseas, often returning to Florence, as well as staying with Franco Maria Ricci outside Parma. This part of the diary is difficult to pull off successfully, because, however interesting the places that he is visiting, a description of other people’s travels quickly becomes tedious.  

The third is Roy Strong the gardener, part of a circle of other gardeners, helping to plan Highgrove, egging on the Prince of Wales to paint his gate piers blue, consulted by others for their gardens, including Gianni Versace and Elton John, attending birthday parties for Rosemary Verey and lamenting disease in his box hedges.

If the first half of the decade is sometimes a bit hectic and very social, the second is more resolved. Thanks to his close friend, David Hutt, then sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey, he is appointed High Bailiff of Westminster Abbey. This gives him an unrivalled view of royal and ecclesiastical ritual, which he loves. He turns more reactionary, although voting Liberal Democrat in the 2001 general election, hostile to New Labour and an ardent monarchist when it has ceased to be fashionable. He offers funds to Norman Tebbit, a fellow graduate of Edmonton Grammar School (who oddly doesn’t get a mention in the Cast of Characters), to set up a think tank in support of Conservative thinking.
Towards the end (this volume ends in 2003), there are elegiac passages. He writes movingly of Joan Henderson, his former history teacher, who was a mentor to him as a schoolboy in Edmonton, and even more movingly of the death of his wife from pancreatic cancer.

Throughout his diaries, which are an intermittent record of his life, concentrating on great set-piece occasions like Elton John’s birthday party, Strong comes across as an odd but engaging mix of characteristics — intelligent, lively, sometimes bitchy and often camp. As the former Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, married to one of the leading designers of her day, he expects to move, and does, in the highest of high society — a round of memorial services, weekends in country houses, and lunches at the Garrick Club. He is annoyed if someone turns up in corduroy trousers to one of his lectures (“I would never dream of turning up other than correctly dressed, out [of] respect for the lecturer”). 

But there are also moments of self-knowledge, as when he writes, “There’s no going back and here I am in reasonable nick, still excited about new things, still learning, still refusing to be typecast.” This is the real Roy Strong, funny and self-critical, writing away indefatigably, recording history, thinking about the nature of England, and looking at the world with a lively sense of innocent wonderment.

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