Scholar who became top of the fops
THE ROY STRONG DIARIES, 1967-1987 by Roy Strong Weidenfeld, £20, pp. 461 Afew years back, I was on a London Underground train, reading the Evening Standard. It contained an interview with Sir Roy Strong, in the series 'My Health'. One of the things he told the interviewer went something like this: 'At times, at the V&A, it was so fraught and my nerves became so frayed, I simply had to lie down on the floor of my office and sniff some Floris aftershave to restore myself.' While I was on the train, John Morley boarded it — he had been head of furniture at the V&A when Strong was director. He too was holding a copy of the Standard. I asked if he had read the interview. 'Yes,' he said; and then we exclaimed, almost in unison, 'It's just like a parody of him!'
It is no use complaining about being mocked (as Strong does so often in this book) if you constantly make a mockery of yourself. When journalists write profiles of Strong, they flip through the bulging cut- tings files on him. Nearly always they dredge up three quotations from the past: 'He is Britain's most improbable civil servant'; 'He trots through his domain [then the National Portrait Gallery] like a dapper little troll'; and 'He looks like a rather superior guy bought at Harrod's.' The first two come from tabloids of the 1960s; the third was written by me in a 1970 profile (by no choice of mine, anony- mous) in Anthony Howard's New States- man. The image needs updating. Today, with his streaming white hair, he looks more like a photograph of a Victorian eccentric by Julia Margaret Cameron (not to be confused with Strong's wife, the theatrical designer Julia Trevelyan Oman). The overall effect is of Miss Havisham with a Kitchener moustache stuck on.
Of course there is and always has been another Roy Strong somewhere behind the barrage of flim-flam. He is no slouch as a historian of the English renaissance. On Tudor and Jacobean portraiture, his writ runs. A fortnight ago, visiting the Eliza- bethan Parham House in Sussex, I was looking at a portrait of a Tudor beldame when a woman guide murmured over my shoulder, 'Roy Strong says it's not Queen Elizabeth.' A. N. Wilson has suggested that it was more acceptable for Anthony Powell to concentrate on himself (rather than other people) in his diaries, than it was for Strong, because Powell had written important books and would therefore be of interest to posterity. With respect, that view is based on the assumption that, in English prose, only novels matter. In their province, Strong's art books rank alongside Berenson, Wolfflin, Clark and Gombrich as literature. I suspect that some of them, such as The English Icon (1969), will still be read when A Dance to the Music of Time is mouldering on library shelves. Anything you can do, icon do better.
Sadly, the flim-flam predominates in this book. It is like a glass of beer or champagne poured by a novice barman — 80 per cent froth, 20 per cent to enjoy. As an adjective to describe some of Strong's antics, 'preposterous' seems inadequate. On the eve of Madame Tussaud's bicente- nary (1970) he is alarmed that the press have got it into their heads that he is going 'either in drag as Madame Tussaud or as Dr Crippen'. In the end he plumps for Robespierre, decking himself in 1790s green satin with black frogging. (Sweets to the sweet, frogging for a Frog.) 'I resisted painting a thin red line around my neck as perhaps going a bit far, but it did cross my mind.' In 1985, when he makes a television film about the early photographer Fox Talbot,
It was paradise to escape to Lacock Abbey even for a couple of days and film, cast as the White Rabbit wearing a white suit and a huge straw hat ...
In his preface, Strong reveals that he took Cecil Beaton's diaries as a model. A good model, you might think, because Beaton had an eye for significant detail. The trouble with Strong is that he has an eye for insignificant detail. Do we really need to know that Elizabeth Jane Howard was wearing 'too much make-up' at Rebec- ca West's 85th birthday party in 1977? Or that some rhinestones were missing from the Queen Mother's peeptoe shoes at a din- ner party in 1978? While leaving no rhine- stone unturned, he misses things that might have been of interest. For example, what did Rebecca West say at her party? All he tells us is, 'the old sparks blazed again in gratitude'. That is indifferent reporting.
Gerald Kaufman has written a well- received book on How to Be a Minister. With the froth blown away, Strong's diaries could be read as a primer of How to Be a Museum Director. The prescription is: first work hard at university, do some deep research and publish a book or two; then dress up in funny hats, amass powerful social contacts and use the press to make yourself notorious. When a top museum job comes up, your name will be the only one the selection panel has ever heard of. (Wilde: 'Nothing succeeds like excess.') 'I realised that to display any overt interest in the V&A would be fatal,' Strong astutely notes. And when the V&A post became free he knew he could not apply for it unless the outgoing director, John Pope- Hennessy ('the Pope') gave his blessing. The blessing was slow in coming. That was where Strong's network of powerful friends came in. A word in Lady Hartwell's ear, and a word from her in Pope-Hennessy's, and Strong was given the go-ahead. But still, he knew, he was not home and dry: he wrote to Pope-Hennessy and obtained his written authorisation to proceed — a document useful today in countering the blistering things Pope-Hennessy had to say about the Strong regime in his memoirs.
When Strong arrived at the V&A, he was not given an easy ride. The Floris bottle must often have been at the ready. He records how Peter Thornton, then the museum's keeper of woodwork, 'narrowed his eyes and said, "You have to earn our respect." ' Faced with such insolence, Strong should have replied, `No, you creep, you have to earn my respect' or 'Get back into the woodwork!', but he lacked the masterful leadership for that sort of confrontation. (It was left to his successor, Elizabeth Esteve-Coll — known throughout the art world as `That Woman' — to break the baronial power of the keepers, at the cost of losing some great experts.) Strong had shown flair in brightening up the moribund National Portrait Gallery. He had original ideas for exhibitions and of course managed publicity well. When asked by the Government to make cuts at the V&A, he axed a whole department, the one that sent exhibitions to the regions, thinking to shame the Government into retreat. But, as he candidly admits here, his bluff was called. Another of his more dispiriting legacies was to remove from the museum's central courtyard the cherry trees which each spring burst into a show of blossom to gladden any Japanese tourist's heart. They were replaced with an insipid garden — naturally, with a grand opening party.
One section of this book is headed 'Bevis Hillier's attack'. This concerns Strong's outraged reaction to a paragraph I wrote about him in the Sunday Times in 1980, in which I voiced some of the reservations about his reign. He was particularly cross because I was a friend — exactly Anthony Powell's reaction when Malcolm Muggeridge criticised his novel The Valley of Bones in 1964. I would say to Roy Strong: 'If a friend brought to show you a miniature allegedly by Nicholas Hilliard, and you thought it was "wrong", would you give it a certificate of authenticity?' No, of course he would not. It is pure paranoia for Strong to complain in his diary that the paragraph was
deliberately placed on the page at the bottom, below a profile of a lowly museum assistant, just to rub in my public demotion.
There is no Ruritanian edict that para- graphs about Strong must appear high on newspaper pages; and museum assistants, however 'lowly', are human beings and matter. 'There was no way that I could publicly reply,' Strong writes. Why not? Although he uses 'one' a lot (as in 'the creation of a house and garden which were to be one's rock') he is not actually royal; and I am sure the Sunday Times letters col- umn would have been open to him.
What he does not record in the diaries is the 'reconciliation' lunch we had at Boulestin. I remember his saying, in that plaintive voice with the pile-driver emphases: 'When I thought, this was some- body to whom I had given work, I felt physi- cally sick.' That seemed to me typical of Strong. I had thought that, as an experi- enced exhibition organiser, I had done him a bit of a favour by co-organising the 1976 exhibition A Tonic to the Nation — especially as the show's already meagre budget was cut by half at the last minute. But no, it was I who must feel eternal obligation. On 24 June 1970 Strong records Lord De L'Isle's opinion of him: 'You are egocentric. Everything is you.' Strong puts the antagonism down to his having told the peer that a picture of his at Penshurst was not Queen Elizabeth dancing with the Earl of Leicester, but in fact showed the French court. I wonder. Strong's knighthood, delayed by Govern- ment displeasure with him, finally arrived. He wrote to a Dutch friend on New Year's Eve 1981: 'I confess to feeling a glow . . . I've always been devoted to the monarchy and like the idea of knighthood and chival- ry.' Strong refers to the present Queen as `Gloriana II'; but if he had written about Elizabeth I, in her lifetime, what he has written about Elizabeth II in his diaries, his mustachioed head would not long have remained attached to his furbelowed body. The Queen 'still dyes her hair rather badly' and has 'a horrid fur hat'; the Queen Mother allows Ritz crackers to be handed round in the packet (what does he expect, a gold sweetmeat dish?); the Princess of Wales's accent is 'really rather awful, con- sidering that she is an earl's daughter'. A curious notion of chivalry, this. He is torn between slobbering over the royals (Princess Margaret looked radiant') and spitting at them ('[Margaret] is, as we all know, tiresome, spoilt, idle and irritating').
The literary style of the diaries is also uneven. Strong is addicted to exaggerated luwie words — marvellous, wonderful, thrilling, breathtaking, fantastic, horren- dous and huge (as in 'a huge miniature'). Four times he uses variants on 'beautiful bone structure' to describe women; if he had been enough in touch with demotic culture to watch Not Only But Also. . . in the Sixties, he would have seen Dud tell Pete about a girl with 'lovely bone struc- ture' and would have heard the audience guffaw at the refained cliché. There is much gossip of the `Binkie was furious with Cecil' sort. The Strongs' Herefordshire gar- den also figures frequently; the entry for 9 July 1973, 'Last week I planted no less than 80 sorts of cabbage,' will no doubt be of the keenest interest to gardeners.
Just twice, when Strong's emotions are really engaged, the prose takes on a Hemingway-like power. The first time is when the Strongs' cat, The Lady Torte de Shell, dies in 1984. What the death of a bull or marlin brings out in Hemingway, the demise of this favourite pet wrings from a desolate Strong:
Dearest cat, beloved Torte, tears fill my eyes as I write of you, most cherished of friends. Forgive me for the cry I uttered when I was told that your end was near, and which you heard, and your face told all to me in the way of betrayal. You taught me stoicism and fortitude and nobility in the face of death.
The second time Strong's prose rises to an unwonted power is on the death of his father later in the same year. Here the emotion is nearer hate than love, for his father had shown him no affection in child- hood: I recall coming home [from school] clutching a very good report and advancing to show it to him. He pushed it aside unread.
That is poignant; and in it we are given a rare clue as to why Roy Strong became what he is. Always, he is pushing an imagi- nary report card towards us — as it were, 'Look! This is what I have achieved. Aren't you knocked out by it?' The diaries span, he tells us, 'the two decades during which I directed two of the country's most presti- gious art institutions, the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Muse- um.' Well, perhaps there are some Eskimo readers who have never heard of the V&A. Virtually every exhibition opening is a triumph. Constantly he preens and plumes himself:
No other Director has been photographed by everyone from Beaton to Brandt or carica- tured by everyone from Lancaster to Scarfe.
Derek Jameson recalls in his second volume of memoirs, Last of the Hot Metal Men (1990), how Barry Askew, as editor of the News of the World, upset the Queen when she invited editors to take tea at Buckingham Palace and discuss Fleet Street's coverage of matters royal. The Queen told the editors that she thought it rather sad that her young daughter-in-law Diana, still serving her royal apprentice- ship, was not even able to go to the village shop without being pursued by photogra- phers.
'She was simply drawing attention to her- self,' Askew said. 'Why doesn't she send a servant to do her shopping?'
The Queen gave him a withering look [Jameson writes]. 'I think that's one of the most pompous things I have ever heard,' she told the editor of Britain's biggest selling newspaper.
The royal rebuke to Askew was taken seriously; it was widely (though inaccurate- ly) suggested that it was this which had caused Rupert Murdoch to sack him. At the V&A's Faberge exhibition of 1977 — Which Princess Margaret drolly described as 'a Good Egg' — the Queen used the same word to reprove Strong as she had used with Askew. It is instructive to note how Strong records the moment.
There was a lovely flicker. .. when I was lay- ing down the law about how the Americans had gone about attempting to get their hands on the show. 'You're getting pompous,' she said.
Others might have taken the gentle hint; to Strong, it was just a 'lovely flicker'. But more recently there has been a sign that Perhaps he has got the message. When Canary Tower was going up, a television advertisement was shown several times in Which Strong, in all his panoply, was pontif- icating on site about the building's archi- tectonic qualities or suchlike, when suddenly a burly workman bodily lifted him out of the way, in mid-spiel, like the Roc snatching up Sinbad ('One's Roc', as Sir Roy might say). It was a delectable moment, not so much gallows humour as scaffolding humour. The one-act playlet could only have been made with Strong's connivance. It seemed a signal — faint but encouraging — that he was at last begin- ning to see through himself, so to speak, as through an ass darkly.