Dear Miss, I want to run the V&A. Yours, Roy Strong (18)
Archive reveals remarkable letter that forecast a student's future. Paul Bignell reports
Sunday 13 December 2009
With hindsight it seems like a simple plan for an 18-year-old: take over one of the pre-eminent art institutions in the country, revitalise one of the nation's most eminent museums and be- come an internationally renowned authority. A remarkable set of ambitions, but one Sir Roy Strong achieved and surpassed.
Letters from Sir Roy's archive, copies of which have been obtained by The Independent on Sunday, reveal that he foretold, with pinpoint accuracy, the twin triumphs of his future career.
Writing from Queen Mary College, London, where he was studying history in 1954, to Miss Staples, his form teacher at Edmonton County School, the then Roy Strong said: "Queen Mary College is not exactly one's ideal of a college and I must admit the journey through the not very salubrious parts of the East End is extremely dreary, tiring and expensive ... I realise that one degree is not really much use – interesting jobs are so difficult to get. All I want to be is something like the director of the National Portrait Gallery or head of a Department in the Victoria and Albert Museum!"
He went on to become the youngest ever director of both the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A in London.
The letter has come to light after being donated recently, as part of Sir Roy's archive, to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.
Other papers cover the period when Sir Roy became director of the National Portrait Gallery in 1967 at the age of 32. He set about transforming its somewhat conservative image with a series of extrovert shows, including "600 Cecil Beaton portraits 1928-1968".
He then moved on to the V&A at the age of 39, where he stayed until 1987. When his tenureship ended, he published an infamous set of diaries, criticising leading figures in the art and political worlds.
Speaking from his home in Herefordshire this weekend, Sir Roy said: "I had no idea I had written that letter. My school teacher sent it back to me years later and I read it with astonishment. I thought, 'Well, at least I knew what I wanted to do.' I was very fascinated that I had put all that down."
Sir Roy has donated his entire archive, which could take years to catalogue. He said it contains, among other things, letters from a very wide range of people, including Gianni Versace, the Queen Mother and Sir Frederick Ashton.
He added yesterday, however, that his triumph was tinged with regret: "The only problems I've had as a result of that saga is that I was too successful too young," said Sir Roy. "Let's face it, every director of the Victoria and Albert Museum since I resigned at 52 has been 52 or older when they've become it.
"If you fulfil your wildest dreams at the age of 38 you have a problem – there's an awful lot life ahead for which you then have to find a new direction and new aspirations."
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