Dorothy Stroud always struck me as two people, as the aptly titled Inspectress of Sir John Soane's Museum, in Lincoln's Inn Fields, where for almost 40 years she intimidated students of all ages, and the genial partridge-like figure whose life centred on Onslow Square and who enjoyed giving dinner to her friends and making fruitful introductions between them.
Onslow Square, with its cultivated respectability, was of great importance to her, not least because it disguised the struggle of her life, which she hid from all who knew her. Indeed I always thought of her as a gallant person who deserved an easier path. Occasionally she would talk about her late teens when she was at Edgbaston High School, because certain mid-Staffordshire people whom she had known then meant something to me, but she never mentioned her father or referred to any difficulties in her early life, although it seems that she always had to support her mother.
There seems to have been no question of university, and at the age of 20 she started work at Country Life in the Book Department. From there she moved to the Editorial Office to work as Christopher Hussey's secretary, and in a sense that opened the door for her, or rather she made it open for herself. She told Margaret Richardson, her successor as Inspectress, that it was there that she started to write, first doing occasional book reviews and then a few articles; and she enjoyed the life of the office, her vivid memories of its absurdities and its characters still making her chuckle 50 years later.
Shortly before the Second World War she began to collect material for a life of Capability Brown, a project in which she was encouraged by Hussey, who was just starting to write about 18th-century landscape at that time, his novel articles on Stourhead appearing in 1938.
In 1941 she left Country Life to work with John Summerson in the newly established National Monuments Record, where she was supposed to look after Outer London and take record photographs on her brownie box camera, but they were limited by the short supply and cost of film.
At the end of the war Summerson was appointed Director of Sir John Soane's Museum and he took Stroud as his inspectress, the post and title laid down in the original foundation. It was no sinecure re-opening the museum, which meant unpacking and setting out again in their old places the diverse collections that had been taken away for safety. And for the next 39 years Dorothy Stroud saw her responsibilities as being those of an academic housekeeper rather than a curator compiling catalogues.
She ran the place on a day-to-day basis, typed all the letters on her own typewriter (typically the museum never owned one throughout her time there), preserved JS, as she always referred to him, from those she considered timewasters, and always made the tea in the afternoon for them both and for whoever else she thought worthy of coming into his presence and drinking out of one of Mrs Soane's teacups; she also made the curtains in the museum and scrubbed the sarcophagus; and at holidays times always went in to feed the beloved museum cat.
It was through her dedication that the museum was kept going on a shoestring until she and Sir John Summerson, as he now was, finally retired (at the ages of 74 and 79) in 1984. Together they had kept it as the most atmospheric museum in London, where one would not have been surprised to encounter the other Sir John rearranging the busts, and where their only assistant, appointed in 1971, was never allowed a Christian name, always being called Miss Scull, and never permitted to have coffee sitting with them, but made to drink it standing in the outer room. Summerson, it must be admitted, did take Dorothy Stroud for granted, but it was her competence that gave him much of the freedom to get on with his writing.
If Miss Stroud was fierce with students, she was strict with herself, and all her own work was done away from the museum, her research on her days off and her writing mostly in the evenings, tucked up in bed. The years from 1750 to 1820 became her period, first through writing Capability Brown. That pre-war and still pioneer project was finally published by Country Life in 1950, then reprinted in 1957 and then rewritten for the Faber edition of 1975 in the light of the enormous amount of new material that had come to light in archives and on the ground.
In 1961 she wrote the first post-war book on Soane, The Architecture of Sir John Soane, based on a catalogue raisonne of his work compiled for the museum between 1947 and 1957; in 1984 she rewrote it for Sir John Soane, Architect (revised by the museum in 1996). In 1962 she published Humphry Repton, in 1966 Henry Holland and in 1971 George Dance.
By the time she retired, she did not have the energy to write any more, and also, partly through what she had written on Brown and Repton, Garden History had earned capital letters and her successors in the field of landscape approached it through PhDs supported by batteries of footnotes.
However, thanks to the generosity of friends, she was able to do what she wanted most of all, to remain in Onslow Square until she died. The clouds rolled in, and by the end it seems that she had forgotten that she had written any books. But we will continue to need them - and hopefully she will remain a legend in Lincoln's Inn Fields.
- John CornforthReuse content