Sir Roy Strong, a very Great Man

John Walsh meets... The historian, aesthete and former class warrior discusses Ossie Clark and other Beautiful People.

John Walsh
Friday 06 September 1996 23:02
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Saki, the Edwardian satirist, used to write stories about a languid young fellow called Clovis who frequented the drawing rooms and weekend house-parties of the aristocracy, uttering barbed little mots and "trying to forgive the furniture". Sir Roy Strong, the ageing Clovis of post-war London, is seated for lunch in Butler's Wharf Chop House, one of Sir Terence Conran's restaurants by Tower Bridge, similarly engaged in regretting the tableware. "I've been trying to see what's wrong with this place," he says. "I think it's all this wood-on-wood effect. A few simple white cotton cloths... And as for having tulips on the table in August..." Would this be anything to do with his long-running feud with Sir Terence, who once suggested that Strong should be "stuffed and exhibited in a case at the V&A"? A look of distaste suffuses his features. "I should be perfectly happy if I never spoke to him again," he says with finality.

Sir Roy is looking very dressy today in a grey check, double-breasted, Nicole Farhi suit-type creation with touches of pink in it, and an almost- matching tie from English Eccentrics. Tan loafers complete the ensemble - that's unless you also count the mane of platinum-straw hair, the eyeball- distending professorial specs and the volcanic moustache which Nietschze himself might have envied. It's a strong look: to me he resembles a pedigree Saluki with a PhD and a migraine, though I can see the force of the Bonfire- Night-guy-from-Harrods description favoured elsewhere.

Opinions of Sir Roy have always differed and still do. To passers-by in the street, he is a harmless old buffer; to academic historians he is at best a populist, at worst a charlatan; to gender analysts he's a puzzlingly camp heterosexual (happily married for 25 years to Julia Trevelyan Oman, the theatre designer); to gardeners he's a godsend; to his former staff at the Victoria and Albert Museum (of which he was director for 14 years) he was a chilly martinet; to the Queen Mother he's an affable dinner companion; to AN Wilson, who wrote a gushing encomium in the Evening Standard the other day, he's a kind of national monument ("part of Our Island Story") who will be admired forever. To the visiting interviewer, he's gossipy, tremblingly fastidious and rather a crosspatch. When I got one or two details of his CV wrong, it was treated as a grotesque social solecism. Sir Roy is not un-rude himself, however, interrupting unwelcome questions with a bark of "What?". The safest course is to keep the subject on or near clothing and the royal family; he virtually squirms with delight when talking about both.

A seemingly lifelong career as a museum director (he spent six years at the National Portrait Gallery, before the V&A) gave way in 1987 to a second career as a gardening expert. Strong's horticultural advice has sold over half a million copies in six languages. Now he is reverting to his early academic days as a historian, and next week will publish The Story of Britain, a headlong gallop from Boudicca to Thatcher in 600 pages. Why? "The British always want to stick you into a niche and nail you there. I was being nailed as a gardening writer, and while I adore that, I am a historian with other interests." Was the intention educative? "I have become appalled by the tide of ignorance I see around me. Things I took for granted that everybody knew - you can't just assume anything any more. I started writing initially for young people, but, as the book developed, it seemed to become an introduction for anyone, really."

Indeed, it's very much an elementary chronicle of reigns and revolts, interspersed with biographies of figures such as Chaucer and Florence Nightingale. Its prose style sometimes nods towards 1066 and All That - troops are either "rallied" or "put to flight," kings are naturally dignified ("His every gesture was regal"). On the plus side, one gets a lot of charming local detail among the broad brush strokes. "I was always excited by the trivia of the past. The fact that Richard II was the first person to own a handkerchief sticks in my mind."

Strong does not take sides with Tory, Whig or Marxist historians, but it's noticeable that he offers a kind of sympathetic shudder to the ruling classes whenever they're faced with the prospect of revolution among the lesser orders. "I was quite unaware I'd done that," he said. "I would certainly write from the position of wishing to maintain the stability of society - which is not to say the maintenance of the existing scheme of things." But doesn't social stability depend on most things not changing? "No, no, they always change," he said. "I wouldn't be sitting here having lunch with you if things didn't change."

Humph. So, notwithstanding our pleasant conversation, he comes out with that old Barbara Cartland routine: posh git illustrates the fluidity of social change by the fact that he or she is talking to scum-of-the-earth unlettered hack with hole in sock. Well, sod that, I thought in a sudden fury. Why should I be lectured on social rights and wrongs by this irascible popinjay in his Nicole Farhi jim-jams? Then it dawned on me that he was referring, not to my humble provenance, but his own.

He goes out of his way, in fact, to tell you about it. In the Introduction to The Story of Britain, he calls himself "a lower-middle-class boy who made his way upwards through hard work and scholarships to join the ranks of the professional classes who now control the destiny of this country." Only a philistine would argue with the suggestion that museum chiefs and gardening writers hold the fate of Britain in their hands; so instead I asked about his past.

Sir Roy has delved into his family background and tracked it back to 1812. He found "just one prolonged line of peasants", he reports dolefully. He grew up, the son of a hat salesman, in a terraced house in north London - "Enfield identifies it, more or less" - and can recall the Blitz: "I remember hearing the bombs falling and being carried to an Anderson shelter. I remember the night sky being lit up." It was not a happy household. "My father had no interest in any of us. I can remember bringing home my school report and giving it to him, and he just pushed it back in my face. He wasn't interested in my two brothers, either. He was always saying: "Get these kids out of here." He should never have married. Nowadays, they'd have divorced. It's the old thing - you grow up, you judge your parents, sometimes you forgive them." His mother gave some of the affection that was missing, "but the price to pay was that we were Her Boys. She was very possessive - Which accounts for the fact that two of her three sons (one was himself) married without telling her."

Turning away from this dismal scene, the junior Strong became "incredibly shy - I was crippled by shyness up till my mid-20s," and retreated into the past. "I created a world of my own," he says, melodramatically. "At 11 or 12, I became obsessed with toy theatres and iconography. I used to sit there drawing and painting. It was difficult to..." Sir Roy's voice trails dreamily away. His answers get more vague and unfocused as he re- visits this odd youth for a moment. Did he meet girls? Go to dances? Silence, then: "I was a very solitary child." It all sounds, I said, a bit monkish. "But it was monkish," he says with sudden heat. "I don't think you realise how grey the post-war period was, or how constricted suburban life was - how, if you took someone home, they'd be torn apart afterwards."

Would it be impertinent to ask about his first sexual experience? "Yes, it would," he replied sharply. "That's right off the menu."

After Queen Mary College, where he got a first in history, Strong flourished at the Warburg Institute under Frances Yates, writing a thesis on Elizabethan pageantry and propaganda. He speaks of the Warburg with awe and mentions, not for the first or last time, that it gave him "a trained mind". "Everybody I knew at that period was specialising more and more, winding down. I was widening out."

He fetched up at the NPG in 1964, at a time when, to say the least, it was unprepossessing. "A very lowly, rarely-visited place, very dull. The entry for the Gallery in the Guide to London read, in its entirety: 'National Portrait Gallery: no lavatories.' When I became a director in 1967, I swore, if it was the last thing on earth, I'd change that. And I did. They queued for the Portrait Gallery right round the block to the National, and that taught them a lesson."

Strong's voice rises to a pitch of triumph. His eyes, which bulge unnaturally behind their thick framed glass, alternately blaze and moisten as he talks. It's rare to meet someone who wears his heart so spectacularly on his sleeve, and it makes you like him more than all his effortfully camp attitude- striking. His conversation, once we hit the Sixties, becomes a fusillade of name-dropping, of dear friends from Peter [Hall] and Trevor [Nunn] to Cecil [Beaton] and the Queen Mum, and every fashion person from Hardy [Amies] and Hartnell [Norman] to Jean Muir. He recalls the time when, dining at the Nigel Lawsons, he was seated between Lady Antonia Fraser and Lady Diana Cooper "and I could see everyone round the table asking 'Who is that young man, to be placed between two such women?'" It was clearly his finest hour. He met Francis Bacon only once, on the Circle Lind ("He complained about Kenneth Clark referring to his portraits as looking like offal") and thought Ossie Clark over-praised: "I last saw him at a Vogue party at the Orangery. There was this haggard figure who used to be so beautiful and glamorous, and I went home and wrote: 'The only way this person will be remembered is in that Hockney picture with Celia Birtwell and the cat.'"

You have to keep reminding yourself that Roy Strong was at the time an arriviste, a social mountaineer, a boy from Enfield on the make, a class warrior of a sort, rather than the haut-mondaine and drawing-room confidant that he rapidly became. When did he realise he'd crossed over? "The time came at the Gallery when I decided to divide my wardrobe in two, wear safe, directorial suits by day and save all my fripperies for the evening. I did that for three months and then I thought 'Look - they've appointed you for what you are. Who are you kidding? You love dressing up. Be true to yourself.' And the moment I took that decision, everything took off on a scale that was mind-blowing. Beatrix Miller, then editor of Vogue, sent Cecil Beaton to photograph me, looking like a frightened schoolchild against this Elizabethan picture of corrupt grandees."

These days, he is more likely to be found in The Laskett, his beloved 19th-century Herefordshire rectory, than anywhere else, weeding its three- acre garden, casually, if unimaginably, attired in a pair of jeans and an old teeshirt. ("I only dress up for people like you.") For London visits, he has a small flat in Westminster and a chronic Harvey Nicks habit. "I always go to the sales, being a poor, humble freelance these days. It's marvellous going to Harvey Nichols. There are one or two people there, in their early 20s, who know me. I go in and say, 'Let's see what I can get away with.' He laughs, a real dowager shriek. "They're divine."

What has become of the Strong wardrobe over the years? "I keep them in the attic. I've kept the Costume Museum supplied for years, just with my ties. Every five years, I'd have a clear-out and take them along tin bundles. I can't do it now - I'm too old. So I just keep everything in the attic, in boxes, labelled with the date, so the V&A can rifle through them." Well, well. How oddly appropriate that the mould-breaking Sir Roy, having spent a lifetime pronouncing on the flowers of British good taste, from Holbein portraits to Tommy Nutter suits, should wind up as an exhibit in his own right - just as his hated rival, Conran, once wished upon him

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