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A portrait of style and substance

06 September 2013

Sir Roy Strong rose to prominence early in life, a story that is told in his new memoir. Richard Coles meets the man he has long admired from afar


Reflections: Sir Roy Strong with a faux-Elizabethan portrait of himself

Reflections: Sir Roy Strong with a faux-Elizabethan portrait of himself

WHEN I was a boy, growing up in Kettering, a framed photograph of Joan Bakewell appeared, rather ungallantly, on my father's bedside table one day. A few days later, my mother placed a little photograph in an oval silver frame on hers. It was of Roy Strong, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum - the "thinking-woman's crumpet", in my mother's paraphrase.

Sir Roy was then one of the most recognisable figures in British cultural life, and he made such an impression on me that, when I was ten, and taken as a treat to a Strauss Night at the Royal Albert Hall, I insisted that my parents take me first to Harrods and buy me a fedora, just like his. They did, and it was a beautiful thing in dark purple, and I wore it that night, mistaking the looks it drew for admiration.

And then, hubris. As I stood by the Albert Memorial, a gust of wind blew the hat off my head, scooted it across Kensington Gore, and under the wheels of a no. 9 bus. I made my father rescue it, but it was never quite the same. I learned, that day, something of the risks that one runs in the pursuit of style.

I thought of this as I arrived at The Laskett, Sir Roy's house in Herefordshire, which he and his late wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman, bought 40 years ago, and surrounded with one of the most magnificent private gardens in England.

"PARK by the Gothick Porch", his email instructed; so I did, inching the campervan past immaculate borders, dazzling vistas, and fearful symmetries, wondering how something as frumpy as mere humanity could live among such splendour without feeling the whole time like a let-down. Sir Roy answered the door, and I understood how: one adds oneself to the decorative scheme.

Turned out for high summer in an Indian garment of dazzling white linen, he is as elegant and in place as anything Le Nôtre produced for Louis XIV. Mirrors, symmetry, nature well-dressed, I thought, as we passed through a passage hung with pictures of the owner, from a pastiche Elizabethan portrait to a photograph of a lunch at Gianni Versace's.

"I dart forwards to Italy in the book," he remarks, "not strictly in the period, but I feels it adds something. Gianni Versace was my greatest Italian friend, and I cherish his memory. We were drawn to each other. I remember him taking me to his shop, and I tried on a crumpled silk suit, the acme of style, and asked him if I could carry it off. 'You can wear anything,' he said. It's now in the V&A."

How did he discover his sense of style, I asked. "I was born with it, with an eye. And there's a kinship of those with style. Hardy Amies, Cecil Beaton - like me, self-made men; but we made ourselves through taste and style."

On the front cover of his new book, Self-Portrait as a Young Man, which covers the years from childhood to his appointment as Director of the National Portrait Gallery, there is a photograph of the author by Sir Cecil Beaton. It shows him emerging from behind a mirror set at a right angle, aligned to make him look like Janus, who could face both ways at once.

It captures the young Strong, at that moment of triumph, facing a magnificent career while looking back to Beaton's era, and a vanishing pageant of brilliant men and grand ladies with complicated names and love-lives. "These people hypnotised me", he says, and describes one in her 80s who still had a special staircase "reserved for lovers".

Winchmore Hill, rather dreary in the 1940s, may well explain how he became hypnotised by such things. I wondered why he wanted to write about it. "The release of age," he said. "And now I see the end, I see again the beginning."

HOME was not only dreary, but difficult. "My father had no concept of being a parent, no interest in what happened to any of us. My mother always referred to him as 'Your father'; he invariably referred to 'Your children', as if he nothing to do with the creative process."

His mother, having given up hope of living for herself, lived for her children, and resented them growing up. "She led such a circumscribed life, as he made virtually no friends. She could never bring herself to say the words 'Thank you' if you gave her a gift. I never discovered what that was about."

Fortunately, help for the young Roy was at hand, thanks to Edmonton County School, which, two years after Butler's Education Act, provided him with his ticket out. And Anglo-Catholicism, which provided him with an entrée to the mystery of the sacraments.

He writes vividly of the influence of teachers on his development as a scholar. Two in particular stand out: one was the lovely Miss Joan Henderson, his sixth-form history teacher and inspiration. "She would tell me about exhibitions on in London which I ought to see, and lend me the catalogue. At that age, those small things are so important, glimpses into worlds unknown. Her funeral was attended by another grateful former pupil - Norman Tebbit".

In contrast to the bright and generous Miss Henderson, there was Dame Frances Yates, of the Warburg Institute, who comes across like one of the more ominous Wagnerian sopranos, and whom we might charitably describe as unsentimental. Tribute is duly paid, and Dame Frances's enormous influence acknowledged, but she did not seem to like her boys flying the academic nest: "As I moved forward, she made me feel I had betrayed the principles that she and the Warburg stood for. In the end, I was forced to cut the apron strings."

I cannot help but think again of Mrs Strong's trying to hold on longer than she should. 

A TRIP to Walsingham in 1955, under the auspices of the Anglican Chaplaincy to the University of London, was the scene for a "crudely categorised" conversion experience which has endured. "It made an overwhelming impact on me. The holy face of the Mother Superior of the community at which we stayed haunts me still, as does the darkness of the shrine, with its guttering candles, and devotion of the kneeling pilgrims. It offered a framework, an honest piety that was extremely moving, doilies and folderol notwithstanding".

That Sir Roy delights in "things indifferent" will surprise no one, and he writes (and speaks) with great relish for the dressier end of the liturgical life of the Church of England. Of course, that cannot really be delighted in without being founded in faith, and his has sus-tained him since the mid-1950s. He was lucky in this to have had Fr Gerard Irvine, whom many will remember from his incumbency of St Matthew's, Westminster, as a confessor and friend.

"The Clergy House during Gerard's incumbency was an amiable, disorganised clutter of furniture and pictures and religious bits and pieces. You never knew quite what would happen next, or who would suddenly blow in - Iris Murdoch, John Betjeman, Barbara Pym - but he knew the people in the Peabody Buildings, and the stallholders in Strutton Ground, and there was always room for a down-and-out.

"Prayer and the sacraments were as natural to him as breathing. I wonder if you still find priests like that nowadays."

Smells, bells, Siamese cats on the altar, can make Christianity look possible to those for whom its more earnest forms are impenetrable. Sir Roy, having cut his teeth at Holy Trinity, Winchmore Hill, old-school Anglo-Catholic with a non-communicating mass, settled in the central London shrines, first among them All Saints', Margaret Street, after he left home at the surprisingly late age of 29.

THERE is still something of All Saints', Margaret Street, about him: at one point at lunch, he picked an invisible speck from a tablecloth; at another, he moved a chair two inches to the left, rather like an MC of the old school, and I half ex- pected him to execute a sharp Catholic Corner as he moved from kitchen to dining room, All Saints' style.

He recalled its former Vicar, Fr David Hutt, another friend and confessor, who had been Fr Irvine's curate when the two played a vital, if surprising part in Sir Roy's life.

"They arranged, in 1971, my elopement with Julia Trevelyan Oman. Gerard obtained a Special Licence, and married us at the tiny church at Wilmcote, Mary Arden's village, near Stratford-upon-Avon, where Othello had just opened, with Julia's designs. David Hutt was my best man". That fascinating episode, a commendably forward-looking Fresh Expression, is beyond the scope of this book, but the marriage was to lead him to The Laskett - thanks to a legacy that Julia received - and the 40-year project of its garden, which continues today, ten years after her death.

Although Sir Roy holds the honorary position of High Bailiff and Searcher of the Sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, which seems to involve wearing a ruff while manoeuvering minor royals through state occasions, he is found on Sundays serving at Hereford Cathedral. "I've always wanted to be a server," he said, "acolyte, crucifer, MC, I don't mind. I love All Saints' Day, incense all over the place, the Triduum. And I like the flexibility of the Church of England. If you wish to creep to the Cross on Good Friday you may, but there are different ways of venerating it."

I mention that in my first parish, in Lincolnshire, a former Tail-end Charlie used to salute the cross; in my next, in Knightsbridge, a lady used to drop a low curtsey. "Quite right. And I'm glad to hear such things continue in parish churches; but I fear they're dying out. Cathedrals should export liturgists to churches around the dioceses."

We get on to the state of the Church of England. It is, like everything else, not what it was, for better or worse. Under "better", he would list the ordained ministry of women, and he looks forward to women playing a full part in it. Under "worse", he would list the decline of mystery and comedy, and liturgical dereliction.

HE GROWS animated when talking about this general failure of standards - related, he thinks, to the vandalistic temper of our times. "Everyone seems to want to smash things, to deride them and tear them down." I suppose a man who rose with the post-war meritocratic generation, who presided over two of the great cultural institutions at a time of great excitement, who loves the monarchy and the Church of England, is inevitably going to be prey to a certain gloominess.

But the mood does not last long. He is looking forward to a visit from his personal trainer, who has him pedalling the lanes of Herefordshire in Lycra. "And the IT man and I were discussing the merits of a diet the other day," he said. "It's done wonders for him. He can at last fit in his leathers again."

It is time to go. Sir Roy kindly wrote a dedication in my copy of his book, and my mother's copy of The Garden of the Laskett, and offers to help me back out down the drive into the lane, but I could not bear the thought of him wincing as I reversed over his box hedges, and declined.

He withdraws into the Gothick Porch, and I put the van into reverse, and inch my way down the drive. A crowd of visiting ladies parted to let me through, and as I drew near to the narrowing gates, the driver of their coach appears to guide me through. Nothing unmans me more devastatingly than this, and, as my confidence evaporates, I make a terrible hash of it, and have to stop.

The driver appears at my window. "You're doing fine," he says, "but you must learn to trust your mirrors." 

The Revd Richard Coles is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary's Finedon, and co-presenter of Saturday Live on BBC Radio 4.

Self Portrait as a Young Man by Roy Strong is published by the Bodleian Library at £25.00 (Church Times bookshop £22.50).

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