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Self-portrait as a Young Man, by Roy Strong — review

30 March 2013

9:00 AM

30 March 2013

9:00 AM

Self-portrait as a Young Man Roy Strong

Bodleian Library, pp.286, £25

Eventually, all of Sir Roy Strong’s voluminous personal archive is going — like Alan Bennett’s — to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Riffling through it, he realised there was something missing: he had not adequately covered the years between 1935, when he was born, and 1967, when he became director of the National Portrait Gallery — as the Daily Mail put it in 1969, ‘Britain’s most improbable civil servant’. He has written this book to remedy the omission. That it is published by the Bodleian is yet another feather in Strong’s fedora.

If you were in the anti-Strong faction (I am not, but it does exist), you might summarise the rite of passage chronicled in the book as ‘from geek to freak’. It tells how an earnest swot from a lower-middle-class family in Enfield, with ‘bat ears’ (his phrase), turned himself into a Sixties dandy with a super-posh accent, a key figure in Swinging London.

That Mail story of 1969, by Donald McLachlan, was headlined: ‘Dr Roy Strong of the civil service tells how adorable it is to run the National Portrait Gallery’. McLachlan dwelt on Strong’s clothes — the wide-brimmed fedora, the outrageous ties, the suits with bell-bottom trousers, the Edwardian overcoat that was ‘almost a maxi’. Strong’s hair ‘owed more to the Beatles than to the Amadeus String Quartet’. He was ‘a startlingly mod figure in a world regarded as stuffy, old-fashioned and moribund’. Another journalist wrote: ‘He trots proudly through his domain like a dapper little troll.’ Private Eye called him ‘Patience Strong’ or ‘Dr Roy Strange’.

He was a gift to profile-writers. You only had to ask him any question to be rewarded by a quotable stream of entertaining preposterousness. McLachlan asked if he was an enthusiast for style:

I do like style, yes I do. I really can’t bear people who are mean, particularly with their hospitality … That doesn’t mean you have to have champagne and caviar. It is really a part of life, don’t you think? I mean, I have been out to dinner when somebody just sort of stood in the door of the kitchen and waved a tin-foil packet and called, ‘Anybody feel very strongly about soup?’I mean, the mind simply BOGGLES.

What this book shows is how that extraordinary construct was arrived at, from an unpromising launch-pad. It also shows how, behind the flamboyant flim-flam, was an immensely hard-working scholar who as a fledgling art historian was already having insights and making discoveries that helped to revolutionise the study of Tudor and Stuart portraiture.

An autobiography is successful if the author has a good memory, writes well and, above all, is honest. In all three aspects, Strong scores high marks. He grew up hating the suburbs and disliking his totally unsympathetic father, who sold men’s and women’s hats — a trade that nosedived as people ceased to wear them.

His mother was loving and knew that education was important. We have seen Strong break down on television when speaking of his debt to one teacher, Miss Henderson, who was prepared to sit in libraries copying out texts that fed his burgeoning interest in Tudor art. He was himself an aspiring artist: an early self-portrait is very similar to a self-portrait David Hockney executed at about the same age. (There were only two years between those two Sixties whizz-kids.)

Like Alan Bennett (born the year before him), and like myself (born five years after him), Strong benefited from the Butler Education Act of 1944, the 11-plus scholarship exam and the grammar school system — in the 1950s a ‘window of opportunity’ before comprehensive schools and, later, student loans came in. Our entire education was paid for by the state, and we were pitted against people of like ability.

Oxbridge seemed out of the question to pupils at Strong’s school. He read history at Queen Mary College, London. He went up ‘with one end in view, to write a book on the portraits of Queen Elizabeth I’. Having a clear idea of what he wanted was part of the secret of Strong’s success. As early as 1954, in a letter reproduced as a holograph manuscript in the book, he wrote to his former sixth-form teacher Miss Staples: ‘All I want to be is something like Director of the National Portrait Gallery or the Head of a Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum.’ He was appointed an assistant keeper at the NPG in 1959. He became director of the V&A in 1974.

Strong took a first at university, then read for his doctorate. He also began to change his persona. Like Mrs Thatcher, he convincingly adopted an upper-class accent. Also like Thatcher, he went that little bit over the top with it, at exactly the time when the ‘classless society’ was alleged to be supervening. (Today, it is a positive disadvantage to have a ‘cut glass’ accent; notice, for example, how demoticised Prince Harry’s voice is.)

Some of the tricks of speech Strong picked up have trickled into his prose. For instance: ‘No one but no one could ever be as ill as he was’ (p. 19); ‘No one but no one was appointed whose prime role would be that of laying their hands on money’ (p. 194); and ‘Never but never, I was told, under any circumstances could any Royal Collection item be used for a poster or a cover’ (p. 206). These are the mannerisms of a 1920s flapper, a Mitford girl, or of Vogue-ish, Cecil Beaton-ish café society.

But goodness, Strong was no slouch. At the age of 21 he identified a Nicholas Hilliard miniature of ‘a knight in costly fancy dress’ as a portrait of the second Earl of Essex, from a Latin motto in the scene. In his early days at the NPG he used the gallery’s neglected archive of photographs of Elizabethan portraits to assign groups to different artists by the calligraphy of their inscriptions.

The most momentous discovery of his pre-directorate years came in 1963 when a set of X-rays taken by a member of the Royal College of Surgeons landed on his desk. They were of what was thought, until then, to have been a 17th-century copy of Holbein’s group painting of Henry VIII bestowing its charter on the Company of Barber-Surgeons. The X-rays revealed that the paint was over paper which was pin-pricked: through Strong’s detective work, the original Holbein cartoon was found underneath.

He can sometimes seem a little too proud of his — indeed remarkable — achievements. Referring to either the NPG or the V&A, he writes of ‘my directorate’ as one might, say, ‘my caliphate’. But he has a redeeming humour and is quite capable of sending himself up or letting others do it for him. Two gibes against him that he quotes are the funniest things in the book. S.T. Bindoff, his history professor at London University, said to him: ‘I suppose that when we open your thesis a triumphal arch will pop up.’ And the couturier Hardy Amies defined The Laskett, the garden created by Strong in Herefordshire with the help of his wife Julia Trevelyan Oman, as ‘Mr Pooter goes to Versailles’.

Strong married Oman, a top theatre designer, in 1971. There is no question that it was a great love match and that he was desolated by her death. But, because he represented high camp in excelsis, there were always questions about his sex life. In 2011 an Evening Standard journalist (whom Strong calls ‘courteous’) pressed him on the subject, resulting in the headline: ‘Of course my sexuality was ambiguous — but I bottled it all up’. After the revelatory memoirs of his old friend Brian Sewell, one might have expected Strong to expand on that theme in this book. But this is as far as he goes:

I had been destined to be the daughter my mother longed for [after two sons]. Years later I read that medical research had shown that many boys born in such circumstances either were or had an inclination to be homosexual. I can see now, in retrospect, certain aspects of my character would square with [that] in some people’s eyes.

Self-portrait as a Young Man may or may not be short on personal revelation. Where it triumphs is in Strong’s dissection of university, gallery and museum politics and their dramatis personae. He never flinches from exposing the foibles of his academic supervisors and his gallery bosses; but one feels he is always out to be fair-minded. Grudges are not borne. I particularly like his pen-portrait of A.L. Rowse, with whom he shared a fascination with Tudor England. Rowse was regarded by many as an almost insane egocentric and paranoiac. This is Strong’s sketch:

I think that he was aware, as he bashed hither and thither, that it was all a bit of a lark, really. That was what I liked about him. Otherwise he’d have been insufferable, but in fact he wasn’t. There was always a warmth that made up for the tremendous ego … He was a great, maddening figure that caught the public imagination. There’s no one else like that.

Oh yes there is, Roy.

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