For his 75th birthday, Sir Roy Strong gave himself a personal trainer. For his 80th, he has commissioned a book of portraits of himself by the photographer John Swannell. The fruits of all that training — much of it undertaken on a racing tricycle around the lanes of Herefordshire — can be seen in the six-pack he sports in one of the luscious, technically excellent images. Oh, hold on a mo, it’s the costume of a Roman Emperor, Photoshopped to turn Roy into classical sculpture for his latest garden temple!
This magnificently potty book takes us through 30 versions of Roy done after celebrated portraits, or in the manner of various schools. He is swoon-worthy as a Victorian Sir Galahad, masterful as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and bloody terrifying as Rasputin. Swannell, alas, drew the line at David Beckham. From his early scholarship at the Warburg, to his directorships of the National Portrait Gallery and V&A, portraits have been Roy’s thing. As, of course, has been sashaying through society in beautiful plumage while recording the whole parade, both in photographs and in waspish and witty diaries which, as this book reveals, he has started keeping again.
The book is a tease. As with everything Sir Roy does, there is more than meets the mirthful eye. He is a neo-Romantic who has created a garden of wit and allusive sophistication. He commissions intelligent painters such as Richard Shirley Smith and Jonathan Myles-Lea and sports jewellery by Kevin Coates. All tap a peculiarly English vein. He is devoutly Anglican and often says pertinent and provocative things about church and state. Look at and read this book. You’ll have a camp old time of it, but you’ll learn more than you thought you might.
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Christopher Fletcher is Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library.