Martinis with the Bellinis

Mary Beard

  • The Roy Strong Diaries 1967-87
    Weidenfeld, 461 pp, £20.00, May 1997, ISBN 0 297 81841 4

Two photographs in The Roy Strong Diaries 1967-87 sum up his achievement as museum director: ‘The National Portrait Gallery before, and after’ – before and after, that is, the ‘reign’ (his word) of Strong. The first is a predictably gloomy view of a classically old-fashioned museum: wood-block floor, two benches in the centre of the gallery, paintings crammed onto the walls (20 assorted 17th-century portraits are visible in this shot alone), and no trace of an information panel beyond the tiny labels perched under each picture. The second shows the same room after the Strong treatment. There are only six paintings to be seen now; the others have given way to a large slogan blazoning CIVIL WAR, a vast floor-to-ceiling map of England, marking the sites of the major battles, another information panel, plus eight suits of armour fixed like trophies to the wall. The wood-block floor has been covered with some ‘period-feel’ black and white squared linoleum.

The museological debates that such a contrast raises hardly need rehearsing. On the one hand, we readily deplore the stuffy reticence, the wilfully uninformative style of version one – even if, at the same time, we are half-grateful that it gives us lots of paintings to look at, that it leaves us plenty of room to make up our own minds about them and that it doesn’t treat every visitor as if they were a ten-year-old on a school project. On the other hand, while we may enjoy the theatricality of Strong’s remake and welcome the reminders about when and where the Battle of Newbury was, we inevitably regret the removal of large numbers of paintings to make way for all these trimmings and chafe at the intrusive packaging of what looks like a prototype Civil War Experience.

Amazingly, Strong’s Diaries (which cover the period when he held two of the top jobs in British museums, first the directorship of the National Portrait Gallery, then of the V&A) never touch on any of these central issues. Strong’s view seems to be a very simple one. He has no time at all for what he once described as ‘dispiriting accumulations of broken Roman pots’, for the dusty clutter of Victorian collections, with their low-key, high-minded and unglamorous academic aims. For him, the success of an exhibition is measured almost entirely in terms of ‘brilliance’, ‘spectacle’ and ‘visual excitement’, closely correlated, one suspects, with the length of the queues outside the door and the number of glitterati and minor royals attracted to the opening party (‘a great opening evening with all the protocol. Princess Alexandra came, adorable as usual’; ‘the most glamorous opening evening staged within my directorship’ and so on, throughout the book). Those who do not admire his particular version of museum stagecraft (it is surely no coincidence that he married a theatre designer) are accused of incomprehension, conspiracy or (repeatedly) envy; and so dismissed. It hardly seems to have occurred to him that a giant map of England and eight nondescript breastplates and helmets (however dramatically displayed) might not be a worthy substitute for the half-dozen 17th-century paintings that once occupied their wall space.

The myth of Roy Strong is built on this theatricality. ‘Child Star’ and ‘Sixties Icon’ (again, his own terms), he was appointed to the directorship of the National Portrait Gallery in 1967 at the age of 31 (after a PhD on Elizabethan pageantry and seven years as a junior keeper). The story goes that he instantly set about transforming what had been one of the dreariest museums in London – a tourist guidebook at the time apparently read simply: ‘National Portrait Gallery. No lavatories’ – from a place where you would only be seen dead (literally: it was not until Strong’s directorship that the Gallery started to collect portraits of the living) into a fashionable place to see and be seen. This involved not only modernising the main period galleries, cleaning the pictures at the same time – often to dramatic effect; but also a series of stunning temporary exhibitions (Richard III, Samuel Pepys, Cecil Beaton’s photographs) which had ‘the whole of London agog’ and queues of people round Trafalgar Square.

These ‘Diaries’ – in fact, partly reworked versions of a variety of ‘jottings’ and more crafted set-pieces, interspersed with a selection of letters written to a Dutch colleague – are a monument to that mythology. In a series of chapters with such disconcerting titles as ‘A Star Is Born’, ‘Apotheosis’ and ‘Crest of the Wave’, he charts his inexorable rise. Triumph after triumph is recorded in unashamedly self-congratulatory tones: ‘undoubtedly the best exhibition I have ever done’; ‘I was a great success’; ‘I do seem to have a talent for getting things moving.’ His soaring public image is carefully detailed, from his timely appearance on Desert Island Discs (‘the ultimate radio recognition’, he explains to the Dutchman) through a whole variety of newspaper profiles (‘Britain’s most unlikely Civil Servant’, according to the Daily Mail) to his immortalisation as Private Eye’s Dr Roy Strange, with the trademark maxicoat and fedora hat. And all the time more and more parties: ‘one was at full pelt,’ ‘one long whizz’.

Inevitably, it couldn’t last. The second part of the book is a monument to the other aspect of the Strong myth: deservedly promoted to the directorship of the V&A when he was still only 37, he soon became a victim of government cuts, ‘of my own success’, and of the malice of the British press, who eventually turned against their erstwhile favourite in a series of devastating ‘slanderous attacks’. The old Strong magic was still there: more stunning shows (‘landmark exhibitions’, ‘wondrous spectacles’); more public recognition (a knighthood in 1982 – ‘no Director has ever been knighted in his forties before,’ but all the same ‘long overdue’); more parties and more royalty. But even the Strong magic could not conjure away the austerity of the late Seventies and Eighties: he was forced to make drastic cuts – closing the V&A one day a week, introducing ‘voluntary’ admission charges and axing the Circulation Department, which sent touring exhibitions to local museums. In 1986, recognising that ‘my creativity and the V&A had parted company,’ without warning or much consultation, he decided to resign: ‘no national museum director has ever made such a spectacular exit.’

Much of this story is just myth: at worst, a self-promoting fiction which somehow Strong came to believe; at best, wishful thinking. It is clear enough, for example, that the revolution at the Portrait Gallery had already begun under Strong’s predecessor, David Piper (who went on to become director of the Fitzwilliam and later the Ashmolean Museums). Piper had, after all, sponsored Strong’s first ‘theatrical’ exhibition, ‘The Winter Queen’, while he was still a junior keeper, encouraged him to start re-arranging the main galleries and warmly backed his candidacy for the directorship. But museum time runs very slowly, and almost inevitably each new appointment reaps the rewards, fame or blame rightly due to their predecessor. When Piper was later asked how he felt about Strong’s glittering reputation, given his own achievement at the Portrait Gallery, he is said to have replied that everything evened out in the long run: he had been given the credit for installing electricity at the Fitzwilliam.

It is also clear, reading against the grain of Strong’s diary entries, that he was much more directly responsible for the troubles of the V&A than the myth of the tragic ‘victim of my own success’ would suggest. The ‘slanderous’ press reports of the time criticised his remote seigneurial style: an article in the Sunday Times, for example, written after his resignation, quotes ‘the instant disappointment’ of his colleagues at the V&A, who saw him ‘appear in a blaze of television lights, only to vanish to his office from which he appeared to emerge only rarely over the next 13 years’. The Diaries offer all kinds of instances of exactly this management style. So far as I can tell, there is no summer during his tenure at the V&A when he does not abandon the museum for a good six-week holiday at his Herefordshire house and garden (much of his energy is devoted to bringing this country seat up to scratch; ‘more like a manor and less like a rectory’, he boasts after some building work). And when it comes to breaking bad news to his staff and colleagues – widespread redundancies, museum closures and the end of the Circulation Department – he chooses to do it through a single mass meeting, the staff herded together in the Raphael Cartoon Court, their lordly director addressing them from the stairs. ‘My voice choked with emotion and the tears welling ... My world seemed in ruins.’ Theirs was.

But what actually happened inside that famous V&A office? Here we find a startling contrast between Strong’s own account and the version given by his predecessor, the terrifying and not-much-loved John Pope-Hennessy, in his autobiography, Learning to Look. Both directors describe in some detail the office arrangement at the start of Strong’s appointment in 1974. Strong himself bemoans the primitiveness of it all: not just ‘no direct telephone to the Director’s office, no daybook, no proper filing system’; but when on his very first day he ‘summoned’ Mrs Oldham, the Director’s secretary, and asked her to take dictation, he was promptly told that Sir John had typed his own letters. ‘Things are going to change around here,’ he snorted. Eighteen months later he can boast a vastly expanded office, a phone line, up-to-date files and ‘my entourage to hand’, including his personal secretary imported from the Portrait Gallery. Pope-Hennessy’s account of this moment of transition gives a quite different slant: ‘My devoted and able secretary,’ he writes, ‘who had also worked with my predecessor, was cursorily dismissed, and Dr Strong’s own secretary came down to announce that my office would be redecorated by Supertheatricals Ltd. When asked why that was necessary, she replied: “Because Dr Strong will be receiving members of the aristocracy.”’

There is no obvious reason to trust either of these accounts of office warfare. Pope-Hennessy had his own axe to grind no less than Strong. The two men obviously loathed each other and feuded bitterly over their conflicting reputations at the V&A. Casting himself in the unlikely role of ‘man of the people’, Strong accuses his predecessor of remote and ruthless autocracy (‘his high-pitched voice ... was guaranteed to strike terror into those who dared contradict a single utterance’); and, again skating on dangerously thin ice, he denounces ‘the Pope’s’ long summer holidays (‘from mid-July to mid-September, bar a few London days, in Italy. However did he run the place?’). In 1976, after an exchange of dinner invitations, Strong optimistically records: ‘The feud is ended. He is a cruel beast, but I feel sorry for him.’ It can only have been a temporary truce. By 1991, with the publication of Learning to Look, Pope-Hennessy was back on the attack. He derides Strong’s abolition of the V&A Circulation Department: Strong had never been much interested in taking culture to the provinces; government cuts, he implies, were a convenient alibi. And he exposes some of the risibly single-minded ambition that lay behind Strong’s meteoric rise: no sooner had Pope-Hennessy announced his resignation than a letter from Strong arrives, hand delivered to his home, sounding out his chances of the job and embellished with an arch little story of young Roy saving up the bus fare from Edmonton to visit, and fall in love with, the museum.

It is hard to feel much sympathy for either side in this quarrel (though, if you had to choose, Pope-Hennessy’s case is much the more plausible). There is a genuine case, on the other hand, for sympathising with Mrs Oldham in her confrontation with Supertheatricals Ltd and the glitzy new management style. A whole set of museum priorities were at stake here: day-to-day management v. glamorous opening nights; the secretaries v. the aristocracy; the roof and the drains v. the spectacular flower arrangements in the front hall (‘22-foot-high flower arrangements ... costing some £20,000 p.a. were part of the scheme. They looked stunning’). If Mrs Oldham had been able to see what Strong wrote in his diaries and to read his relentless tales of partying around the fringes of royalty, her worst fears about where his priorities lay would have been exceeded.

In the end, of course, it is a question of what counts as success for the director of a major national museum, and of how we recognise it. One answer might be that, as director of a great London museum, it really is hard to go wrong. At a recent conference at the British Museum, the director of a major German gallery ruefully observed: ‘six million people come to the British Museum ... The only problem you have is to open the door. The only thing you cannot do is to close the door.’ And so, we might imagine, the only thing the lucky director need do is preside benignly over this whole success story.

A rather more convincing answer would be precisely the opposite: that it is next to impossible to get it right; and that the conflict of priorities is irreconcilable. Directors who work with their keepers in the day-to-day business of conserving, displaying and studying their collections will always be accused of neglecting the museum’s public (and fund-raising) face; knowing your staff well is hard to combine with cultivating the rich – there are only so many evenings in the week. Directors who launch blockbuster populist shows (‘Royal Treasures through the Ages’, ‘Gold of the Mummies’) will always be decried as traitors to serious research; on the other hand, those who stick to the guns of academic standards (‘Seventeenth-Century Norwegian Woodcuts’) can hardly avoid being branded élitist scholars, woefully out of touch with what the average visitor wants. And few galleries have room or money for both types of show.

To add to all these difficulties, it is far from clear who exactly these directors are working for. Strong made what now seems to have been (for him) the disastrous mistake of placing the V&A under a Board of Trustees. At the time of his appointment, the V&A and the Science Museum were the only major national collections run directly by the Department of Education; Strong really was, as the Daily Mail dubbed him, a civil servant. It was a position that he apparently found untenable, not only for the reason that direct government control seemed to make his museum peculiarly vulnerable to financial cuts: running through the diaries is also a clear sense that a proper museum director should be answerable not to a Whitehall greybeard put out to grass in the Museums Department, but to a Board of Trustees largely consisting – so he must have hoped – of the kind of people he met at parties. He got his way; and the first Board included ‘the stylish Princess Michael of Kent’, Terence Conran, Jean Muir and the ‘energetic ... Lady Harlech’. But if Strong’s plan was to be governed by a group that was both more malleable and more protective than Whitehall had been, it went horribly wrong. Conran started off by talking of the collections as ‘the product’ and ‘inquired eagerly as to how we were to “market” it’; and in the very first year there were ‘signs that the direction in which they wanted to go was to usurp the role of the executive’ (i.e. Strong).

It is a matter of dispute whether or not the trustee system is a good way to run a museum. A group of high-flying, talented well-wishers giving sage advice to the director, a mediating council accessible to the museum keepers and a powerful representative of the museum’s interests in the places that matter? Or a group of amateurs (if not political lackeys), with hardly any experience of museums, and with very little interest in them except an investment in the cachet that trusteeship brings? Either way, it is clear that they can if they wish deliver the government’s axe with even greater severity than the Whitehall greybeards.

Who then becomes director of a national museum? Not surprisingly perhaps, the qualifications required for the job are pretty ill-defined. These are almost the last big positions in the country to which there is no recognised career path; any 20-year-old with an ambition to become director of the British Museum would have to invent their own way of getting there. Among the present directors, Neil Cossons (Science Museum) has never worked outside a museum, coming up via the Ironbridge Gorge and the National Maritime Museums; Alan Borg (V&A) moved from university posts in art history, to the Tower of London, the Sainsbury Centre and the Imperial War Museum; Neil MacGregor came to the National Gallery from teaching at Leicester University and editing the Burlington Magazine.

Strong does pause briefly to reflect on the kind of person who heads these institutions. He sees Pope-Hennessy as one of a ‘dying species, the aesthete museum director’; he himself was a ‘scholar-director’ – also, as he sees it, a thing of the past, squeezed out by the new breed of business managers and professional administrators. ‘The present incumbents of our national collections have hardly a book to show between them,’ he blusters. This is simply wrong and an insult to most of the current directors. Strong, to be fair, is prolific; but his vast bibliography is considerably bulked out by such items as A Small Garden Designer’s Handbook and The Garden Trellis. More to the point, his comment fails to recognise the entirely unpredictable career tracks and the sheer variety of those at the top of these national institutions. The only thing they appear to have in common is the knighthood they receive at (or, if they’re lucky, before) the end.

The peculiar nature of the director’s job is the one mitigating factor in the Strong story. Aged 37, and with maybe thirty years in front of him at the V&A, there was no way he could know how to make a success of the job, or even what success would look like if it came. It was not necessarily foolish to take the socialising course that he did; and that story might have had a very different ending. He might, for example, have met a billionaire benefactor at one of his parties, arranged a multi-million pound gift and so rescued his ‘impoverished’ institution. That would have been an undeniable achievement – of a sort. But he scored no such hit. And the Diaries remain, at best, a witness to the glamorous side of the museum world, patrons and hangers-on, the Martinis-with-the-Bellinis set; at worst, a drab and relentless testament to twenty years of social climbing, self-promotion and royal sycophancy.