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.

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