Looking for a Way Up

Rosemary Hill

  • Self-Portrait as a Young Man by Roy Strong
    Bodleian, 286 pp, £25.00, March 2013, ISBN 978 1 85124 282 5

It is difficult not to admire Roy Strong, though there are moments in this account of his first 32 years where he seems to be doing all he can to make it easier. Born in 1935, he became in 1967 the youngest ever director of the National Portrait Gallery. It was a remarkable achievement, but by mentioning it three times in the first seven pages Strong begins at an early stage to try the reader’s patience. The description of himself as ‘the young director’ occurs so frequently it becomes almost a Homeric epithet, while the reader, if nodded to at all, features as ‘the average’ or ‘the ordinary’. Yet despite the exasperation he provokes – for all the vanity, the boasting, the famous names not so much dropped as fired like grapeshot on page after page – it is worth persisting, for by the end Strong’s memoir of his childhood and early career presents a compelling, original and oddly touching picture of a life and a time.

The position of the author in an autobiography is an interesting matter, to which Strong has clearly given no thought at all. He is the hero of his own life and all people and events are assessed in terms of their importance to him. From his birth weight (just over eight pounds) to his hair, which is still ‘abundant’ at the age of 77, no detail about himself is too trivial to confide. Others are given their place in ‘the pattern of my life’. In his library a section is ‘reserved for books by or about people who have most influenced me’; the death of Frances Yates, his former tutor at the Warburg Institute, occurs ‘a few months before I was knighted’. Yet this unswerving concentration on himself has the advantage of particularity. Memoirs, especially perhaps those of the 1960s, risk dissolving into period pieces laced with topical detail, researched as much as remembered. Strong takes minimal account of context and makes little concession to hindsight. His letters are reproduced at length, as are the private obituaries which he has the somewhat chilling habit of composing immediately after the deaths of friends and relations. The result is a curiously artless exercise in self-revelation.

Strong was a child of interwar Metroland, which he hated. Born at 23 Colne Road, Winchmore Hill, into a landscape of privet hedges, crazy paving and hanging baskets, he was one of three sons of George and Mabel Strong. George was a travelling salesman selling hats along the south coast for the firm of Ayres & Smith. He had served in the First World War, and the outbreak of the Second all but ruined him when Ayres & Smith turned their production over to military headgear. He persisted nevertheless, setting off day after day, decade after decade, as fashions changed and fewer people wore hats of any sort, carrying his box of samples round the department stores of London. His joyless return each evening, Strong recalls, would mean ‘the descent of a pall’ over the household. Neither empathy nor pathos clouds his recollections of this Home Counties Willy Loman. He takes his father to task for his unkindness to his son, for his drinking, his hypochondria (‘Needless to say, he died in his 90th year’), and the terrible smell of his Potter’s Asthma Remedy. Above all he blames him for his inadequacy as a husband, which led Mabel, who was somewhat timid and ‘not very intelligent’, to rely increasingly on her sons, especially Roy. Strong accuses his father of turning him into a ‘mother’s boy’ who struggled to break free until his marriage in 1971 caused a final, irreparable breach.

Yet there were glimpses of wider horizons. The humble privet which his father clipped into shapes was Strong’s ‘earliest encounter with the art of topiary (to the revival of which I later contributed)’, and although there were hardly any books in the house there were two pictures, one by Millet in the style of a Dutch genre painting and the other Millais’s The Boyhood of Raleigh: two different attempts, Strong notes, to re-imagine the past in the present. As with many of his contemporaries, however, his great revelations came in the cinema. He was enchanted by Leslie Howard in Korda’s Scarlet Pimpernel and even more by Vivien Leigh in The Hamilton Woman, which begins with the elderly, raddled Emma looking into the camera as the picture dissolves and we see her young again ‘in all her beauty, running through the splendours of the palace in Naples’. It was thus, Strong recalls, that ‘history threw open its door to me.’ He never lost that sense of history as theatre, a dramatic, lived reality. Despite the pressures later in his career to cultivate a more sober approach to the past, through years of study and dull, repetitive work, he retained the vitality of his childhood experience. It is one of the few qualities of which he doesn’t boast, but it was in part his untarnished enthusiasm that enabled him to become a revitalising influence on the museum culture of England.

Strong’s rebellion against his unsatisfactory background was combined with a rigorous adherence to established social hierarchies. He was looking for a way up, rather than simply out. Casting around among his relatives he distinguishes his cousin Laurie, a champion tennis player, as ‘the only other successful member of the family’, after whom comes Aunt Elsie. Elsie, Strong recalls without irony, was ‘a better class of person’, the same evocative phrase John Osborne used, with heavy irony, as the title of his autobiography. Osborne was six years older than Strong and from a strikingly similar background about which he was equally unforgiving, as was another close contemporary, Joe Orton. The three make a revealing comparison. All were self-invented, reactionaries against lower-middle-class morality, the suburbs and the provinces, but Orton and Osborne were more typical of what Strong calls the ‘thrusting meritocrats’ of that interwar generation who set the tone of the avant-garde in the later 1950s and the 1960s. They mounted a full-frontal assault on the conventions; Strong’s was a more oblique line of attack. As he notes in one of the brief glances at his own historical context, he was ‘not at all an Angry Young Man’. Those who were, the ‘fans of the novels of Kingsley Amis’ who went ‘marching in favour of nuclear disarmament’, seem to puzzle him.

It is in the account he gives of his somewhat zigzag rise to stardom that Strong becomes impressive, the brazen self-promotion intercut with sudden flashes of modesty. His ascent seems rapid in retrospect. At the time it was a long, lonely slog with the prospect of nothing more suited to his ambition at the end of it than a career in teaching. After Edmonton County Grammar School he went on to read history at Queen Mary College, London. This was success beyond anything his parents could have aspired to, a benefit of the 1944 Education Act of which Strong is duly appreciative, but the reality was a tedious commute between uncongenial Winchmore Hill and the ‘architecturally … forgettable’ Queen Mary in the Mile End Road. He spent the hours on public transport reading Paradise Lost, the evenings working in the dining room at Colne Road, which he colonised as a study.

From now on, through postgraduate work at the Warburg Institute and later at the Portrait Gallery, where he became a junior curator in 1959, Strong was engaged simultaneously in two projects. One was the pursuit of his fascination with Elizabethan iconography, the other the creation of Roy Strong. He applied himself with equal diligence to both, proceeding in each case via a series of discoveries and reversals. His studies were a continuation of a childhood love of 16th-century miniatures that had led him, as a schoolboy, to make drawings in the style of Nicholas Hilliard. He was interested not only in the paintings but the dress, jewellery and rituals of the age. Such interests were not encouraged at university. At this point the habit he had developed of working hard and in isolation stood him in good stead. In the teeth of a syllabus that regarded anything beyond political, economic or military history as ‘mere antiquarianism’ Strong persisted in looking at the past more broadly, in thinking, as he puts it, ‘horizontally’. The Warburg was almost the only place in Britain at the time where horizontal thinking, or what Frances Yates called the study of the ‘history of culture as a whole’, was encouraged. It had been founded, however, by refugee scholars from Central Europe, and it was ‘taken for granted’ that students could read Latin, French, Italian and German. Strong ‘struggled’. There were grave doubts about his ambition to study Elizabethan portraits. In the end his thesis was on court pageantry.

Over the years he remained committed to his research but found the Warburg in general, and Yates in particular, stiflingly resistant to anything approaching popularisation. Thus he embarked on the diagonal course that took him from academia, which he found increasingly dull, over-deferential and hidebound, into the museum world, from where in time he went on to authorship, journalism and stardom. His first job at the Portrait Gallery, however, was unpromising. Incarcerated in the basement in ‘utter loneliness’, he nevertheless realised that by applying some horizontal thinking to the 16th-century portraits in the collection, and comparing the hitherto neglected calligraphy on them, he could make connections and thus attributions. He began to compile the gallery’s first catalogue.

Evenings were still mostly spent at home, where the unsatisfactory interior of Colne Road and its ‘unutterable’ green linoleum formed an ever more peculiar contrast to his bedroom, with its life-size plaster bust of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Less a cuckoo than a peacock in the parental nest, as the 1960s dawned Strong worked on his parallel project of self-invention. His ‘early iconography’ was, he notes, ‘meagre’. Deciding that his face looked ‘dreary’, he had his hair cut ‘back to front’ in the manner of Olivier’s Henry V. Thereafter, realising he was photogenic, he posed relentlessly for photographs, drawings, busts and at least one portrait in stumpwork. His style eventually became so recognisable that Craig Brown suggested his entire face, glasses, nose and moustache, could be bought in one piece from joke shops. His character turned out to be more difficult to get right. Having overcome crippling nerves, Strong discovered that he could ‘give delight’ as a lecturer but was discouraged to learn that in private he was considered a humourless bore. ‘I therefore deliberately set out to transform myself … into an amusing companion at table.’

There is a disarming Boswellian candour about all this and like Boswell, who was also apt to try on new personalities for size, Strong unblushingly relates his humiliations. He recalls the courteous regret of the registrar when he attempted to apply to the Courtauld Institute, not realising that he could not afford it and that at the time ‘entrants could generally be found only in Debrett.’ Nor does he wince, though the reader does, when the ‘wickedly funny’ Hardy Amies sums up the garden that Strong created in the country as ‘Mr Pooter goes to Versailles.’ It was perhaps the combination of so much self-consciousness with so little self-awareness that led him to concentrate on his appearance, an obsession born of insecurity as much as narcissism, a need to keep checking his reflection to make sure he was still there against the rapidly changing background.

Thus we hear an inordinate amount about his clothes. His shirts were once the subject of their own exhibition. Then, just when it seems questionable whether there was actually a person inside the suit from Blades that he still regards as ‘the epitome of myself’, Strong turns briefly but with unaffected frankness to his inner life. He describes his conversion to High Anglicanism, a source of comfort bolstered not only by the histrionics of the Oxford Movement and the incense-laden interior of All Saints, Margaret Street, but less predictably by the writings of George Herbert, Thomas Traherne and Henry Vaughan. When it comes to sex he is for once almost apologetic, regretting that he had not been more open about his homosexuality in his early life but explaining that for a long time he had no real idea what homosexuality was. At twenty he was ‘totally bottled up and inhibited’ and in the climate of the day while aware of his own attraction to men it was something that remained ‘tucked away at the back of part of one’s mind’. He loved women as well, ‘emotionally and intellectually’, and decided to try and find the right person with whom to enjoy ‘the stability of an old-fashioned Christian marriage’. That person turned out to be the theatre designer Julia Trevelyan Oman, who brought him not only happiness but the reassuring knowledge that he was married to ‘a descendant of the Oxford Victorian intellectual aristocracy’.

Strong perhaps overestimates the extent to which his current readership needs to be told about the difficulties facing homosexuals in 1950s Britain. A lot has been written about that. What is probably more difficult for anyone under forty to imagine is the rebarbative dreariness of museums in the early 1960s. Catalogues of the sort Strong was compiling at the Portrait Gallery were still widely considered unnecessary concessions to populism and, if they made mention of works in private hands, as a violation of property rights. It was unthinkable to reproduce pictures from the Royal Collection, a taboo Strong immediately broke with the poster for his first major exhibition, The Winter Queen, about Elizabeth of Bohemia. That was in 1963, his ‘annus mirabilis’, and the next year saw another breakthrough when David Piper became director of the Portrait Gallery and allowed Strong free rein. He now had ‘a super job’, as he confided to a friend: ‘new publications … theatre designers let loose in the rooms … super sound guide’. Sound guides were then a novelty and I remember that one. The reel-to-reel tape recorders hung round the neck were heavy going for an eight-year-old, but I staggered round, time after time, entranced by the commentary on the Tudor portraits.

By now Strong had escaped from the ‘detention centre’ of his parents’ home, and when Piper left the Portrait Gallery sooner than expected he stepped into his shoes and was fully launched. He put ‘the face place’ on the map of Swinging London, encouraged the serious study of photographic portraiture and saved important pictures from export. Later, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where he became director in 1974, he had a similarly galvanising effect. Despite his indifference to political activism, the exhibitions he put on there about the destruction of the country house and the plight of British churches combined scholarship with polemic in a way the museum has never matched since. Now, in his later seventies, Strong writes in a spirit of summing up, aware that the door of history which opened in the cinema in Winchmore Hill must in due course close behind him. When it does he will, in spite of himself, be remembered for more than his shirts.