Roy Strong: Self-Portrait as a Young Man

Review published on January 17, 2017.

Sir Roy Strong, historian, archivist, expert gardener, radio celebrity, television celebrity, author, former director of The National Portrait Gallery, then director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, yes, he has had a full and marvellous life. As I gaze at some of the forty or so books he has written, and knowing his style of writing, plus his midlife image, one is reminded of the late Kenneth Williams and his diaries. Both have a certain directness and humour that belies the – often not very well concealed – truth.

He very often writes about people as they appear to him, faults, appearance, candour and style, nothing is sacrosanct in his diaries, most certainly. His own personal humour is manifest throughout, about situations as they happen and his close observations.

This more recent book is remarkable in its honesty: very early life clearly shows how and why his very existence is so different from the rest of his family. Again, this could be construed as almost a mirror image of Kenneth Williams. His pursuit of academic achievement is paramount and fortunately, various people were in place to assist him reach his goals from his school history teacher right through to colleges and universities. A pantheon of scholarly people ably assisted throughout, and most of these very people have been there all through his life.

From an incredibly shy person initially, to one that is at home now giving lectures, talks, debates and the like, we learn of the slowly burgeoning person he has become. I note here, after a lecture back in 1959 entitled ‘Pageantry and Ceremonial in the Elizabethan Court Year’, his realisation that:

Until then it had never occurred to me that I was capable of giving people information and delight. I recall thinking how wonderful it was to have such an ability, to be able to reach out to ordinary people and enlighten them about the past.

I think the quote gives us much that makes up Sir Roy Strong’s character. I appreciate that his taste can be rather expensive maybe, or that he can be a trifle brusque, but he means well and is an exceptional orator on his beloved themes. He has bought the stodgy National Portrait Gallery into the modern world, the same with the Victoria and Albert Museum, then his gardening exploits and designs are second to none, and he is consulted at every turn.

To show another public aspect of the versatility of the man, on the front cover we have a picture taken in 1967 by Cecil Beaton no less. Strong is striking a pose not unlike Harry Worth did, reflected in a display case glass. [Ed: For younger readers, Harry Worth was a TV comedian in the 60s whose programme opening saw him using his body and a shop window like a kaleidoscope.] To bring his image more up to date, we have another picture drawn by Michael Leonard in which he is given a ruff and garb of a nobleman from the 1600s era, his bearded countenance is rather splendid.
Yes, another remarkable book from a remarkable chap, along with all his others, I for one, sing their praises loudly.

Reg Seward 5/2

Roy Strong: Self-Portrait as a Young Man
The Bodleian Library 9781851242825 hbk 2013

 

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