As an Establishment favourite, Sir Roy Strong is invited everywhere, but his latest diaries are as compellingly waspish as ever — about everyone from Prince Charles and Camilla to Michael Portillo.
Now aged 85, he is a prolific author, the creator of The Laskett Gardens in Herefordshire and a celebrated former director of both the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert museum.
March 26, 2004
The opening of the George III exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Just about everyone was there, a kind of court in waiting for the next reign and a rally for all those who can’t stand New Labour and all its eternal populist dumbing down.
The Prince of Wales was in benign mood and Camilla seemed to be working her way discreetly around, a slightly hunched, short figure, like the wife of a public-school headmaster.
As an Establishment favourite, Sir Roy Strong is invited everywhere, but his latest diaries are as compellingly waspish as ever — about everyone from Prince Charles and Camilla to Michael Portillo. Pictured Roy and wife Julia in their garden
After the private view I had dinner with [historian] David Cannadine at the Athenaeum Club. This was a dinner about the woes of the age.
We lamented the absence of any great people, no icons except trash, totties in dresses held on by Velcro. Where are the Kenneth Clarks, Isaiah Berlins, et al?
I went down to Hampton Court to a gathering to celebrate the replanting of the avenues either side of the Long Water.
A tree was placed with a heap of earth next to it and a shining spade for HRH [Prince Charles] to do the job.
HRH trotted on in the inevitable grey suit, his hair scraped back — or rather what’s left of it.
There’s a dapper quality in his old-fashioned dress and movements which remind me very much of his great-uncle, the Duke of Windsor.
But what struck me most were his features. When in repose this is the face of tragedy, haunted, lined and browbeaten.
And then, if you make him laugh — which I always set out to do for he has his grandmother’s sense of frivolity (I suggested he move back into Hampton Court) — his face drops 20 years into the mask of comedy, impish and twinkling. But countenance-wise, he’s not worn well.
Since the death of his wife — the acclaimed set designer Julia Trevelyan Oman — seven months before, Roy Strong had been experiencing overwhelming waves of grief. He’d nevertheless decided to start clearing Julia’s studio at The Laskett, their home in Herefordshire.
I spotted the builders’ skip outside Julia’s studio block. Into it went most of the fabric store, piles of paper bags, boxes, old cosmetic bottles, electrical debris — Julia couldn’t part with anything. I go through everything and pull out yet another mound.
There’s a dapper quality in his old-fashioned dress and movements which remind me very much of his great-uncle, the Duke of Windsor. Pictured: Roy Strong at his home The Lasketts in Herefordshire
I went to dinner at the German Embassy and left in the pouring rain to walk back to [my London flat in] Morpeth Terrace.
Suddenly I was seized with compulsive grief and tears en route. Still howling, I got into the flat and rested my head on a wall, clinging to it with the tears falling.
Oh God, how I miss her.
We’re now on to skip five. Still, when the studio was emptied I realised that this was a glorious, light-filled space, quite unrecognisable from the world of Miss Havisham that Julia loved to dwell in.
Julia was a strange paradox. She was very ordered and there was a logic to everything. Order and logic, yes, but no clarity. Everywhere I look, I now want clarity.
I want to leave that house in order as a rather beautiful monument to a certain way of living at the end of the 20th century.
I’ve also been faced with the problem of the silver. What does one do? Silver entrée dishes, muffin dishes, caviar plates — what earthly use are they? To the sale they go. As it is, I’m putting it all in a safe, having had a nasty scare with the jewellery.
People had been working on the house and someone nearly went off with three diamond pieces, the best. They had gone through my bedroom cupboards and drawers where the jewellery was secreted.
These ‘flash’ pieces had been taken out of their boxes and envelopes and hidden in the bathroom linen cupboard for ‘collection’ later. It is a well-known ploy.
Skip 18. Every day I get up at 6-6.30am and start sorting out and throwing away. The knock-on has been enormous and suddenly energy-giving, like some inner force making me frame a new phase of life.
Sir Roy shows Queen around the Henry Cole Wing at the Victoria and Albert Museum
[Archdeacon of Westminster] David Hutt came down for the placing of Julia’s ashes. It was odd because I was acutely aware that the mortal remains were neither here nor there. That was heightened because I carried those ashes through the garden, where her spirit was everywhere.
March 2, 2005
The memorial service for Angus Ogilvy. The entire Kent clan came along, with a slightly bent Duke of Gloucester. On arrival they were herded into St George’s Chapel, [Windsor].
What triggers my pen is the contrast of the four key women: Princess Michael in her customary Hello-magazine style; Katharine Kent a pale, distressed, Ophelia-like figure in an old jacket and skirt and trailing, with one hand by its long strap, her handbag on the floor.
She recognised me and after wandering around a bit in a worrying way, was got into the chapel.
Then there was [widow] Princess Alexandra, radiant, still beautiful and with a smile for everyone, just as it should be at what was a happy celebration of a special man.
Down the line came Camilla Parker Bowles, shorter than me, wearing a huge sloping hat. She had a warmth and a twinkle in her eye and she didn’t give me the Diana seduction glance which had once made me blush.
I rather warmed to her but, poor thing: what a burden is about to come her way. I lined her up against the other women and it was a relief to see someone not attempting to be anything other than her own age and unashamed of her smile wrinkles.
Also there’s no sign of entering the fashion stakes. Who knows but that she might be just the thing?
Sir Freddie Ashton, Lord Snowdon and Sir Roy Strong at the Foyles literary lunch in 1985
I’d been invited to my second dinner in 18 years back to the V&A. I can’t think why I was asked but I never return without a torrent of contrary emotions. This gathering was about money. It inevitably must be these days.
It lacked the sense of glamour which I recall, but maybe I view my own fêtes through rose-tinted spectacles. There was no urgency and excitement, no sense of a spectacle unfolding.
I get a bit tired of being told how well I look and happy and energetic — what the hell do they expect, a withered, bent double, grief-stricken man?
Needless to say, when I got back home grief hit me.
It was 20 for lunch at Lady Marcella Dashwood’s dower house on the [Buckinghamshire] Dashwood Estate.
Many of the women seemed to me to be in the grip of face-lifts and Botox. Carla Powell [wife of Mrs Thatcher’s foreign policy adviser, Charles Powell] was one, all shimmer and glamour but you can’t do anything about withered hands.
All of this year [building] work has gone on at The Laskett.
I’ve become somewhat relentless. The front of the house is three-quarters done, the pilasters in place, the new front porch, the window embrasures and armorials.
To the Abbey at 10.10am for a service [marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II].
The politicos and the minor royals came down the line, Blair with his hair another colour, Princess Michael in peachy pink and a ludicrous hat, Princess Alexandra elegant in grey silk, the Countess of Wessex rather suburban and all the princes in uniform.
The Duke of York is the double of those hefty royal dukes in about 1820. The Duchess of Cornwall wore a hat seemingly 6ft wide with a vast border of fluttering feathers: not at all sensible.
The Royal Warrant Holders Dinner —1,000 people in white tie and orders at Grosvenor House [Hotel, Mayfair]. I’d been twinned with Michael Portillo (pictured), perhaps, in retrospect, a mistake
We’re on to skip 43 or 44. I’m haunted by the fact that half the loft has yet to be explored!
The National Portrait Gallery gave a [70th] birthday dinner in my honour. I took A.S. [Antonia] Byatt as my guest, an extraordinary friendship that is close, although we hardly ever meet.
Antonia looked thinner and better than the last time we met. But our conversation always embarks deep in and no superficialities.
Her sister [author Margaret Drabble, writing a book] on her mother rankled, as did [biographer] A.N. Wilson on Iris Murdoch. But, like me, she keeps going, swimming every day and reading at least a few pages of German to keep it up. She, like me too, believes that in old age the mind should still be stretched.
[The then director of the National Portrait Gallery] Sandy Nairne, a generous, gracious man, did the perfect tribute to me and I replied by going round the table picking on this or that person and how they related to me and the National Portrait Gallery.
It was all happiness, but at its close all I could do was think of Julia and how proud she would have been of me. Sandy saw me into a taxi but I was in tears.
Any habitation, however tiny, is a repository of memory, of one’s life expressed through an accumulation of things, not that I’m living in a shrine.
As a widower I’ve struck out to rearrange and redecorate the house for my life as a single man, making it work for me but, at the same time, preserving the essence which gave me over 30 years of a happy marriage.
I move from the premise that I know Julia would have wished most that I should be happy. Marriage is a compromise and when one half goes, that compromise ceases. You no longer have to preserve things as they were.
September 26 The National Portrait Gallery gave a [70th] birthday dinner in my honour. I took A.S. [Antonia] Byatt as my guest, an extraordinary friendship that is close, although we hardly ever meet
Another glorious change for me, as a lifelong dandy manqué, is that you can dress your own style and not your age.
Mark you, there are boundaries. The exposure of acres of old flesh is hardly likely to excite anyone. But, with a sharp eye as to what suits and what you can get away with, you can strut as elegant mutton, if not lamb.
I suppose that I’m lucky as the genes in the Strong family indicate ‘falling off the perch’ around the age of 90. Who knows?
Live every day as your last but recognise that you are not immortal. But take care of yourself — or why else all those vitamins at breakfast, that five-mile jog before lunch and those in the gym when I’m in London?
All I can remember of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations was that from 60 on they became fragile blossoms who would be snuffed out if they barely walked around the block. The message was that limbs and muscles would seize up and they should therefore be conserved and not used.
I love the fact that I read recently of an over-90-year-old in South Africa who was still running marathons.
I’m grateful that I don’t feel at all out of place in a gym in which all ages mix in a hugely friendly way. And I think of all the friends I have who are all into pilates, rowing machines, line-dancing and salsa classes.
A grand fete for the Duke of Kent and Lord Kelvedon’s 70th birthdays at Lindsey House [Chelsea]. Yet tragedy was at its heart. Paul Channon [former Tory minister] is in the grips of Alzheimer’s. He sat with the Queen on his right. Here was all the glitter and glamour but when dinner was finished, three people had to support him out of the room.
The Royal Warrant Holders Dinner —1,000 people in white tie and orders at Grosvenor House [Hotel, Mayfair]. I’d been twinned with Michael Portillo, perhaps, in retrospect, a mistake.
All I can remember of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations was that from 60 on they became fragile blossoms who would be snuffed out if they barely walked around the block
Portillo is a charming, self-satisfied egotist, with coarse if engaging features. Having failed to get what he wanted, he abandoned politics to scatter his charms across our television screens. He’s rather good at it.
So came the moment of the speeches: he grabbed the microphone and without a note did a star turn whose subject was inevitably himself.
I’d already drafted what I had to say — history, the Great Wardrobe, et al. — when I thought ‘I’m not going to let the bugger get away with this’.
Rising, I began by saying that it’s very difficult to upstage a politician but listening to Michael Portillo I was reminded of a passage in my Diaries which records Julia stuck next to Edward Heath who, like all politicians, could speak only about himself.
Shortly afterwards I saw Ted Heath at the Goldsmiths Company, and, on going up to him, he said: ‘Page 145.’ I said: ‘You are too great a man to make that comment,’ to which he replied: ‘When are you coming next to have lunch with me in Salisbury?’ I retorted: ‘When you ask me.’ Touché.
Lunch [with Tony Snowdon] had been long delayed and one never knew what sort of mood he would be in. But he was OK.
We were meant to go to a restaurant nearby but he’d forgotten to ring early enough, so he couldn’t get a table. So a luckless nymphet called Agnes was sent out to forage for lunch and returned with smoked salmon, hard avocados, lemons, brown bread and butter.
Tony sat below in the basement working area. I kissed him on both cheeks and said that I was only there for the drink and the gossip. He’s 76, not in a good way — really terrible, in fact, when he attempted to drag himself around, and he’s going deaf.
So we gossiped. Jocelyn Stevens [former chairman of English Heritage], who had left Vivien Duffield [philanthropist and arts benefactor] and gone off with another woman, had discovered sex at 77.
Had I seen that film? (That film being the one on HRH [The Queen’s Sister].) I said that I’d seen the first hour and had turned it off as it was such tripe.
I was direct about HRH [Princess Margaret]. In the end I couldn’t take any more of it [her behaviour]. Life by the late Eighties and into the Nineties had moved on. But I did say that she could be marvellous and very witty. He then also recalled her best side — funny, her ability to sing, her flashes of wit. But then there was the rest of it.
Portillo is a charming, self-satisfied egotist, with coarse if engaging features. Having failed to get what he wanted, he abandoned politics to scatter his charms across our television screens. He’s rather good at it. Pictured: Sir Roy Strong with Cecil Beaton
Lunch was in the kitchen but, as he was immobile, I had to hoick around quite a bit. This is a kitchen out of the ark. No electric kettle (I boiled the water on the gas stove, which, at least, was self-lighting), no washing-up machine, no ingredients, the whole of it tired and grubby.
I told him he ought to dump the lot. Domestically he must be hopeless. And let’s face it, only someone dotty would stay in that house with all those stairs when they’re crippled with polio.
I think that he feels ‘out of it’, but you are when you’re over 70. Accept it and be gracious. The pantheon has changed: be grateful that you were part of any pantheon at all. But the wicked old, talented thing has not come to terms with that, so he sits, glass in hand, alone in this rambling house. Sad.
I had lunch with [Prince Charles’s former private secretary] Stephen Lamport, who is working on the next coronation. He will sound me out on ideas from time to time and that’s fine. The task is a major one as 1953 was the last of the great ‘imperial’ coronations.
The next one, if it happens, must reflect all that has happened since 1953, a formidable challenge but filled with opportunity. I’m touched to be involved.
February 28, 2006
The National Portrait Gallery is 150. A bevy of photographers greeted us both outside and in.
Antonia Fraser wore what she called her ‘Stockholm’ dress, the one she didn’t wear as Harold [Pinter] never went to collect his Nobel Prize. She’s had a ghastly autumn with Harold in the grips of some variety of cancer that I’d never even heard of. But he’s on the mend and walking around on a stick and venturing out.
She told me that she’d first met him at the National Portrait Gallery when Vivien Merchant [actress, then married to Pinter] was doing a reading in the series People Past And Present.
He’d yelled at someone to shut up. That was her first awareness of him and then, after, there was one of those sandwich lunches and that’s where it happened.
End of March
Skip 70 went last Friday. At the Travellers Club [St James] I sat next to Somerset Herald [David Vines White] at dinner. The heralds are keeping their heads down under this [Labour] government.
February 28, 2006 The National Portrait Gallery is 150. A bevy of photographers greeted us both outside and in. Pictured: Sir Roy Strong and Peter Lea
I see their point. I hadn’t realised how much there was a concentration on the accession, which must be carried through quickly for it was feared that a Left-wing government would demand a referendum as to whether the monarchy should continue. Food for thought there.
I do wish Prince Charles wasn’t so thoughtless. I recall the Australians who were horrified when they went to lunch at Highgrove to see him have a different place setting and food to everyone else. It won’t do in this democratic age.
I heard about the Prince’s one-night stand with the Bacons at Raveningham [estate in Norfolk]. He brought not one but two valets and an entourage. The house was taken over and the hosts were exhausted. He shouldn’t do it.
The service for the 150th anniversary of the VCs [Victoria Cross] and approximately the 50th of the GCs [George Cross] called for the full splendour of the Abbey, with the clergy in gold copes.
The Prince of Wales and Camilla appeared, she in lilac, like a very tiny Mrs Tiggy-Winkle kind of lady with a sweet smile. She wore one of her vast hats, of the kind that must have a separate life of its own.
Lady Thatcher appeared in electric fuchsia pink, of a hue that would have stopped Big Ben. But oh so sad.
She was shepherded along by minders but she had completely ‘gone’, uttering odd phrases and grimacing and smiling with no sense whatsoever of what she was doing.
Dinner at the French embassy honouring the Pinters. I made the ghastly mistake of asking Harold how he was, to be slapped down. He was much thinner; clearly frailer than he would admit.
Michael Pakenham [Antonia Fraser’s brother] told me how Harold wouldn’t abandon his Socialist principles and, therefore, always clung to the NHS whereas he would get better treatment if he went private.
Smoking had gone from his life but not the bottle. By midday, Michael said, the corks still popped. Who knows how long all this will go on?
The benign ambassador gave a charming little speech, in reply to which Harold stood and delivered an anti-Bush, anti-Blair tirade. On Blair’s letter of condolence to those bereaved in the Iraq war, writing of them having laid down their lives defending this country: ‘I was unaware that we had been invaded,’ spat out Harold.
Went to see [Prince Charles’s former private secretary] Stephen Lamport at Clarence House. It’s like getting into Fort Knox compared with the [Queen Mother] Faerie Queen’s day.
I found myself being ushered into a waiting room which had an inscribed copy of my book The Artist And The Garden placed in a heap of magazines to be fingered through by anyone.
That, I need hardly say, will be the last time that I ever send a book to the Prince of Wales.
Lamport’s [initial dossier on the next coronation] covered everything from a defence of Christian kingship to who should be invited.
I said that provision for the coronation of a queen should be made now, because Camilla could well end up a much-loved one.
Is the Prince interested?
The answer to that was that he can’t face talking about it. So, on we go.
Extracted from Types And Shadows: Diaries Of Sir Roy Strong 2004-2015, published by Orion, £25. © 2020 Sir Roy Strong. To buy a copy for £22 go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0203 308 9193, p&p is free on orders over £15. Offer valid until 05/12/2020.