Establishment favourite Sir Roy Strong’s waspish diaries are wonderfully indiscreet.
In today’s exclusive extract, he’s invited to William and Kate’s wedding and says the Middletons were the class act…
November 30, 2006
Dinner with Antonia Fraser at the Garrick Club. Tears came on both sides.
That she dreads losing Harold [her husband, playwright Harold Pinter] was the subtext.
She asked me how I saw the afterlife.
I said that I didn’t, beyond a feeling and a hope that it would somehow be a perpetual awareness of the presence of God and, equally, of [my late wife] Julia.
Antonia was very funny about her mother, who believed that her husband Frank [Earl of Longford] would be waiting for her with a cup of tea in his hands.
May 16, 2007
A droll day in Bath. Much to my amusement, the Fashion Museum [to which Strong had donated most of his extensive wardrobe] is planning an exhibition of my shirts.
It was so astonishing to see the stuff all carefully folded away, wrapped in tissue paper. My task was to choose the right ties for the right shirts.
Art historian Roy Strong has shared his diaries from 2006 to 2015, detailing extravagant dinners with the Queen, and detailing the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton
What is so striking is that they’re already history: the huge collars and very narrow shirts of the late 1960s with ‘kipper’ ties, the narrow-collared mid-1970s shirts with thin ties, and the expansion of the 1980s.
Also the changes in colour and pattern: the art nouveau revival of the late Sixties and the early art deco one in the mid-Seventies.
I told them that there was a lot more to collect: my clothes from the late 1980s to 2000 ought to go.
Much to my surprise, I was asked to a dinner at Lambeth Palace by the Archbishop of Canterbury to which the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were coming. I can’t think why.
There were 16 of us, with quite a contingent from the [Royal] Household. What was odd was to find two glasses on the table already filled with red and white wine and the food just put before you on a plate.
But I warmed to the fact that this was how things were done here on a slender budget. And, in any case, I don’t think that the Queen notices food very much.
She was dressed in a pale emerald green frock with a lot of bead embroidery.
The belt had been put on slightly askew and I think that she must have done her own make-up, for her face was a mass of pink powder put on in a way that I recall that my mother did in the 1950s.
Following a dinner with The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in 2007, Roy Strong wrote in his diary: ‘I think that she must have done her own make-up, for her face was a mass of pink powder’
As usual, she did her stuff both before and after dinner with us all.
I expressed my pleasure that the Royal Collection had bought Annigoni’s study of her head for the 1970 portrait.
She was enthusiastic about that, so I recalled a lunch at the Palace decades ago and how I’d been dragooned to ask her to sit for her portrait and she had said that she had just sat for her portrait for Scotland in which she looked like a pygmy; and how, when she came to the National Portrait Gallery, she had paused in front of the Annigoni picture and delivered the line: ‘It looks very different with a frame.’
I went to Bath to do a performance for [my book] the Little History Of The English Country Church in a bookshop.
As I was about to begin, a woman got up, turned round, bent down and raised her skirts to display to me her un-knickered bottom. She then sat down.
I didn’t bat an eyelid but muttered something like: ‘I’ve had some very strange beginnings to my lectures in my time . . .’ and sailed on.
I later gathered that this was called ‘mooning’.
Funeral of Billy Talon, the Page of the Back Stair.
This took place in the Queen’s Chapel at St James’s Palace, the interior of which I had only glimpsed once before.
It is beautiful with superb Inigo Jones proportions, really elegant.
The service sheet opened to reveal a photo of Billy walking the Queen Mother’s corgis and closed with one of him with Reg, his partner and Page of the Presence, with beneath: ‘Together at last.’
They’d been together for 42 years. It was heartening to see this recognised in such a setting.
Derek Jacobi read a poem at the funeral of Billy Talon, the Page of the Back Stair, which Roy Strong attended
As funerals go, it was a good one. Patricia Routledge read a poem and so did Derek Jacobi, a hilarious portrait of Billy which opened: ‘Have another one.’ ‘No, I couldn’t.’ ‘Go on, ’ave another one . . .’
As one knows, they ran on alcohol (Clarence House did) and Billy died of cirrhosis of the liver. I took Patricia to lunch at the Garrick.
She and Billy had an ongoing friendship and every telephone call began with Billy saying ‘Woof, woof’ and whenever he saw her, he did a full curtsy.
I was cheered by my gym trainer saying that I was the fittest over-60-year-old he’d ever trained. So there’s hope!
I am on the last lap of sorting out everything since [his wife] Julia died [in October 2003]. I thought that it would never end. But it has. And now, at last, I can get on with life!!
January 31, 2008
I’m afraid that the will to keep a Diary evaporated. It might return but I doubt it.
There is a long gap, in which Strong didn’t keep a diary…
I wrote two years ago that I would not continue to write a Diary. At my 75th birthday party John Swannell, who had recently photographed me as an Elizabethan, ruff and all, was horrified to learn I had stopped.
‘But, Roy, you’re the Mr Pepys of our time!’ he said.
‘Well,’ I replied, ‘I’m not, and God knows who would want to read what I write.’
But John was the reason that I began again.
The real turning point for me has been the decision to open the garden [at The Laskett, Roy’s home in Herefordshire set in four acres].
The visitors are stunned by it. I have also given myself a personal trainer for my 75th birthday. I love having new goals to conquer.
And I wrote to [National Trust head] Fiona Reynolds about leaving the gardens to them.
In August a delegation came who said the Trust would need both house and garden as they were interconnected and that themes in the one were re-echoed in the other.
The Diary proper for 2010 starts again on September 15
I hadn’t been to [Prince Charle’s home] Highgrove since 2000, so I was curious as to where [the garden] had got.
It still remains fragmentary and unresolved, and I recall [influential gardener] Rosemary Verey trying, as she said, to ‘pull it together’.
So did I, and so did [garden designers] the Bannermans. But it remains confused and lacking cohesion, going off at tangents all over the place.
In 2010 Mr Strong visited Highgrove, the home of Prince Charles. He described the estate as ‘very large with eight gardens. I think too large’
It is now very large and with eight gardeners, I think too large.
A lot of the problems besetting the garden at Highgrove go back to not being ruthless enough at the outset, so large trees which muck up the structure have been left standing.
And the Prince wants creeping plants all over the house, although it’s sad to conceal the 18th-century architecture.
What was sad was the Kitchen Garden, which was once so glorious but is now tired and all over the place.
I still love the stumpery, although a shrine to the Queen Mother has sprung up, a huge mound with a head of her in a hat with rays exploding out of it like a baroque Madonna.
Rather unsettling, I thought.
The day of the Russian oligarch Evgeny Lebedev’s dinner to celebrate him gaining British citizenship.
The location was extraordinary, the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, and the cost must have been around £100,000.
It was an odd mixture of guests, ranging from the respectable to the raffish to trash.
Evgeny Lebedev himself has the perfect elegance of a Regency dandy, slim and immaculately bearded and with dark, expressive eyes.
He has the appearance of a figure out of Tolstoy or Proust, perhaps a bit of both. E
lton John I’ve always thought benign, although he’s saddled with features that aren’t that good, and now he’s in his 60s he’s showing it a bit. God knows who everyone else was.
Evgeny Lebedev himself has the perfect elegance of a Regency dandy, Roy Strong writes, describing him as ‘slim and immaculately bearded and with dark, expressive eyes’
I was introduced to Elizabeth Hurley, a tall, once beautiful woman with too much make-up around her eyes. [Interior designer] Nicky Haslam looks quite ravaged these days.
It was certainly not worth having his face lifted.
J.K. Rowling I thought was a delightful, rather beautiful woman. I told her that I hadn’t read a thing she’d written.
Then Peter Mandelson — I hope a fallen idol — with those dead-looking eyes set into a face that was still in good condition but which only sprang to life at the mention of anything political, God help us . . .
I was placed between a beautiful young actress, Rosamund Pike, and her partner, which was OK but rather boring. They probably thought the same of me.
January 12, 2011
I took [celebrated art critic] Brian Sewell to lunch. He will be 80 this year and really had little to say in favour of anything.
Instead it was a long litany of everything having gone to the dogs: the Courtauld Institute, the newspapers, education, the government . . . Oh dear, I must never get like this.
[Prince Charles’s former private secretary] Stephen Lamport wanted to tell the Queen that she ought to see The King’s Speech [movie], but I heard later that someone who sat next to her at Balmoral dared to ask [if she’d seen it], to which she replied: ‘No, they were my parents and that’s how I wish to remember them.’
This was the day when I was told — after four visitations from them — that the National Trust had turned down The Laskett. I was shattered.
Plugging [my new book] Visions Of England in Southend.
It was a good, if dishevelled audience, no one younger than 50 and all looking as though they ought to be sent to the dry cleaners.
Robin, son of [Tory politician] Peter Walker, was Julia’s godson and this was his marriage at St Margaret’s, Westminster.
Prince Charles’s former private secretary, Stephen Lamport, was said to be interested in asking the Queen if she would watch The King’s Speech. But Her Majesty is not thought to be interested in the film about her father, she was heard to say ‘they were my parents and that’s how I wish to remember them’
I always watch carefully as to who knows the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Not a lot of them, really.
[Artist] Jonathan Heale had quite a funny story from a friend of his who had to stay with the Prince of Wales in Scotland.
The phone rang. It was Wills [Prince William]. Said person offered to withdraw. ‘No, no.’
Receiver eventually put down and all the Prince said was: ‘They don’t read books any more.’
The Royal Wedding [of William and Kate].
I’d got in at about 8.50am and nothing happened until 10.15am The nave became like a cocktail party minus the drinks and canapés, everyone moving around and chatting.
In the case of the women there were an awful lot of pink dresses, with jackets for the most part, and flying-saucer hats skewered on at various angles.
Some were pretty awful. Jewels were thin on the ground, apart from the odd diamond brooch from the bank vault.
The prize for the most inappropriately dressed woman went to Mrs Bercow [former Commons speaker’s wife, Sally], whose plunging neckline suggested she’d mistaken the occasion.
Long gone are the days when the likes of Norman Hartnell or Hardy Amies would design the clothes of all the leading royal personages, ensuring that they composed a harmonious tableau.
‘There was a persistent thread of understatement,’ at the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton, writes Mr Strong, believing the couple would have preferred a ‘quiet country wedding’
In the past decades this has been replaced by fashion chaos, with too many of them competing for attention.
The width of the otherwise stylish Princess Michael’s hat was such that it suggested she would have to navigate some doorways sideways.
The Duke of York’s two amiable daughters are desperately in need of fashion counselling.
The two Princes ambled by in such a way that one hardly noticed, Harry with shoulders the width of a baseball player.
Reading between the lines, what both bride and groom would have liked would have been a quiet country wedding.
There was a persistent thread of understatement and a desire for modesty running at the heart of these nuptials.
The Middletons caught that, Mrs Middleton elegant in pale blue with no attempt to draw attention to herself.
Her daughter’s dress was equally seemly, never screaming ‘look at me!’.
The bride had a natural, unaffected poise. The diamond tiara had almost to be looked for tucked under the veil.
With care, the new Duchess of Cambridge might avoid becoming that fatal role for a royal, a fashion icon.
We’ve had that, and the Queen is a monument to believing that it’s not a role she has ever aspired to occupy.
The prize for the most inappropriately dressed woman went to Sally Bercow, writes Roy Strong, adding her ‘plunging neckline suggested she’d mistaken the occasion’
It had been a very good day: a good day not only for the bride and groom and for me, but for the entire country. I had been present at hope.
The opening of [The Laskett] garden has been a huge success. Visitors heap praise on it, saying again and again, ‘Better than Highgrove’.
A reporter came to interview me.
There was a lead-up to the jugular: ‘The subtext of all your interviews is that you are gay and was the marriage a lavender one?’
But I did fall in love at 35 with Julia and to me our marriage was sacred and fulfilled in every sense.
I can write with truth that I have never been to bed with a man but, yes, I have with a woman.
But sex was never the driving force of that marriage, although it was certainly part of it.
This was the ghastly week when I was the victim of a scam. It left me gutted.
Someone had stolen a friend’s address book and there came this email saying that they had been held up at gunpoint in Madrid and needed money, £1,500, to get air tickets.
It all sounded very convincing.
I rang her but could get no answer so it seemed OK. I had a dreadful time getting the money and sending it to her via some company.
Next day there was another agonising email asking for a further £2,000 for the hotel bill. I sprang to again. I was exhausted.
[My PA] Fiona looked at the emails and immediately said ‘It’s a scam’ but I was too late to stop the money.
The nervous exhaustion of it nearly wiped me out.
It was a terrible lesson.
All through this period, when we are in economic crisis with massive numbers of unemployed and no money, the very rich seem to be richer than ever.
Antonia Fraser told me that she wanted to have tea with a friend at either Claridge’s or The Ritz but both were booked up for months, and so they had to ‘make do’ with the Connaught!
[Photographer] John Swannell told me he had been asked to photograph the Queen for the Diamond Jubilee and granted an unprecedented two hours.
He had worked out what he wanted but she wouldn’t sit on Queen Victoria’s throne.
Also he had wanted her near a window but that was ruled out as once she had gone near a window and someone saw her from the Mall and crashed the car.
Types And Shadows: Diaries Of Sir Roy Strong 2004-2015, shares the intimate notes from the writer and art historian, including how he was scammed out of thousands of pounds
In the evening I took my godchild Charlie Aslet to The Sleeping Beauty at Covent Garden.
We got back to the Aslet household in Tachbrook Street and I had a long chat with Clive [Charlie’s father, former editor of Country Life magazine] until almost 1am.
Much was on the fact of the present financial divide between rich and poor on a scale unknown since Edwardian England. Someone like Clive was caught.
Those with masses of money spent fortunes on private tutors for their offspring to get them up to what was needed, even, in one instance that he knew, taking the tutor out with them to the Bahamas.
Clive has three fine boys to provide for and it’s a nightmare.
My own view is that in the period we are going in to it would be wise to get out of the cities as there could be much unrest and violence.
All of this gloomy conversation was in the aftermath of Cameron’s use of the veto in Brussels.
The EU is wildly unpopular and if they had a referendum the country would overwhelmingly opt out.
I had Raine Spencer to lunch. She arrived looking larger than I remember her, in a purple tweed two-piece with the perennial good jewel pinned top right in the manner of ladies-in-waiting.
But she stuck to wearing her large fur hat all through lunch, an aberration abandoned years ago — very 1950s and earlier! Utterly unsinkable.
EXTRACTED from Types And Shadows: Diaries Of Sir Roy Strong 2004-2015, published by Orion, £25. © 2020 Sir Roy Strong.
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