Sir Roy Strong interview: ‘We have no great leaders in this country – bar the Queen’

As a new volume of his diaries appears, the art historian is angry at the ‘Stasi-like’ National Trust, and downcast at Prince Harry’s exile

Sir Roy Strong in his gardens at The Laskett in Herefordshire
Sir Roy Strong in his gardens at The Laskett in Herefordshire Credit: Andrew Crowley for DT

Sir Roy Strong, aesthete and master of re-invention, is known to dress up at the drop of a buccaneer’s hat, and has never found it a problem to celebrate his own exotic persona. The latest volume of his diaries is enjoyably peppered with sartorial attention to detail. “It was a gorgeous day and I dressed elegantly in a flowered shirt, open at the neck, and faded denim jacket”, is a typical entry.

So as we cannot meet face-to-face at his famous Herefordshire garden for this interview, I ask the former director of the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum to describe his singular person. “I’ve got an absolute mass of white hair. It looks marvellous,” he says. “The epitome of the elegance of the older man.”

The photographs show he has not exaggerated. His great white mane wafts in the breeze and the trademark drooping moustache merges with a luxuriant beard inspired by Boldini’s portrait of Verdi. He is swaddled in a rich autumnal wrap worn with a vintage leather jacket and denims. By turns, he has the twinkle of a cavalier by Frans Hals and the doleful gravitas of a 17th-century gentleman.

Behind him is The Laskett, the home and fabulously idiosyncratic gardens he created with his late wife, the designer Julia Trevelyan Oman, from a four-acre field. He is about to leave this personal paradise without a backward glance. “I loved my wife dearly,” he says, “but it was like living within my own shroud.  I knew I had to move. You move forward but you never forget. She would be cheering me on.”

The Laskett, is a horticultural narrative of their blissful union, one of the largest private formal gardens to be created in England since the war. “I will not miss it”, he says. “When I’ve gone, I’ve gone. The ties have been severed already. I have nothing more to do here. I don’t want to come back.” At least not until his ashes are buried with his wife’s under a quince tree in the orchard. “It will be a poetic end to it.”

To Sir Roy’s outrage, after 15 years of fruitless negotiations the National Trust turned down his gift of house and gardens. “I was told it wasn’t up to their high standards. That took my breath away. I’m sorry. It’s a bloody good garden. To say that I felt angry would be an understatement.” (If it had had to be sold, he would have stripped it of everything that set it apart as his and Julia’s creation.)

He’s got over the slight now, and is delighted that it is being preserved instead by Perennial, the Gardeners’ Royal Benevolent Society. “Dealing with them has been a revelation,” he writes. “The National Trust, on the other hand, is like the Stasi.”     

Strong, then director of the V&A, shows the Queen around the Henry Cole Gallery in 1983 Credit: Hulton Royals

He’s downsizing to a five-bedroom Regency town house in the market town of Ledbury – “10 minutes from the station in one direction and 10 minutes from Tesco in the other.” It needs restoration, but then that is what he thrives on. “I love projects. I’ve lived off projects.”

The move was prompted by a fall that almost killed him on the morning of his 84th birthday. “I came down, went to the fridge, opened the door and the next thing I remember is looking down at a whopping pool of blood. “The head injury left me with a degree of deafness in my left ear but I made a stupendous recovery which I owe to keeping in good physical order.” 

Sir Roy exercises with a personal trainer and rides along the country lanes on a custom-built tricycle. His trainer says he has the physique of a very fit 75-year-old, but the accident cost him his driving licence. “It made me rethink.  You can’t go on living at this speed at this age.”

The third volume of diaries – which resume after Julia’s death in 2003 and run until 2015, with a cheeky excursion into 2016 so that he can record being made a Companion of Honour – chronicle his frantic new phase as a widower.

“The greatest tribute you can pay to one who has gone”, he believes, “is to make a new life.” In a last great spending splurge, he redesigns the house and garden as if there were no tomorrow. “I went into Ross [on Wye] for a carton of cream,” he writes on February 23 2006, “and came back with a large chandelier.”

In an orgy of shedding, he sells, discards and gives away.  Out goes Julia’s studio.  More than 100 skips are required to clear the “unbelieveable morass of clutter.” Three decades of his flamboyant wardrobe are sent to the Fashion Museum in Bath. His archive, including the personal diaries, is in the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. There is to be a sale of some of his possessions at Christie’s next month.

Strong with his late wife Julia, who passed away in 2003 Credit: Rex

Post-Julia, life becomes a round of speech-making, dinners, literary festivals, television presenting, portrait sittings, church appeals, operas, galleries, foreign lecture tours, research for a prodigious flow of books – and all too regular memorial services. “Social gatherings are now rapidly becoming assemblies of the ailing”, he notes.

These diaries are much less waspish and more reflective than the two earlier volumes. “Age brings a kind of temperance”, he says. “You don’t judge people.” But he’s still a beady-eyed regular at national events and still mingling with churchmen, artists, politicians and royalty, whose food and dress sense sometimes disappoint him.

In 2010 he attends a dinner to celebrate the Russian oligarch Evgeny Lebedev’s British citizenship.  Elizabeth Hurley is there “a tall, once-beautiful woman, with too much make-up around her eyes.”  Nicky Haslam looks so crumpled that “it was certainly not worth having his face lifted.” Peter Mandelson is 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.”

At the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011 (“I had been present at hope”), he awards Sally Bercow, wife of the then-Speaker, prize for the most inappropriately dressed woman.  Her “plunging neckline suggested that she’d mistaken the occasion”.

The opening lunch of the Chelsea Flower Show centenary in 2013 affords him “rather a lot of photo occasions as I wore my striped blazer!”  – but is a bore. He grumbles that the RHS hasn’t been the driving force of innovation or change for a century. “It’s a real fat cat with royal-itis.” Alan Titchmarsh makes the opening speech. “There was a little too much of Alan as he went on and on. Like Simon Jenkins, he can’t keep his head down below the parapet for a time to give us all a welcome rest.”

'You've had me for half a century. I want to be quiet': the latest volume of Strong's diaries is out now Credit: Andrew Crowley for DT

Despite his deliciously acute eye for failings, Sir Roy is a thoughtful host to his friends, many of whom are in a bad state of repair. When Michael Borrie, former keeper of manuscripts in the British Library, comes to lunch ravaged by jaw cancer, he cooks a special soft meal that will be easy for him to eat. On a winter’s day in 2011, the Dowager Marchioness of Bute calls unannounced, having lost her handbag. He provides her with £100 in notes and, while she is exercising her dog in the garden, he rustles up a four-course lunch.

He says he has had a “privileged pandemic”, spoiled with a large house and garden, but feels for those trying to care for children in confined spaces. The Church of England, he says, has done itself “terrible harm” by closing churches. “We have no great leader, spiritual or temporal, no one with the strength of mind or concept of the country who can gather everyone up at a time like this,” he laments.

“It is completely missing – except for the Queen. She has the power to do that in a few simple words. As with the first Elizabeth, most of the population has never lived without the present Queen, so when the inevitable happens it will be like the end of time.”

Sir Roy is, of course, an unashamed monarchist. During his time as High Bailiff and Searcher of the Sanctuary of Westminster Abbey (which, to his joy, required him to wear a blue velvet robe with gold trimmings) he wrote a history of the Coronation ceremonial. “In any family there are ups and downs,” he reflects of the current upheavals. “Harry’s departure must be a great burden for the Queen to carry, but they’ve probably been through worse times. He is a very sad loss. He has a freshness of nature, a bonhomie, and he was a wow with the troops.”

After years of saying yes to almost everything, and being required to pontificate on cultural controversies, Sir Roy is retiring from the fray. “I don’t want to give any more lectures or be on any more committees or open any more things or be rung up and asked to write an op-ed piece. No! You’ve had me for half a century. I want to be quiet. I feel I’ve done my stint.”

Types And Shadows: The Roy Strong Diaries 2004–2015 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25) is out now