Roy Strong’s Diaries (2)

Reading Roy Strong’s Diaries has reminded me that I was asked to give a speech in his honour on 4 May 2006. He apparently suggested that I keep it for his obituary. It’s lucky he has reminded me of it because I had filed it under the date and not his name, so have been able to rescue it from oblivion and am re-posting it, if only for my benefit, because some aspects of his many achievements are at risk of being forgotten:-

Where does one begin ? 

I am not going to say anything about his accomplishments in fields too many to mention, nor his extraordinary success as Director of the National Portrait Gallery, not least because I know that he has had at least three other birthday parties already to accommodate the multifarious character of his many friends.

What I want to concentrate on tonight is all that he contributed to the V&A during his time as its Director from 1974 to 1987.   It was not, I know, the happiest period of his life, nor, certainly, the easiest — that, at least, is obvious, if nothing else, from his Diaries.   But I think it is a period in the history of the V&A which is in danger of being forgotten or slightly overlooked, not least because it is now three Directorships ago.

I myself arrived at the V&A in December 1982 to run the new postgraduate course in the History of Design (actually it was called ‘Design and Decorative Arts:  History and Technique’) between the V&A and the Royal College of Art.   It was one of Roy’s many imaginative innovations.   It was said that he had met Chris Frayling (now Sir Christopher) half way up Exhibition Road and, between them, they had decided that they should do something to reunite the spirit of the V&A and the Royal College of Art.   In the post-war period, they had been geographically close, but psychologically apart.   The V&A had been immersed in the close study of the history of the decorative arts, while the Royal College was rightly preoccupied by contemporary practice.   Neither had the language to speak to one another.  

It was entirely typical of Roy’s intuitive approach to the future welfare of the institution that he realised that having postgraduate students studying the collection would gradually transform the whole approach of the Museum to its subject matter.   It was also perhaps characteristic of Roy that he had told the Keepers of the day that the whole point of the Course was to bring them into the twentieth century !   John Physick was a great supporter and presented books to help with its library.

But there were many other achievements.   I must mention his many important exhibitions.   I have never forgotten — and nor has he and many other people — his great exhibition on ‘The Destruction of the Country House’ which he did with Marcus Binney and John Harris and John Cornforth and which opened with the noise of demolition and which did so much to transform public attitudes to the importance of the country house and its future.

When I arrived at the V&A, the Museum was in the middle of an exhibition ‘Artists of the Tudor Court’ and there was much tut-tutting that Roy had himself written and signed the catalogue, which in those days was expected to be studiously anonymous, as if they were written by some bureaucratic committee of faceless civil servants.   Not long afterwards, there was the great exhibition ‘Rococo’, which was a brilliant and pioneering cross-cultural study of a style which had previously been regarded, quite wrongly, as not having existed in England.

But the thing which many people will have forgotten — Roy himself may have done — was that, not long before he left, he set up something called the Future Strategy committee.   It was to look at future change to the permanent galleries, with Michael and Patty Hopkins as Masterplanners.   I was a member of it.   In California recently, Malcolm Baker, now a Professor at the University of Southern California, and I sat over lunch and recollected that much which has happened since at the V&A — the idea of a Masterplan, the idea that galleries should be about ideas as well as about objects, the split between Art and Design Galleries and Materials and Techniques, the belief that they should be funded privately — all of this was owing to Roy.

So what did Roy stand for as Director ?  In my view, as a young and then newly appointed Assistant Keeper in the Education Department, he stood, above all, for modernity.   You felt that he wanted to sweep all the cobwebs away, perhaps sometimes almost too vigorously.   He stood for fashionability in the best possible sense of the word.   He was interested in the history of dress and the history of gardens and the history of food and the history of photography.   He supported the opening of the Boilerhouse Project in the basement under the auspices of Stephen Bayley.   He was interested in the contemporary crafts and opened the Crafts shop supported by the Crafts Council.   But, he also stood, and let us not forget, for the intellect, for the ways in which ideas have shaped the life of objects, for new ideas and fresh ways of thinking, for staff who came out of the universities like Debby Swallow now Director of the Courtauld and Craig Clunas, now at SOAS, and Joe Earle, now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  

Not everyone shared Roy’s vision.   Not everyone has been retrospectively as generous as they should have been in their assessment of Roy’s era.   But I for one have always been a great admirer of Roy as a creative innovator in the world of museums.


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