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Sir Roy Strong: Art Historian

PUBLISHED: 14:04 31 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:40 20 February 2013

Sir Roy Strong

Sir Roy Strong

Flamboyant, stylish, outspoken: Sir Roy Strong has spent a lifetime inspiring the public with his love of art, history and gardens. Now he's championing a £3.36 million project to restore Westonbirt House and grounds to their former glory

"I had no idea that a mid-Victorian house of such magnificence existed. It is a superb structure; all the workmanship is of the highest throughout." Sir Roy Strong on Westonbirt House

"I suppose my broad aim... is to make as many people as possible care for those things I care about myself - things which so often today are threatened and desperately need friends to protect them and explain them to the public - our heritage in the way of antiquities and buildings, museums and galleries, learning, indeed anything connected with the survival and appreciation of our past." Sir Roy Strong

It's an autumn morning at a school in Gloucestershire. Downstairs, the plain tables are arranged in disciplined rows waiting for the next school dinner to be served; upstairs are the dorms, full of single beds and cupboards for school uniform. Outside, the chill dank air pushes against the tall windows...

Now let's stop there. There are certain scenes which, whatever your age, catapult you back into the past with deadly accuracy. And this, surely, is one of them. What does it conjure up for you? The start of term? A dull feeling in the pit of the stomach? Utilitarian rooms with gym bars lining the walls? The smell of stale, boiled cabbage?

Well, you can forget all that. This is Westonbirt, an independent girls' school widely acclaimed for the happy and caring atmosphere it generates for its several hundred pupils. But more astonishing than that: there are no gym bars in this dining room; no bleakly-painted walls, nor aromas of overcooked cabbage.

Instead, here are riches almost beyond belief. In this dining room, the ornate ceiling of magnificently-gilded flowers, the silk-covered walls and the grey stone-carved fireplace speak of country gentlemen - of wealthy magnificence - not of lively schoolgirls. Out in the saloon next door, the oak and walnut staircase, roofed by a heavily-moulded coffer ceiling, is made for tiny-waisted well-to-do Victorian ladies to descend in dove-grey Princess-line ball gowns. On the first-floor gallery, cherubs frolic on dark green and gold leather panels, surrounded by pomegranates, butterflies and birds; there are insets of burgundy gauffrage velvet - embossed by hot rollers - that echo Italian renaissance designs. And a girls' dorm, leading off from the gallery, is enlivened not by posters of the Kaiser Chiefs or The Killers but by duck-egg blue panels, hand-painted with oils, depicting castles and birds and scenes of bucolic bliss.

And in the middle of all this magnificence stands Sir Roy Strong, keeper of public treasures. He's here at Westonbirt to unveil a memorial to the man largely responsible for creating all this splendour - the Victorian collector, Robert Stayner Holford - and to promote the work of The Holfords of Westonbirt Trust. This newly-formed charity, of which Sir Roy is a vice president, is dedicated to the ambitious £3 million-plus task of restoring Westonbirt House and grounds to their former glory.

"This is an amazing house, not greatly known, and it should be more greatly known: it will become one of the places to come and see," Sir Roy tells the gathered onlookers.

****************

There's a portrait gallery in Sir Roy Strong's Herefordshire home, lining a bright corridor leading from hall to kitchen. There, on the walls you'll find the most extraordinary array of photographs. Among them, there's an impossibly romantic Tessa Traeger study of Sir Roy in profile, all flowing locks and draped shirt; a Cecil Beaton, taken in 1967, where (thanks to clever trompe l'oeil) Sir Roy dallies among ruffled 17th century noblemen negotiating a peace treaty.

"I think that would be a favourite," he says, pointing to a David Bailey in which his own surreally magnified eye peers out disconcertingly at the viewer. "What are you staring at?" it seems, pointedly but politely, to enquire.

Well you wouldn't expect a dull photograph of a man known for his idiosyncratic style; whose outfits are so sartorially elegant, some are on show in Bath's Fashion Museum ("The suit was worn with a striped shirt and tie from Turnbull & Asser"...); and whose diaries are full of intimate glimpses of the quick and the dead, the quirky and the dreadful: Margaret Thatcher, The Queen Mother; Princess Michael, Mrs Shand Kydd.

For two decades, he was at the head of national institutions, firstly as Director of the National Portrait Gallery (the youngest ever), before moving to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Heavens - what craziness prompted the Establishment to put someone so stylish, so unconventional and so learned in charge? Surely such repositories of public treasures need managers and accountants, not mercurial and brilliant overseers? Or am I deluded by the current zeitgeist...?

"I would absolutely hate to run any institution now," Sir Roy shudders. "I mean, what is your ethnic quota? How many are disabled? Everything is simply awful. Not that I'm against any of those things; they just seem to me to ignore the fundamental vision, the eccentricity. I always protected at the V&A those members of staff who were incredibly wayward but who had an originality. They drove you up the wall, but they looked at things in a way that made you think: Someone's throwing up something new and exciting."

Flamboyant, confident, unconventional, never boring... A one-man band. No committee, no matter how brilliantly composed, could ever have taken the decisions that he took; led public taste; gone bravely out on a limb; doubled the numbers flocking to the V&A with extrovert shows.

"I was able to do things that would be the unthinkable nowadays. When you think of the great exhibitions on country houses, on the future of church buildings, and on the garden... None of those could be staged any more. When one put one's weight behind the crafts - weaving, glass, ceramics - all that was for a cause. I didn't put on another Monet show simply because that would have them all coming in at the door.

"The role of the Director, I consider, was to lead taste."

Perhaps that's why he's so taken Westonbirt to heart. Normally reticent about interviews, he's nevertheless agreed to talk about the project today. In fact, he's absolutely bowled over by the house that, until recently, he knew nothing about.

"I had no idea that a mid-Victorian house of such magnificence existed," Sir Roy says. "I was astonished by the richness of the wood, the metalwork, every single detail."

The great house and garden were the conception of another idiosyncratic character: Robert Stayner Holford, born in 1808 to a family that had made a fortune supplying London with drinking water. Holford inherited the estate, three miles south west of Tetbury, at the age of 30 from his father, George - but his ideas were all his own. Employing the architect Lewis Vulliamy - a pupil of Sir Robert Smirke who designed the British Museum - he began to build the elaborate neo-Elizabethan mansion we still see today, which he filled with art treasures and manuscripts, including a First Folio. Around the house were 40 acres of pleasure grounds and the 600 acres of Westonbirt Arboretum, now owned by the Forestry Commission, which housed his impressive collection of trees from around the world.

George, his only son, carried on his father's work but, on his death, the estate went to a nephew who sold the house in 1928 to an independent girls' boarding school, the successor to which, Westonbirt School, remains there today.

"One thing about Westonbirt is that it was done by a single human being, unsaddled by a load of legislation and a load of committees. It's somebody's passion.

"It's that taxonomic thing the Victorians had where they wanted to nail everything down and put it in order, like an encyclopaedia. Holford didn't differentiate much, I think, between planting a tree and buying a Rembrandt. It represents an intellectual whole of a kind that doesn't exist any longer, which I think is important and interesting.

"It's a Victorian mind, during a period where it was thought possible to comprehend a large part of known human knowledge and base it around yourself, if you had enough money."

Money, of course, is an issue in the 21st century. The trust is aiming to raise enough, from major foundations, grants and private donations, to restore it authentically; indeed, the work has already begun. The overpaint is being stripped back to reveal the intense Victorian colour we associate with Pre-Raphaelite paintings - strong and vibrant; the silks on the walls - where each woven row required a different pattern card to give it an intense fluidity of line and curve - will be painstakingly recreated. And the pleasure grounds, which follow the painterly style advocated by W S Gilpin, a watercolour artist-turned-landscape gardener, will also be restored.

"The wonderful thing about this whole appeal and resurrecting this side of the road is that it provides the context into which the arboretum fits. The major part of the jigsaw lies inside and around that house, and the arboretum is a part of it. They reflect each other; and they're absolutely integral to each other," Sir Roy says.

Of course, there are all sorts of reasons why £3.36 million is not going to be easy to find. Firstly, it's an eye-bogglingly large sum. Secondly, it's made even more eye-watering by a recession. And thirdly, it won't be easy to ask investors to contribute to the fabric of a privileged girls' school, especially when access to the public will be limited mainly to school holidays.

So why is it so important that we preserve houses such as this? In fact, why do we need to dwell on the past at all?

"It's that whole business of relationship to history," Sir Roy says. I mean this government in particular has wiped out virtually the teaching of history in schools. Children have no idea of whether a reign was before or after Queen Victoria. They just learn a bit about the Tudors.

"The Government have now decided they have got to have someone who teaches the Holocaust in each school. The Holocaust was an appalling thing but this is absolutely ridiculous. They stick to the First and Second World Wars and that's it. People don't know why we've got Parliament, why we've got the monarchy, why we've got the church. If you don't know all those things, how can you, as it were, really understand your own country - or anything at all?

"If you destroy people's knowledge of the past, you can do anything with them that you like."

So is he saying it actually robs them of an understanding of what's happening now?

"Of course. A pertinent example is: we've had extremely repressive measures passed in the last few years and proposals that every single telephone call and email should be open to access; and then they wanted to detain people for a very long time. Those are far in extreme of the worst repressive measures taken in this country after the outbreak of the French Revolution - and then, of course, there was an enormous reaction in society. But this time it all just sailed through."

He sighs. "I don't want to sound like a dreary old man."

Far from it. He's a man with a huge amount still to teach the country - something he's done, over the years, in various ways. Aside from his work at national institutions, he's written extensively - both lightly and academically. And he's provided a lasting legacy in the form of his published diaries - from 1967-87 - which are famously witty and acerbic. Inevitably, the cameos are seized upon: Diana whose accent was "really rather awful considering that she is an earl's daughter... dare I say it, a bit common..."; Princess Margaret is "tiresome, spoilt, idle and irritating" (though later he acknowledges an act of kindness by her). Princess Michael, with her indiscreet observations, is bright and sharp but a risk: "The women that make up the Royal Family at the moment would make a fascinating study so disparate are they in looks, intellect and motivation".

His diaries also chronicle his life with his beloved late wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman with whom he famously 'eloped' in 1971. Together, they created the wonderful gardens around their Herefordshire home, the Laskett - an achievement Rosemary Verey called 'the largest private formal garden made in the UK since 1945'.

"It wasn't intended; we got hooked. What interests me most now is revisiting the garden - it's 35 years old - taking things out and replanting."

Is that hard to do?

"It was hard to do at the beginning after my wife died; we created it together. Yes, some of it's quite emotional. But on the other hand, a garden is mutant; it's changing the whole time. And I think to recognise that is very important for the people to whom one leaves the garden."

When we began the interview, it was on the understanding it would be on Westonbirt. But as we chat, the conversation ranges much more widely and fascinatingly. We talk about his introduction to museums by his mother who, despite her lack of education, took her 11-year-old son to see a French tapestry exhibition. "I remember, after the war, seeing an art book with colour plates. There was one I took to bed and put under my pillow, I was so excited. All that sense of wonderment."

There's the philistine Labour Government, today's 'blame' culture, and the appalling belief that everyone's opinion is as valid as those who actually know about the subject. "I always remember going up to the BBC when they were deciding who were going to be the six greatest Britons. It was a bizarre list anyway - Diana, Princess of Wales, was absolutely ridiculous. But what annoyed me was that it wasn't a consideration by people who spent their lives studying the subject; it was just anybody sitting in their lounge, pressing a button."

We discuss the last 10 years as a mad kind of Belle Epoque, full of diamond skulls and unmade beds, where money has been thrown around like confetti.

And his glittering career. "I always loved the V&A and the Portrait Gallery; if I had to choose, the Portrait Gallery is very high in my affection. The V&A is a more difficult institution; terribly difficult; terribly difficult."

Always?

"Yes, I think it always has been."

Why?

"Robert Armstrong - Lord Armstrong - said it's like government departments: Department of Education, rotten to the core; just in the blood. And the V&A has always been brilliant. After the war, Leigh Ashton was a brilliant curator. Opened one's eyes to so much: had glamour, style, everything. But behind the scenes it was a blood bath.

"Very unhappy people. Terrible history of directors and members of staff - just awful. Awful."

So are there any heroes and heroines today? "One did reflect after the American election, which still gave hope of that country, how amazing it was to see the rise of a man from the black community, a great orator with a great sense of integrity. And what also struck me was McCain's speech of acceptance that he had lost: it was of a gracious nature; a model kind of old-fashioned gentleman. And all I could think of was what rubbish we had at this end.

"I remember Sir Isaiah Berlin saying 20 years ago: No great name any more. There's a terrible truth in it. There's no one - not a single politician - that could raise to either of those levels in this country.

"And you think of the great Victorians and it's a very different role call of people."

Yet another reason to remind the world of Holford.

For more information about The Holfords of Westonbirt Trust, log onto www.holfordtrust.com or ring Janice Malschuk, the administrator, on 01666 881372

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