Sir Roy Strong, country houses and heritage

Yesterday I had the pleasure of interviewing Sir Roy Strong for my book. Sir Roy was director of the National Portrait Gallery from 1967 to 1973 and of the Victoria and Albert Museum from 1974 to 1987. Striding into the café of the National Gallery in a richly patterned, powder-blue suit and a beard reminiscent of a sixteenth-century Spanish grandee, Sir Roy looked less like a former museum director than a hipster. Now 82 years old, the man who as a research student blew part of his grant on a Teddy Boy coat, remains true to himself.

A leading figure in the museum’s world during the 1970s and 1980s, Sir Roy Strong would be an interesting person to talk to anyone interested in museums in this time, especially as he introduced many things to Britain we now take for granted such as friends of the museum organisations and third-party sponsorship. I was particularly interested in an exhibition he initiated soon after the became director of the V&A. The Destruction on the Country Housetried to mobilise public opinion to save Britain’s stately homes from demolition. Increasingly hard to maintain since the First World War, they faced a new threat in the 1970s in the guise of a proposed wealth tax.

Conceived as a polemic—one room showed pictures of destroyed houses on a crumbling portico, while their names were being read in the background—the exhibition naturally faced a lot of criticism. It hasn’t fared much better in historiography. Patrick Hewison calls it “a covert piece of propaganda against the wealth tax and a lament for the disappearance of a genteel way of life”.1 Peter Mandler sees it as an expression of “the mood of the V&A’s director Roy Strong, who like many of the younger fogeys had played a part in the light-hearted nostalgia boom of the late 1960s but was beginning to sour on modern life and, indeed, to find refuge in the better world of Brideshead”.2

I can see Hewison and Mandler’s point. Browsing through the exhibition catalogue, I was struck by how hideous many of the destroyed houses were. Some heirs were only too glad to get rid of their impractical, draughty inheritance. Many houses also didn’t predate the nineteenth century and therefore could hardly claim much historic worth. Not to mention that many of them were built on the back of slavery and exploitation. However, an occasionally country house tourist myself, I can also see the point of those, who wanted to preserve them.

The Roy Strong of the 1970s and 1980s wanted to make the museum more democratic and to defend the country’s heritage from destruction. “One of the burning reasons for wanting to direct the V&A”, he recalls in his edited diaries, “was the passionate belief that a huge threat was on the horizon for everything that we now categorise as ‘heritage’, and that that museum under my directorship could play a crucial role as a vehicle in its defence.“3 In doing so, he brought about what those he calls “the Antis”—Robert Hewinson, Patrick Wright, David Lowenthal—termed the “heritage industry”. Once retired from the V&A, Sir Roy soon sounded more like an “Anti” himself, lamenting “this country’s addiction to heritage”.4 Today he criticises the commercialisation of the museum that in his eyes has gone too far. In the end, however, it was probably not an either/or question: commercialisation was the form the democratisation of the museum took.

  1. Robert Hewison, Culture and Consensus: England, Art and Politics since 1940(London: Methuen, 1997), 193. []
  2. Mandler, Peter, The Heritage Panic of the 1970s and 1980s in Great Britain, in: Peter Itzen, Christian Müller (eds.), The Invention of Industrial Pasts. Heritage, Political Culture and Economic Debates in Great Britain and Germany, 1850-2010 (Augsburg: Wißner, 2013), 58-69, here 64. []
  3. Roy Strong, The Roy Strong Diaries 1967-1987(London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997), 121. []
  4. Roy Strong, Strong Points(London: Thames and Hudson, 1985), 70. []