Sir ROY STRONG hoped to leave his glorious garden to Britain’s leading heritage charity

February 7, 2012

I started early with a walk across St James’s Park to the Royal Academy and met Antonia Fraser, looking good in fur, Charles Saumarez Smith [chief executive of the RA] then letting us in early to the David Hockney exhibition. 

It was a wonderful privilege to see it without anyone else there, room after room of happiness and joy, a sunshine quality with those radiant landscapes of East Yorkshire and the Dales.

I went to the Abbey for the Dickens commemoration. The Prince of Wales appeared, with his usual smiling if slightly agonised look, along with Camilla, who told me how they’d been to the Dickens Museum and I ought to go. 

He asked: ‘How’s the garden?’ I said: ‘Stunning, but you’ve never seen it.’

The Prince of Wales appeared. He asked: ‘How’s the garden?’ I said: ‘Stunning, but you’ve never seen it.’ The Prince of Wales appeared, with his usual smiling if slightly agonised look (Pictured: Sir Roy Strong in the Silver Jubilee Garden at his home in Herefordshire)

February 8

In the evening I went to the Opera House. As I went in I saw David Hockney, the first time I’d seen him for years. 

I reminded him (he’s deaf) of who I was and told him of the happiness his exhibition had given me and how English he’d been, which he knew. 

‘We’re both of an age,’ I said. ‘I’ll be 75 this year,’ he said. ‘I’ll be 77,’ I said. ‘You’ll never catch up with me.’ He remains on my rather short list of originals.

March 19

I met Antonia to go to the Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery. 

She lived around the corner from him and he had painted Harold [Pinter, who had died in 2008] but the portrait was never finished.

There’s something disturbing about Freud’s work, all that acreage of naked flesh, flabby or emaciated, and all those downcast eyes. 

There’s a kind of cruelty about stripping people who are not beautiful but ugly. They are men and women as meat.

The women in particular seem humiliated in their nudity and then there’s the odd, creepy feature like part of a body protruding from under a bed.

All the sitters look like troubled souls in anguish. The texture of the flesh is dry and in no way luscious, as it would be in the case of a Titian.

June 24

Charles [Saumarez Smith] revealed that the senior staff of the V&A used to meet in the basement of the Daquise restaurant near South Kensington Station to plot my downfall. 

I knew that they met regularly but never knew where. What a hell-hole that place was!

The garden crisis has been resolved. The plan is for the running of it to pass to The Royal Benevolent Fund for Gardeners when I am 85, a sensible decision (Pictured: Sir Roy Strong at his home)

The garden crisis has been resolved. The plan is for the running of it to pass to The Royal Benevolent Fund for Gardeners when I am 85, a sensible decision (Pictured: Sir Roy Strong at his home) 

July 27

The launch of the Olympics. The opening sequence culminated in the Queen giving an assignment to 007, in the form of Daniel Craig. 

As she now looks like her grandmother Queen Mary come round again, this was surreal, plus the fact that it was a stunt that reduced the Queen to the level of Daniel Craig.

August 11

The day of my 77th birthday lunch, as I am away on the 23rd. I staged it in the Topiary Garden. 

I was dressed in my best Indian robes of cream encrusted with crimson and gold, with matching slippers. I looked very good, I thought, and so did everyone else.

About 35 came for what is called a canapé lunch, which means that there is no sit-down — which is when everyone gets stuck — but guests can instead wander around. 

These days I am obsessed by the superfluity of ancient people and those with something wrong with them, which makes me feel quite guilty.

August 30

This was the evening of Flora Fraser’s dinner in honour of her mother Antonia’s 80th birthday, one of a series of fêtes, I gather. 

The house in Kensington Park Gardens is large, expensively interior decorated and therefore characterless. 

In the guests poured, including Tom Stoppard and a great number of grandchildren.

A distinguished pianist bashed out ‘Happy Birthday’ midway through dinner, while two appalling flat cakes made by the children were carried in. 

There must have been 20 of us in all. Between courses we were all encouraged to make little speeches.

September 21

To London for the Abbey’s farewell dinner for Rowan Williams, [who] sat opposite me. 

He is an extraordinary man: I almost felt that I just wanted to look at him! His facial hair had been tidied up — it used to be all over the place, and with too much eyebrow.

October 19

In the evening I helped launch the School of Historical Dress. I spoke and so did Vivienne Westwood, rather raddled these days with her ginger hair growing out and her lined face etched over with make-up. 

Global warming is her thing and she spoke more about that than about the poor school.

January 23, 2013

Everywhere I look these days, men’s jeans and trousers are very, very narrow, so I picked up a pair in Zara and wondered if I could ever get them on, but I struggled and did.

February 23

Lettice has died. She was the most gentle and loving cat I ever had. Her presence was always reassuring. She barely had a voice, only a croak, but there was always a purr.

She looked after me when Julia was no more. Every night as I prepared to go to bed, she appeared from nowhere, leapt on the bed, walked slowly the whole way up it and lay along my left side, her huge eyes looking into mine. 

There she stayed until I’d gone to sleep. Farewell, most loved creature.

March 7

Took Antonia [Fraser] to lunch at The Wolseley. She revealed that she couldn’t stand Hilary Mantel’s work; neither can I. I tried to read one of those volumes and gave up, irritated.

March 19

In the evening was John Swannell’s fundraising dinner for the autistic (his son Charlie is one such). 

Sophie Wessex was the royal guest, suburban girl made good in a black dress, who read a speech. 

She and Kate Middleton (it began with the dreaded Ferguson) represent the suburbanisation of the monarchy; but that, I think, is how it’s going to be.

May 10

Paul Brason [portrait artist] came to lunch. It was one of the Queen’s private secretaries, he learnt, who was responsible for the Queen sitting for Lucian Freud — awful, he said.

I loved Paul’s doorknob tale. When Prince Michael sat for him years ago, everything had gone well until the Prince went to the door and stopped. 

He must have been taught that no royal personage ever opened one, as doors had to be opened for them. Paul rushed over and did it.

In contrast, seeing this situation arising again with the Duke of Edinburgh [who was sitting for a portrait], he rushed to open the door, at which point the Duke said: ‘I’m perfectly capable of opening a door!’

After Paul had gone, I drove into Hereford and bought a bike. I’ve never ridden one so this is a new adventure.

June 4

The Coronation remembered. I got to the Abbey by 9.30 am. The royals are a motley crew, and somehow one couldn’t help noticing that so many of them looked suburban.

The Queen, now a little bent at 87, in white and with a hat with blue chiffon roses, set in expression and not smiling; the York princesses and the Princess Royal’s children look like something from an estate of 1920s semis.

After the sermon, we all went to College. The Duchess of Cornwall was opposite at an angle and yelled at me ‘Hello Roy!’ 

She’s such a bonus, animated and a bit gung-ho, much easier than Diana.

October 10

The tenth anniversary of Julia’s death. Oh God, how the years fly; and yet it all seems like yesterday. 

But so much has changed: I have, the house has, so has the garden. What am I to make of it all? I’m still seized periodically with grief.

November 14

I have learnt the hard way that you can’t learn balance at 78. My ever-resourceful trainer Jonty discovered the Tricycle Association. 

My new trike cost £3,600 so it ought to be a masterpiece! (It was. I’m still riding it.)

December 3

Monty Don arrived with a film crew for an episode in his craft series. He must be close to 60, not good-looking at all but engaging and with fine eyes.

February 21, 2014

[Former Vogue editor] Beatrix [Miller] has died at 90. 

I’ve lost one of my oldest friends. Every Saturday from about 1990 onwards, I would ring her at about 6 pm and we would chatter and scream with laughter. 

But years ago, I found her formidable, sitting in that office in Hanover Square, usually behind a pair of dark glasses. 

On the floor there would always be a handful of memorable photographs: Beaton, Bailey, Snowdon, Donovan.

This was the era when Beatrix would give dinners and everyone who was anyone in that Sixties scene was there. But it’s what happened afterwards that was so extraordinary.

She bought a house in Wiltshire, but domestically she was hopeless. She couldn’t boil an egg. 

Nor did she even attempt to master new technology. So she sat in that gloomy room tapping away at an electric typewriter.

Vogue is notoriously mean and Beatrix had never saved or invested so she got miserably poor. 

She had to sell the country place and was always looking for what else she could dispose of. She was a woman who could have given so much later in life but didn’t.

Most of all she was the deeply caring woman whom I rang almost daily in those weeks when Julia was dying.

May 9-11

The Heseltines entertain in the grand manner. Michael must be 80 plus but the show goes on. 

Thenford is a splendid Palladian mansion with a lake and large acreage which he has planted up with over 3,000 specimen trees. 

There are ten gardeners and that’s not enough really.

The walled garden is all hornbeam kiosks, geometric sheets of water, lawn and gravel. 

There’s a William Pye fountain at its centre but not his best. Further on, there’s a vast herbaceous border and a cascade with jets in the manner of the Alhambra. 

There’s a lake, chinoiserie bridges, a swimming pool, stables, a tennis court.

There’s a butler, a cook, waitresses — the list goes on — and at breakfast there are three copies of every newspaper.

The dining table is laden with Georgian silver candlesticks, a stunning epergne, the dinner service is Copenhagen botanical and all the glasses have Michael’s crest on them. 

Every wall is covered with pictures and every horizontal surface littered with objets.

September 1

I had my first ‘big ride’ on the trike: in all 22 miles and almost as fresh at the end as when I started. In a real sense I am fitter at 79 than at any other time in my life.

October 2

At last, the National Trust decision arrived. [After turning down The Laskett, they’d agreed to reconsider.] 

The gardens did not meet the ‘high rung of historic and national importance’ they set, so the answer was ‘no’. I can’t conceal a certain anger. They have played me along for 15 years.

March 9, 2015

a note surfaced that I was to have lunch with those involved in the future of church buildings. The chair was Sir Tony Baldry, an overweight, jolly Conservative MP.

He struck me as complacent and the fact that [Archbishop Justin] Welby had put him in that role showed, I thought, how low down on his agenda solving the future of some 15,000 Church of England churches, half of which are not wanted, came on his agenda.

July 15, 2015

I was interviewed by Lucy Worsley [for the BBC]. I was surprised to be asked. 

I had always concluded that it was probably Alan Yentob who had kept me off BBC TV for 30 years, except in the early Nineties when he had a sabbatical and [my series] Royal Gardens slipped through.

This man had a death grip over the Arts on BBC TV for some 30 years. Certain people like [historian] Simon Schama were pushed and pushed by him and few things hurt me more this year than Schama doing a series on British portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery.

There he was, a man who barely knew the back of a picture from the front, handling items so very dear to my heart.

I couldn’t bear to watch it until Brian Allen, a Trustee of the Gallery, said how awful the series had been. I respect Brian. I therefore saw ten minutes of one and, yes, it was truly awful.

The producer [of Lucy Worsley’s interview] was a man called Basil Comely, who loathed Yentob and told me what a creep he was, now chasing after Tony Hall, the new Director-General.

August 22

Gave lunch for about 100 in the country [to celebrate my 80th birthday]. For this I wore two changes of Indian costume, one white and ivory and a second crimson with masses of glitter. 

There was also a red carpet scattered either side with rose petals, along which I made my entry.

October 17

The garden crisis has been resolved. The plan is for the running of it to pass to The Royal Benevolent Fund for Gardeners when I am 85, a sensible decision. 

Dealing with them has been a revelation. The National Trust, on the other hand, is like the Stasi.

December 31

Today news that I have been awarded the Order of the Companions of Honour has become public. 

When I first read the letter [announcing the award] I burst into tears. It was so unexpected. 

Oh, how I wished that Julia had lived to be with me at this moment.

April 26, 2016

I [went] to Buckingham Palace for the investiture, which was a bit like an old-fashioned school speech day. 

What was billed as the Countess of Wessex’s string orchestra in a gallery at the back played nondescript pieces from Cole Porter to The Beatles, ending with a Handel march. It lasted about an hour and a half.

I was first off, receiving the highest award, and on cue I advanced, did a neck bow, and Prince William advanced also and hung the Order around my neck.

A little conversation followed, along the lines of ‘You’ll be back here again’, to which I said unlikely as I’d got the lot now.

Then he spoke about the Duchess’s involvement with the NPG [National Portrait Gallery]. This is a sweet Prince, thoughtful, a little shy, and I felt quite moved to have received my award from a man who would reign long after I was dead.

As I left, I thought of Julia and tears came to my eyes. She would have been so very proud of me.

  •  EXTRACTED from Types And Shadows: Diaries Of Sir Roy Strong 2004-2015, published by Orion, £25. © 2020 Sir Roy Strong. To buy a copy for £22 go to or call 0203 308 9193; p&p is free on orders over £15. Offer valid until December 5.

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