The Spirit of Britain: A Narrative History of the Arts by Roy Strong - review by Bevis Hillier

Bevis Hillier

He Avoids Stonehenge and Rolling Stones

The Spirit of Britain: A Narrative History of the Arts


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The public apparition known as ‘Sir Roy Strong’ has been created partly by himself (his insistence on wearing those funny hats and drawling his exaggerated likes and dislikes on television) and partly by the satirists. Private Eye early took to calling him Dr Roy Strange, and Craig Brown, the best parodist since Max Beerbohm, has depicted him, in a spoof of the Diaries, snipping a malevolent caricature of the Queen Mother in the topiary of his Herefordshire garden. It was Brown, too, who suggested that Strong’s image was partly created with the aid of a specs-nose-and-moustache kit from a joke shop.

In approaching Strong’s new book you need to put the joke Strong, the cod Strong, the showbiz Strong right out of your mind. One spots a few vestiges of him, which I’ll touch on; but this is a book of high seriousness, on a grand scale. Plenty of historians could, with hard work, write a history of Britain during the period his book covers, from the Roman occupation to the present; but few of them would be qualified to attempt what he attempts – a cultural history, bringing in painting, architecture, literature, music and gardening.

This ambitious enterprise invites one obvious comparison: Kenneth Clark, who in 1969 presented a thirteen-week television series on ‘Civilisation’. (Private Eye had fun then, too, dubbing the art historian ‘Lord Clark of Civilisation’ and inventing courtly monologues in which he murmured how ‘agreeable’ it had been to stay with Bernard Berenson at I Tatti and how ‘very agreeable’ it had been to picnic on foie gras and two bottles of 1959 Krug on the mosaics at Ravenna.) Strong is only too aware of the odious comparison likely to be made between Clark and himself. Astutely, and perhaps defensively, he includes a chapter on Clark, which begins in respectful mode but becomes more spiky (‘Clark’s problem was that he had been too successful too young’), and concludes that his ‘inability quite to focus one way or the other in some respects is an index of failure’. But if Clark was a failure, who is a success?

Histories of politics, society or culture with a grand chronological sweep are usually best compiled by teams of scholars, each contributing a section on his or her specialist interest. If one were editing a survey of British culture, one might recruit Strong to write on Tudor miniatures and Stuart masques – subjects he covers particularly well in this book. If the task is to be undertaken by one person, then he or she had better be a supreme stylist, an omnivorous polymath, or somebody with such an original outlook that, even when we disagree with him, we are made to take a fresh look.

In The Spirit of Britain, Strong has set out to write, in the words of his subtitle, ‘a narrative history of the arts’. What are his qualifications for this cultural marathon? He is not an outstanding stylist. He can write well, when his emotions are engaged, as in this passage:

Great Elizabethan houses read from afar like secular cathedrals, lanterns of glass shimmering across the countryside, assertions of power but also vehicles for fantasy. These houses are palaces of a kind which would not be out of place as castles for Spenserian knights. Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire, built for Sir Francis Willoughby in the 1580s, is … a house of unparalleled fantasy, soaring upwards with a prospect room at its summit floating like a crystal casket.

But, equally, he is sometimes guilty of the most ungainly writing, mixing his metaphors like Molotov cocktails. In reviewing Strong’s Diaries, I noted his unfortunate addiction to ‘luvvie’ words: marvellous, wonderful, thrilling, breathtaking, fantastic and horrendous. He has cut back on these – I have found only one ‘thrilling’ in this book. But his writing still suffers from superlative-fatigue. So much is ‘enormous’, ‘vast’ or ‘huge’. (In the Diaries we even encounter a ‘huge miniature’.) And Strong has become besottedly hooked on another word, ‘efflorescence’, which occurs over and over again – it is like being in a Schweppes advertisement. The word does not deserve a total ban; but ‘flowering’ is simpler and less spluttery.

How far is Strong the master of his sprawling subject? One fair complaint might be that it is not sprawling enough. He calls the book The Spirit of Britain; but by starting with the Roman occupation he shears off the history of ancient Britain, thus omitting one of the great monuments of British culture, Stonehenge. (The only mentions Stonehenge gets are in references to Inigo Jones’s belief that it was erected to teach Britons the Vitruvian principles of architecture; and to its having inspired John Wood’s King’s Circus in Bath.) Stuart Piggott’s books would have helped Strong disentangle the realities of ancient Britain from the myths about it; and judging by Strong’s comments on druids, his ideas could do with some disentangling.

His views on the Dark Ages (‘dark because it is not known what happened’) also need radical updating. In a chapter headed ‘Through a Glass Darkly’, he writes of ‘impenetrable obscurity’ and of a cultural status that ‘can only be categorised as barbarian’. That was already an outmoded view when W P Ker published The Dark Ages in 1904. Indeed, the notion of a ‘long night’ was under fire as early as 1607, in Samuel Daniel’s A Defence of Ryme.

What Strong really likes is expressed in another of his chapter headings: ‘Magnificence’. He goes for splendour, spectacle, show. As pants the hart for cooling streams, so pants Strong for the over-the-top. He is happiest when kings and queens come into view. Cardinal Wolsey dares to outdo Henry VIII in splendour – so, naturally, he gets a chapter to himself. Strong is also fascinated by heraldry and, as a knight himself, seems to feel a part of the tapestry of chivalry, troubadours, wimples, unicorns and courtly love. (If he could have justified a tilt-yard at the V&A, sure as eggs he would have created one.)

Strong is not just giving a Mr Toad ‘poop poop!’ when he writes in his preface: ‘I have spent half a century looking, reading and listening to everything connected with the arts in Britain.’ The fact that Strong was a big player in the cultural establishment – he is also an opera lover, theatregoer and gardener – informs his grasp of the way the arts developed in Britain. He writes attractively, and with the clarity of a born teacher, of the two great civilising influences: the Roman invasion and Christianity. One of his chapter headings is ‘Castles, Cathedrals and Abbeys’. In general the chapter is admirable; but here again there is a significant omission: almshouses. At sixty-four, Strong is in no position to be ageist. There is much in the book about Winchester, the richest medieval see, but nothing about the Hospital of St Cross there, the almshouse founded in the 1130s by Henry of Blois, a grandson of William the Conqueror. In the 1440s, Cardinal Beaufort, who also had royal blood, added to the Hospital the elegant, tall-chimneyed buildings that still stand. The Hospital is the original of that in Trollope’s The Warden; and today, more than 850 years after its founding, it still serves its original purpose as a home for elderly men and still offers the ‘wayfarer’s dole’ of free bread and beer to any traveller who asks for it. That represents an historical continuity more precious than knighthoods.

To Strong, the Reformation was a ‘holocaust’. Culturally, the breach with Rome cut Britain off from the influence of Italy. Elizabethan artists did not take up Italian perspective, which is why their paintings, other than the exquisite miniatures, disappoint. English scientists were not deterred by Papal prohibitions. After the Reformation, Strong convincingly suggests, the focus of civilisation was on the word, not the image, with the exception of secret emblems, which became a sort of sign language. ‘Everywhere in the Elizabethan age one senses this fear of the visual image.’ There followed the triumph of the vernacular in the liturgy. Patronage moved from church to court to aristocrats; English country houses became tabernacles of culture.

With James I the long isolation of Britain since the 1530s ends. The masque links poetry and art, words and images. Strong shows his originality by claiming James’s son, Henry, Prince of Wales (who died young), as an important figure in the arts. Henry hired artists ‘to mastermind the spectacle of monarchy’. I wondered why Strong did not mention ‘Prince Henry’s Room’ in Fleet Street, which is open to the public. It survived the Great Fire of London and has fine Jacobean panelling and plasterwork. But I find that Pevsner and others are very dubious about its alleged associations with the Prince and its possibly having been used as an office for the Duchy of Cornwall.

When neo-classicism comes in, revolution is often close behind. (Karl Marx wrote an essay on the classical antecedents of the French Revolution.) Cromwell made a new assault on images. Strong, surprisingly a bit of a puritan himself, takes a dim view of Restoration comedy. In the eighteenth century he finds an incontestably English artist, William Hogarth, who is anti-classicism, anti-Lord Burlington and ‘taste’, anti Italian opera and generally xenophobic. The Grand Tour brings back Italian-ness; but enthusiasm for landscape is peculiarly English. Apart from some notes on Wedgwood, who catches his eye with neo-classicism, Strong is pretty uninterested in the Industrial Revolution and mass-produced culture. Not much magnificence there, though he admires the iron bridges.

In the century before the Napoleonic Wars, anti-French feeling and cultural rivalry with the French are in the ascendant. After Napoleon, the dialogue with the European cultures reopens. Strong delights in the Great Exhibition of 1851, ‘the greatest greenhouse of them all’. But when he gets into the twentieth century, his legs begin to tire. He is good on Elgar – in fact, his coverage of classical music is excellent throughout the book. But he has little to say about Art Deco; he skates over the 1950s, with no mention of Lesley Jackson’s book Contemporary; and his treatment of the 1960s is perfunctory. In the index, between Sir Peter Lely and André Le Nôtre there is no John Lennon (though the Beatles get a brief mention). Strong’s view of the Sixties is Thatcherite:

Although its exponents often extolled free love, drugs and social revolution, it was capitalist art reborn, wholly dependent on the market-place. This was consumer culture driven from the bottom and not led by any guiding guru at the top.

Leaving aside the debating point that this was one of the few movements in British history that was, for a time, led by a guru (the egregious Maharishi), you feel Strong does not give the hippies a fair hearing. He appears not to have read the two key books on the decade, Arthur Marwick’s The Sixties (1998) and Jonathon Green’s All Dressed Up: The Sixties and Counterculture (also 1998). My own The Style of the Century (1983, revised edition 1998) might also have given him some pointers.

When people open this book in a hundred years’ time, they will not be much interested in what Strong has to say about the Grand Tour or the Great Exhibition. They will be wondering what this famous and rather innovatory figure had to say about his own times. They are in for a big (enormous, huge, vast) disappointment. He takes the line that it is ‘too early to assess’ contemporary art, ‘the jury is out’. Can you imagine Ruskin copping out like that? The only recent work illustrated is Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North, that ugly, top-heavy brute which looks as though a rusty aeroplane has plunged, tail first, into the earth. I suspect it was chosen because it has safe, if faint, classical echoes.

What we do get from Strong at the end of the book is a heartfelt rant about the way the arts have been made subservient to the market place. He throws in a sideswipe at his successor at the V&A, Dame Elizabeth Estève-Coll, in whose reign the institution was billed as ‘an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached’.

If Strong had written a book on Tudor miniatures and Stuart masques, it would not have sold very well. Publishers love jumbo-jet books of the kind he has put together, an omnium gatherum suitable for school and university libraries. The illustrations are extraordinarily good and well-chosen. Many of them will be new to most readers; and there are some telling juxtapositions.

Bonding the entire swaggering enterprise is Strong’s title, The Spirit of Britain. In 1955, when Nikolaus Pevsner delivered the Reith Lectures, he set out to identify and analyse ‘The Englishness of English Art’. Strong does not make a big parade of doing that in any systematic way; but at intervals along the way he remembers his ostensible brief and suggests what he considers the peculiar properties of British culture. The word ‘vernacular’ is used approvingly, as opposed to such words as ‘nationalistic’ or ‘insular’. There is a wholesome love of rurality. Strong credits early English music with florid melody and indifference to text. In art, he detects a preference for two dimensions over three, which is why we have produced few great sculptors. In architecture, there is restraint without and richness within, a trait which links up with the British love of privacy. Strong gets over the undeniable influence of Italian art and architecture by saying it was ‘naturalised’ in Britain. We are elastic about rules; that ties in with our unwritten constitution. We are given to compromise: Inigo Jones was prepared to mix Gothic with classical. We have the gift of laughing at ourselves.

Lord Clark’s ‘Civilisation’ lectures were delivered in 1969, a year of body paint and body bags; the year the Beatles sang for the last time, on a roof; Cilia Black and Lulu married; Brian Jones died; Mick Jagger sang in Hyde Park in a frock; and man invaded the moon. Strong writes of Clark’s television series:

This was high art to high purpose. The irony was that it was screened at precisely the moment when such a view of the arts was to begin to go into sharp eclipse and the very notion of the intellectual elite was to come under fire as populism and materialism increased their hold.

Thirty years on, it is equally ironic that Strong should be presenting his plangent, nostalgic and, yes, nationalistic retrospect of our culture at a time when our cultural leaders are hanging dead horses and exhibiting filthy beds in the Tate. Strong is pessimistic in his last pages. I am less so. I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…

It sounds a bit like a detergent ad; but it is true. The punkism and official iconoclasm we have experienced have burnt the old corn stubble and left the fields fallow so as to become more fertile. Geniuses will arise as they always have done. The Serota tendency will wither as surely as Communism did in Russia. Man cannot live by abstraction alone. One day the Rothkos, the Hirsts and the Emins will be consigned to the basement, occasionally to be trotted out as scarcely credible examples of how eagerly twentieth-century suckers bought the Emperor’s New Clothes.

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