A Country Life – Roy Strong

Roy Strong is best known as an art historian & as the youngest ever Director of both the National Portrait Gallery (age 32) & the Victoria & Albert Museum (age 38). I have a couple of his books on miniatures & history paintings & they’re wonderful. In 1989, Roy Strong was invited to contribute a column on country living to Country Life & this volume is a collection of those pieces. Strong & his wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman, lived in Herefordshire on the fringes of the village of Much Birch & the garden they created at their house, the Laskett (which means a strip of land within the parish), was said to be the largest private garden started from scratch since 1945.Strong describes it as an autobiographical garden as it shows the enthusiasms & interests of both himself & his wife who was a theatrical designer.

The essays in this book describe a year in the life of the house & garden. They are taken from the five years that Strong wrote for Country Life to create “a modest miscellany for a bedside browse”. That’s exactly how I read this charming book, a couple of essays every night before I went to sleep. This is one of my favourites, A Country Library.

Winter months are the ones for reordering the house on days when it is impossible to work outside. A decision to reshelve a library is one taken with short-lived optimism, for the reality of seeing it through to the bitter end is quite another matter. My library opens off my writing room. It is not that large, and very much a working area, with book stacks jutting out from the walls, and the book arranged under subject.

The classification of a private library ought to reflect the structure of the owner’s mind, and that inevitably changes over the years. In addition, the best of systems breaks down in the face of bequests and gifts of books; when there is no more room to jam anything in, little heaps start springing up.

Once reshelving starts, there is no going back. It has to be accompanied by the iron will to discard several thousand books in order to re-establish any order. My wife cannot bear parting with anything, and I find that on seeing this massive evacuation, she has hastily constructed makeshift shelves of bricks and old planks in the garden room, to take in the throw-outs which ranged from books in Russian, which I cannot read, to a set of the Waverley novels.

I was still short of space, and so we studied a guest bedroom, which had already sacrificed a bay to take in the sections on contemporary biography and Cecil Beaton, in order to build yet another bookcase. I never mind sleeping in a room jammed with books, and one hopes one’s guests will feel the same.

Self-sufficiency, in terms of the civilized life and information, remain the essence of any library in the country, however small. No one can afford to be without a run of the great classics, the odd volume on the peerage, or a handful on local topography, architecture and history.