My haven: Curator Sir Roy Strong, 76, relaxes in the drawing room at his Herefordshire mansion
21:30 GMT, 10 August 2012
Sir Roy Strong, Art historian pictured in his drawing room at home near Hereford
This engraving of Elizabeth I was given to my late wife Julia by her father, who introduced us. We married in 1971 and somehow found the money to buy this property, Laskett. When she died from cancer in 2003, her coffin lay in the orchard she created the night before her funeral, as she’d requested. I used a piece of yew that I keep tucked behind this engraving to sprinkle holy water on it.
The Shakespeare Prize is awarded every year to the Briton who has done most for the arts. When I received it in 1980, after I’d finished as director of the National Portrait Gallery and was in charge at the Victoria & Albert Museum, it was the first time my work had been recognised. The list of those who have been given it is mind-blowing – from Margot Fonteyn to Harold Pinter. Three years later I was knighted.
When I was a child the family situation was very unhappy and I created a private world in this tiny theatre by toymaker Pollock’s. I grew up in a small terrace house in north London, the youngest of three boys. My father was a commercial traveller who nosedived into poverty in 1939 and had little interest in us. I turned to painting, history and theatre; all those things that create imaginary worlds.
As director of the V&A, I had to fire 150 staff in one year and faced a union bloodbath. I collapsed through stress and took up stitchery while recovering. This rug took ten years to finish. I did one other, but have no time now. I seem to be in demand, amazingly. Life is so busy. I set out to make a new existence and I have. It was what my wife wanted me to do – she said to me in her last weeks, ‘You have so much more to give.’
The renowned cat painter Martin Leman did this portrait of our cat Wenceslas Muff. It’s wonderfully sweet. Wenceslas Muff appeared as a starved black bundle and followed me around. He used to pop his head around my study door to make sure I was OK and then trot off to check on my wife. We were so upset when he died. He’s commemorated in our garden with a little tomb topped with a golden ball.
My wife didn’t like being photographed and this was the only time she gave in – the resulting shot is beautiful. It was taken by the distinguished painter and draftsman Michael Leonard, who was a great friend of Julia, a few months after we married in my little house in Brighton. We were very much in love as you can see. This is how I will always want to remember her.