Roy Colin Strong was born on 23 August 1935 in Winchmore Hill, North London. He was educated at Edmonton County School in Edmonton and Queen Mary's College, London where he graduated with a first class honours degree. He earned a Ph.D from the Warburg Institute, University of London and became a research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research. In 1971 he married Julia Trevelyan Oman.
Strong was appointed Assistant Keeper of the National Portrait Gallery in 1959. In 1967, at the age of 31 he became the Gallery's youngest Director. He set about transforming its image with a series of extrovert exhibitions including, perhaps most famously, Cecil Beaton portraits, 1928-1968 which attracted 75,000 visitors. Other notable achievements during Strong's Directorship include the establishment of a new department of film and photography; the commissioning of Annigoni to paint the Queen in 1970 (NPG 4706), a portrait seen by nearly 250,000 people during the first two months. He was also responsible, following the decision in 1972 to make a substantial loan of 16th & 17th century portraits to Montacute, a National Trust house in Somerset, for laying the foundations to what is now known as the Gallery's Regional Partnership programme. During Strong's Directorship, the profile of the Gallery and its attendance figures rose significantly.
In 1973, Strong became Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum. He held this post until 1987 when he resigned and began a second career as an expert gardener. He lives in the village of Much Birch, in Herefordshire and here designed one of England's largest post-war formal gardens, The Laskett. Strong now works full-time as a writer and broadcaster. Throughout his career he has published prolifically on a variety of subjects but concerning in particular, Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits and portraiture. He was knighted in 1982.