Trustees selling portrait of Opera House hero immortalised by Hockney

Treachery at the Opera House: He’s the modest hero immortalised by David Hockney for saving a national institution. Now, shamefully, its lofty trustees are flogging his portrait rather than raising cash to save it

  • David Webster first cast a canny eye over the Royal Opera House in August 1944
  • He accepted job of general administrator and made it one of world’s greatest 
  • But institution he created has taken down his portrait pleading Covid cash crisis

When David Webster first cast a canny eye over the Royal Opera House in August 1944, the seats had been removed and the auditorium was a dance floor for soldiers on leave after the D-Day landings and their sweethearts. 

Webster, a store manager from Liverpool, looked beyond the cuddling couples that day in London and saw the potential for a glorious renaissance. 

He duly accepted the job of general administrator and, within six years, made Covent Garden home to the world’s greatest singers and dancers. 

A reserved man with a secretive private life, he was mostly content to stand back and let others take credit for the success of his venture, but he did consent to have his portrait painted just before he retired after the staff had a whip-round to fund it. 

Three-quarters of a century later, the institution he created has taken down his portrait and, pleading a Covid cash crisis, is trying to sell it for £18million. 

David Webster (pictured) first cast a canny eye over the Royal Opera House in August 1944 before duly accepting the job of general administrator

He was immortalised in a portrait (above) created by David Hockney which is now being sold by trustees for £18million

The value of this image of a middle-aged man in a suit contemplating a vase of tulips derives from it being the work of David Hockney, a British artist whom Webster spotted when he was young and cheap, and who took the commission because he loved opera. 

Hockney today holds the world auction record ($90million or £70million) for a living artist for Portrait Of An Artist (Pool With Two Figures) and Webster’s memory is so devalued that his ROH heirs think nothing of flogging him off like junk from the attic, confident he won’t be missed. 

Well, I’m telling them he will — not as a relic but as an emblem of what Covent Garden ought to be. Selling off his portrait is not even a short-term solution and it needs to be stopped because David Webster matters deeply to our national story and identity.

How did he build a new Jerusalem on a dance floor? Researching my book Covent Garden: The Untold Story 20 years ago, I came across suitcases full of private letters and memos that shone a light on a man of unexpected talents. 

As the young general manager of Liverpool’s Bon Marché store, which was part of the John Lewis Partnership, Webster spent much of his time on the shop floor, chatting to customers and snaffling chocolates from the confectionery counter. His bonhomie, however, concealed fierce ambition. 

‘It’s all right to stamp on other people till you get to the top,’ he once said. ‘Then you can stop.’

David Hockney (pictured), is a British artist whom Webster spotted when he was young and cheap, and who took the commission because he loved opera

In his 20s, he became chairman of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, increasing its concerts from 32 a year to 148, and earning the respect of his peers. In 1944, he suddenly needed to get out of town. 

The prosecuting solicitor for Liverpool Police was on his case. Webster was gay at a time when homosexual activity was illegal and he also had a live-in partner, Jimmy Cleveland Belle; both had a taste for informal encounters in public places. Liverpool was closing in. 

London seemed safer and Covent Garden was the perfect job. His first act was to hire a music director, Karl Rankl, and advertise town-hall talent auditions up and down the land, an approach that resulted in some unconventional hires. 

A Nottingham farm girl, Constance Shacklock, was cast to sing in Carmen at Covent Garden, never having seen or heard the opera before, and the homespun chorus for Wagner’s Ring cycle was so ferocious, work ceased in the nearby fruit and veg market when they performed. 

Under Webster, the ROH was a People’s Opera, its singers drawn from industrial towns, its audience lured by cheap seats and artists they could relate to. My sister, smitten by an Ulster tenor, went there three times a month on a primary-school secretary’s salary. 

Webster made Covent Garden home to the world’s greatest singers and dancers (Karita Mattila pictured)

Margot Fonteyn emerged as the world’s most sought-after ballerina, Frederick Ashton as a captivating choreographer. 

When Joan Sutherland, fresh from Australia, failed an audition with his deputy, Webster stepped in and decided she was ‘the first singer we’ve had here since the War who is capable of becoming a star,’ and was soon proved right. 

Artistic planning was done in his office or in his Weymouth Street flat. He kept his board mostly in the dark, even when chaired by imposing figures such as economist John Maynard Keynes and newspaper boss Lord Drogheda. 

Keynes was the visionary who secured state funding for music and dance to make them ‘a living element in everyone’s upbringing and regular attendance at the theatre and concerts a part of organised education’. 

With Webster at the helm, Covent Garden nurtured British talent and produced many stars. When he turned 65, they let him stay on an extra year. He died in May 1971, not long after he finally left. 

Without David Webster, Covent Garden would not exist and the arts in Britain would never have achieved post-War lift-off. 

The decision to sell his portrait is an act of stunning ingratitude. It was made by current chief executive Alex Beard, who has spent nearly all of his career in the subsidised arts. 

It was approved by a panicky board whose chair, David Ross, is co-founder of Carphone Warehouse, and a Tory donor. The rest of the board consists of do-gooders and donors, none of whom can match the intellectuals of Webster’s time: Keynes, Isaiah Berlin, A.J. Ayer. 

Today’s lot, backed by the Arts Council and Downing Street, were chosen for their wealth and ability to raise cash from friends. But in Covid times nobody admits to riches, so they plan to sell Webster rather than fundraising harder. 

When Covid is over, the ROH will need to reconstruct itself, just as in Webster’s time. It will have to develop new talent and a more diverse audience, one that differs from the business classes who hog the best seats. 

So long as Webster’s portrait still hangs, that revival looks realistic. Sell the Webster, and the ROH is hardly worth saving.

  • Genius & Anxiety, Norman Lebrecht’s latest book, is out now in paperback. 

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