Why the Royal Opera House is wrong to sell off its founder

Why the Royal Opera House is wrong to sell off its founder


norman lebrecht

October 05, 2020

Covent Garden’s decision to sell David Hockney’s portrait of David Webster is crude, callous and self-damaging in more ways than its desperate board seems to realise.

Webtser, a department store manager from Liverpool, was general administrator of the Royal Opera House from its estbalishment as a state-funded company in 1946 until his retirement 25 years later. He created the company out of rubble and amateurs and steered it to a position of respect among the world’s leading opera ensembles. In the course of writing Covent Garden: The Untold Story I acquired a deep regard for this grey, gay, capable, dedicated, ingenious hedonist.

The ROH was his life. Webster died in Brighton, aged 67, within a year of his retirement.

His farewell gift was the portrait by Hockney, then a young darling of the London arts scene with affordable commission rates. Webster gave back the Hockney portrait to the ROH.

Today it is worth an estimated £18 million. Covent Garden, in Covid times, needs the money and has put it up for sale.

But the house, without its founding father, will lack tradition and romance, roots and legend, the very heart of its story. It will be just another pile of bricks where opera and ballet are performed.



  • Richard says:

    I’m not disagreeing in the slightest that this is extremely sad and troubling – and that acknowledging and understanding the history of institutions is hugely important. But surely the choice arguably being made here is between the ROH being ‘just another pile of bricks where opera and ballet are performed’ and ‘just another pile of bricks’…

    This might be wishful thinking, but I like to imagine there’s a wealthy buyer/benefactor out there who might consider buying the portrait and then donating it back to the ROH, or at least letting it continue to be housed/displayed there. If you’re reading this, and happen to have a spare million or 18 gathering dust, please give it some thought…

  • James Weiss says:

    For far too long, Arts institutions have been as shortsighted as tsetse flies. This is yet another example. Sell off your heritage for short term gain.

  • One imagines... says:

    … that this decision has not been arrived at lightly. The choice between a block of bricks without a painting that can actually still operate and a distinguished theatre without a painting that simply cannot open again seems like a straightforward one to me. And yes, as mentioned above, in all likelihood a buyer would let it remain where it is.

  • Eleanor says:

    So should they sack more staff?

    • Maria says:

      Yes, if the jobs are not viable, and cut your coat according to your cloth. Selling significant pictures of significant people just for £18m is no answer to prop up the arts, and spent in a week. It was a gift from the wonderful and equally significant, David Hockney – even worse.

  • Bill Worley says:

    I totally agree Norman. The Royal Opera House Management have lost sight of reasons for the place, ie to present opera and ballet of world class standards. If they stopped to think about the amount of money that has been wasted on new productions, very few of which are never revived, or replacing productions that have been loved and admired for many years, eg John Copley’s production of “La boheme”, then they may be in a better position financially. I would suggest a new production of “Les contes d’Hofmann” is not needed. The one they have may need a little repair but someone needs to remind them of the espression make do and mend.

  • A bassist says:

    This is utterly depressing, but if the choice is to sell a painting (regardless of the subject) to save some of the jobs in the company (orchestra, chorus, music staff, wardrobe, stage managers, set painters etc) it is a no brainer.

  • erich says:

    ‘Breakfast money’ for David Ross. He should buy it and keep it in the ROH.

  • The Ghost of Karlos Cleiber says:

    How about putting a print up in its place and using the £18million to save jobs and – er – pay for opera productions?

    If that’s not purist enough for you, Norman, I am sure there are plenty of developers who’d like to turn the ROH into luxury apartments.

    • Maria says:

      A print? It was a gift. ROH didn’t buy it!

      • The Ghost of Karlos Cleiber says:

        I didn’t say they did. But if there is a need to keep the visual effect (and to have a picture of whom it portrays) then that can be achieved.

        I rather suspect David Hockney wouldn’t mind either, considering £18m will help a lot of artists keep their jobs.

  • DW says:

    Spoiler alert, they lost those things long before covid.

  • Terence Fleming says:

    Or . . . if they cut the painting in half they could sell the lovely vase of tulips side (much prettier) and keep Sir David.

    Sometimes you have to sell the family silver. They could always put a copy in its place.

  • Dennis says:

    18 million pounds? I wouldn’t give 18 for one of Hockney’s kitsch doodles.

    • Maria says:

      No one is asking you to or be rude about David Hockney’s works of art. Fine, you don’t like it! We get you point.

  • Julien says:

    If they can make so much money by getting rid of such a poor painting, they should jump at the occasion.

  • waltraud says:

    Just another pile of bricks? All because this place, which is not an art museum, sells one painting? So all the musicians and performers can go suck eggs, I guess?

  • Peter says:

    It’s amazing how those people who know how to run an opera house or other major arts institutions through a pandemic, they are all too busy blogging.

  • Dominic Stafford says:

    David Webster was one of my mother’s mentors. Selling this portrait is exactly what he would have done. Understanding that an opera house is its people, or it is nothing, is something with which critics have difficulty.

  • Tom Stewart says:

    It’s such a boring painting…