Why Covent Garden must be stopped from selling David Webster

Why Covent Garden must be stopped from selling David Webster


norman lebrecht

October 07, 2020

On the op-ed page of today’s Daily Mail I call out the proposed £18 million sale of an heirloom Hockney as ‘an act of stunning ingratitude.’

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.

Read on here.


  • AngloGerman says:

    How are the mighty fallen! The Daily Mail of all rags…
    Perhaps if more people bothered to sponsor the only worthwhile cultural institution left in Britain they wouldn’t have this problem…

  • Brian says:

    Why would anyone want to publish anything in the Daily Mail? Let alone read it?

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Because its op-ed page reaches more people of influence than the rest of the UK press put together.

      • Brian says:

        Thanks for your swift reply, Norman. I meant my question from a moral point of view. Whatever that means nowadays.

        The fact that this paper reaches over three million readers daily doesn’t make it a good source of information. Quite the contrary.

        Anyway, it says a lot about the “people of influence” if they get their facts and information from a paper that should be… well, ignored.

      • Anon says:

        I’d quite like to see the evidence for that claim. I rather suspect that the Telegraph and Spectator reach far more cabinet ministers, and the Guardian far far more of the influential chattering classes.

        • Maria says:

          Yes, but they are not the majority of the population.

          • V. Lind says:

            And you are suggesting that the majority of the population is interested in opera? Or a previously unknown (to most) Hockney portrait? Of a man they have never heard of?

            It’s intriguing to me why the DM published this piece in the first place, except as a chance to see someone slag off the ROH.

            NL has a long history here of slamming the BBC — I suspect the DM would be VERY interested in some of that.

          • Maria says:

            We are very proud of David in the North of England in Bradford, and we knew about the portrait up for sale before the Daily Mail announced it. There is a move to get it back but not fir £18m when it was a gift not a sale.

          • Allen says:

            “when it was a gift not a sale”

            It wasn’t a gift.

      • Bill says:

        Didn’t reach enough people of influence to drive the price up to the high end of the estimate, it seems. Maybe that should have been your aim, to actually do some good!

    • Allen says:

      Because it is a well known fact that its readers have a deep understanding, not only of opera, but of the finer points of opera finance and administration.

      The following DM comments tend to support this:

      “ROH has millions stashed in offshore Bank accounts.”

      “Perhaps the ROH should start paying back all the grants from the Arts Council, every seat has always been subsidised from the year dit dot….How very elitist…..”

      “what have they done with all the money they received from entrance fees, grants and the lottery?”

      “is this the same Opera House that benefited from one of the biggest Lottery good causes grants back in the first year of the lottery ?”

      “Saved and restored buy the poor Lottery people and now ?”

      Everything is so much clearer now.

      • Marfisa says:

        There were sensible DM comments also. You have selected the silliest. Why?

        • Allen says:

          Because they are particularly silly. There are only 37 comments in total, mostly trite one-liners.

          That’s why.

          • Marfisa says:

            Not a good answer. Why select five silly instead of five sensible comments? Because you have a superior elite (or even snobbish) attitude to the Daily Mail, and want to fit all DM readers into the stereotype that fits your prejudice. That was Hilary Clinton’s mistake … (I’m not a fan of the Daily Mail; I just want people to be fair.)

  • Mathias Broucek says:

    Well, in an **ideal** world, the finances of the ROH wouldn’t have been ruined by the virus.

    In the **real** world, they have. Flogging a painting is surely preferable to (even more) redundancies, higher ticket prices or more taxpayer support?

  • Andrew Hogbin says:

    I walked past this portrait 100s of times in my Covent-Garden going days. Surely, it is protected from sale by the legal niceties of its bequest? What next? The autograph music still uncatalogued in the basement?

    • Una says:

      Perhaps David should demanding it back as a Yorkshireman, and hang it elsewhere where he and thd painting would be appreciated. Try Saltsmill in Saltaire with many of his others. Whether you like it or not is beside the point. I am sure he never donated it to be flogged off in such a ruthless and self-serving ROH manner.

      • Matias says:

        I’m sure that, like many organisations at the moment, the ROH has some difficult choices to make. The adjacent item on this website is about the Finnish Music Hall of Fame filing for bankruptcy.

        What would you suggest? And why is it “ruthless and self-serving”. I should think hanging on to its skilled workforce is its main concern.

      • Bill says:

        He didn’t donate it; it was a paid commission.

        • V. Lind says:

          Indeed. He has no right to “demand it back.” But if he is such an opera lover, maybe he would buy it back and leave it in place! (Then we could see what value HE places on it).

  • Iain says:

    ‘a more diverse audience, one that differs from the business classes’

    Unless that new ‘diverse audience’ has the same cash at its disposal as the ‘business classes’, how are you going to achieve that without an increase in subsidy? In spite of the fact that the UK is hardly awash with opera houses, and that only 25% of its income comes from public subsidy (I believe this is low by European standards), the size of its existing grant is frequently under attack.

  • Magnificent journalism! Factually concise and exhaustive, inspirational, and brimming with truths and insight. We are all at risk of losing the past, our political and artistic traditions, to an emerging world we may barely recognize.

    • Ed says:

      After reading the first sentence of your comment I thought “Brilliant! Loving this guys’ sarcasm!”. Until I finished the second one and realised you were in fact being serious.

  • A bassist says:

    In this article, you suggest that the Royal Opera House should try ‘fundraising harder’. Sounds a bit insulting to me…

    In your online chat with Marcus Marshall in July, you talked about musicians diversifying revenue streams and your own sources of revenue for SlippedDisc through advertising and corporate partnerships. You also have talked about musicians singing for their supper etc…

    Most freelance musicians that last in this business are already incredibly entrepreneurial and adept at diversifying revenue streams.

    I’d ask you Norman to put together an article that outlines how musicians and musical organisations can raise enormous funds in the space of a few months to plug the gaps in revenue caused by no/handicapped box office sales. I suspect that you would have no new ideas that arts organisations, such as the ROH, are not already doing to the nth degree. Prove me wrong.

  • Paul Dawson says:

    Imagine that the portrait were currently in private hands and put on the market at £18 million. Would NB recommend spending ROH money to buy it?

  • Robin Worth says:

    Of course Mr Lebrecht is correct : it is an act of ingratitude.
    But you have to be as old as I am to remember when you could see Visconti’s Don Carlo for £4 in the stalls in Webster’s house. Now Webster is part of the history of the ROH, just as Bing is at the Met (and elsewhere) and the world has moved on.

    Surely the key issue today is to maintain the people who make the ROH a great house/orchestra/ballet company. It was not always so, and lack of money could see it decline to mediocrity again

    There’s no spare money around and not enough friends and donors to fill the hole in the coffers. It would be naive to expect the state to give the aid that Munich, Berlin and Vienna can count on. Losing the pool of talent that is still there at the ROH is a far worse prospect than selling the picture

  • Just a member of the audience says:

    This is just the kind of superfluous asset that should be sold off. It is not essential to the mission. Covent Garden is a performing arts venue, not an art museum. And imagine how much extra needs to be spent protecting and insuring it.

  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    Oh for God’s sake, sell the picture. It’s insanely over-valued and ROH needs the money *SO* badly

  • Orchestra Musician says:

    What a terrible state of affairs. Sir David Webster did more than anyone for opera in the UK, and Hockney’s great portrait belongs where it always has been.
    The trustees are taking the convenient course of action by “Selling the ROH by the Pound…”

  • I am doubtful anyone has been drawn to the opera because there is a Hockney painting in the house.

  • V. Lind says:

    It’s very hard to agree with the concluding sentence of that article. Surely Webster’s legacy is in the people of the ROH and what they produce week in, week out (in better times) and not in souvenirs that, however treasured, are very much accessories to the main purpose of the House.

    And as for “fundraising harder” — corporate donations in many fields may be harder to come by for a while as not just businesses but whole industries are being put in jeopardy by the effects of lockdown on the wider society. Those businesses will have a primary responsibility to their own employees before they get into donations to others.

    As for the “more diverse audiences”: while every effort must be made to ensure that nobody who WANTS to be part of the arts is left out, whether the talent or the audiences, it may be time to drop this particular SJW mantra. Attracting more diverse audiences may mean producing more diverse works, by which I do not mean casting minorities. If “diverse” audiences do not like musically acceptable operas, leave them alone.

    As always it goes back to the schools — get this music introduced at an early age and it will resonate with some. Not all — never all. But you can’t really expect people weaned on hip-hop, who think it is music, to be very interested in Don Carlos or Katya Kabanova. It would be like handing out passes in the Dress Circle to concerts by Megan Thee Stallion. (I only know of her because I watched some of SNL the other night — I fast-forwarded through her).

    I’m afraid the selling of a painting, however beloved it might be, is less of a tragedy than the loss of artists because they can no longer afford to follow their professions.

    • Matias says:

      “every effort must be made to ensure that nobody who WANTS to be part of the arts is left out”

      Yes, that’s the essential point. But we’re up against the belief that if certain immutable characteristics are absent within the audience, some form of exclusion must be at work. No other explanation is currently acceptable, or even respectable.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    I don’t know what the big deal is here.
    If the ROH needs the money, they should sell the painting.
    It’s not as if Hockney is a great artist or anything.
    “Sell the Webster, and the ROH is hardly worth saving.”
    – Norman Lebrecht, October 7, 2020
    What arrant nonsense. I hope in years to come, the ROH remembers that you wrote this, Norman.

  • Roberto says:

    They could wait until Hockney kicks the bucket and sell it for much more then. In the meantime, sell any other overrated and/or second rate art they have lying about.

  • Mvarc says:

    The Royal Opera House must have assumed their plan to sell the portrait would have been popular with the general public and this government and was not therefore worth any prior public discussion.

    The Royal Opera House and its cultural institutional patrimony are OURS, not theirs. They hold it on trust, managing it for us. Announcing on 5th October that the painting had been sent to Christie’s for auction barely two weeks later looks like getting in the government’s good books while final decisions on COVID support are still being made.

    And SO clever to publicise Christie’s upper estimate of £18M, making it impossible for such a ready source of cash NOT to be sold in the current pandemic!

  • Jonas says:

    Maybe they should try putting on some shows to earn some money?

  • N says:

    Could you be even a tenth as conservative about what goes on inside the opera theatre as you apparently are about the decor outside it Norman? Surely anything from as long ago as the 1970’s is far too lacking in interest to be of any note to anyone today without being changed up? Shouldn’t you be glad it’s gone so that it can be replaced with something “interesting” by someone terribly clever?