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.


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