After 25 years’ service, Sir David Webster was approaching retirement as general administrator of the Royal Opera House. To mark the occasion, he was invited to sit for a commemorative portrait. Webster had just one artist in mind for the job: David Hockney.
Hockney’s initial response was cool. He didn’t know Webster and, for his portraits, had always preferred painting family and friends such as Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark — who appear, with their cat, in the famous double portrait, Mr & Mrs Clark and Percy, now held in Tate’s collection.
‘I refused at first,’ Hockney recalls. As an avid lover of opera, however, he soon changed his mind. In early 1971, he duly painted Portrait of Sir David Webster — which will be offered for sale in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 22 October at Christie’s in London.
Interestingly, it would be another 31 years before Hockney accepted another portrait commission — when he depicted Sir George Christie, chairman of the Glyndebourne opera house and festival, with his wife Lady Mary.
In a bid to assert control over proceedings, Hockney insisted he paint Webster in his own studio rather than at Covent Garden or in the sitter’s Marylebone home.
Hockney plays optical games with the viewer, adding a hint of the hyper-real or enigmatic
Sir David is captured in profile, sitting in a Mies van der Rohe MR chair, before a glass table with a large vase of tulips on it. The work is as tightly constructed as a Renaissance fresco. There’s a cool, formal balance between the table and vase in the left half of the composition, and Webster and the chair on the right.
The tulips are so vivid, they’re almost anthropomorphic — as if Hockney were executing another of his acclaimed double portraits from the same period. (Mr & Mrs Clark and Percy was also painted in 1971, two years after Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, which sold for £37.66 million at Christie’s in 2019.)
Portrait of Sir David Webster also reveals Hockney’s Matissean flair for colour: from the rich greens in the sitter’s suit to the brilliant pink of the tulips. Then there’s the cerulean blue of the pocket square sticking out of Sir David’s jacket, which is matched by the colour of his left eye. As Katharine Arnold, Co-Head of Postwar and Contemporary Art, Europe, notes in the short above film, ‘Only Hockney really knows how to use colour in this way.’
Hockney had lived in California in the mid-1960s, revelling in the brilliant sunshine and glorious light — a far cry from the dark climes of his native city, Bradford. By 1971, he was back in the UK, but the influence of the West Coast on his art was marked.
The dazzling effect of light on water, a signature feature of his Californian swimming pool paintings, is comparable to the way light hits the translucent glass table in front of Webster — and passes through it onto the floor below. Equally noteworthy is the way the light sparkles when striking parts of the chair’s steel base.
Hockney’s double portraits are naturalistic in style. However, he often played optical games with the viewer, adding a hint of the hyper-real or enigmatic. The same is true of the current portrait, especially in the way Webster seems to hover, almost miraculously, above the partially invisible chair.
Webster was born in 1903, Hockney in 1937. Despite the age gap, they actually had a certain amount in common. Both were raised in the north of England and ended up moving south, attracted to the cultural epicentre of London.
They also shared a love of opera. On his drives along the Californian coast, Hockney had played the music of Wagner religiously.
Not long after painting Webster, the artist would also start designing operatic sets, beginning with a production of Stravinsky’s A Rake’s Progress for Glyndebourne in 1975. Among the many other productions he designed was a take on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for the Los Angeles Music Center Opera in 1987 (complete with bright Vari-Lite beams typically used in stadium rock concerts).
Hockney also worked on a 1992 staging of Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten for the Royal Opera House. Twenty-eight years later, in a bid to raise funds during the Covid-19 pandemic, that institution is offering Portrait of Sir David Webster at auction. It has been the painting’s one and only owner.
Although he preferred the title of general administrator, Webster was chief executive at Covent Garden in all but name. Following his appointment in 1945, he helped transform the Royal Opera House from a wartime dance hall into one of the world’s premier venues for ballet and opera.
Under Webster’s leadership, Royal Ballet and Royal Opera were established as resident companies shortly after the end of the Second World War. He was knighted for his efforts in 1960.
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Webster is said to have been delighted by Hockney’s portrait. Sadly, he wasn’t able to enjoy it for long. He passed away in May 1971, aged 67.
The tulips in the picture suddenly came to take on a poignant symbolism: particularly the drooping petal furthest to the left, which is set to fall onto the table. They serve, like the flowers in a vanitas painting, as a reminder of the transience of life — and a farewell to a hugely influential figure in the British cultural landscape.