Stuart Webster –or J. S. W. as he signed pictures, or Beaver as he was known to us- was my Art Master for the whole time I was a pupil at Gresham’s, from the time I arrived in short trousers until I was nearly nineteen. No other teacher followed me throughout my school career. The Chaplain also remained it is true, but I think all the regular lessons in Divinty (as we called R.E.) ceased to be required during the Sixth Form. P.E. (physical education) certainly stopped after ‘O’ levels, but Art increased in importance for me, as it was one of my ‘A’ level subjects. Also, where my other ‘A’ level subjects of English and History required a lot of reading alone in my study, Art needed my presence in the Art Room. The result was that I got very well acquainted with Stuart Webster and became quite friendly with him.
His great love was landscape painting in watercolour. He took his subjects very largely from the North Norfolk he knew and loved. He married late in life, when he was almost 60. It was after I had left school, when he was the one teacher I remained in contact with; I remember afternoons spent with him at his marital home, a cottage in Hunworth. For instance here is a brief note from my diary of July 1st 1972 (five years after I had left school): … drove off to Sheringham where I wasted 2p on the machines – they both got stuck in the mechanism – so I did not get my fun. Then to Holt and looked round the town, then to Hunworth and had sherry with Mr Webster. He liked my pictures, and the Daf in which I took them [i.e. Stuart Webster and his wife] for a drive. Then to the OG party… After so many years of flat dwelling he was very taken with actually owning a lawn mower! I remember him telling me it was called a Lawnderette1
He had been trained in Industrial Design at the Art College in Liverpool, and as such he should have been the ideal teacher for his pupil (Sir) James Dyson. Sadly the industrial side of things got no attention in Beaver’s teaching; he had abandoned that years before. Yet I think he should get some credit for developing Dyson’s artistic talent which was the foundation of his career. James Dyson had been an art student throughout his schooldays, and went on the art college before discovering engineering. The young student’s art was exhibited at Speech Day at Gresham’s, and was favourably noted by my father. It is quite something to have taught a boy who later became a billionaire through his abilities; unfortunately Beaver knew nothing about Dyson vacuum cleaners, having died at a relatively young age in 1976 (he had been retired only four years and would not have been over 65). He had a generous obituary in the Eastern Daily Press, written by Malcolm Freeguard the BBC producer and a former Gresham’s teacher who knew him well.
Stuart Webster is mentioned in James Dyson’s autobiography Against the Odds. He states that he was a charming man and a great watercolourist, but says he was an alcoholic. Beaver liked his pint (or even two) it is true, but the impression of his being permanently inebriated is a vile slander. I blame his ghost-writer (Giles Coren) who never knew J. S. Webster of course. It is a very unfair comment and portrays Beaver in poor light.
His leisure time was largely taken up in playing golf. His partner was Jimmy Dodd, my French teacher who lived in The Grove with his aged mother. When I was a schoolboy he, like Stuart Webster, was unmarried but unlike his friend he remained so. The nearest Golf Coure is the one at Sheringham, but there was also that at Cromer and the Links at West Runton. Stuart Webster was short and stout with a manner that could appear pompous, but was redeemed by abundant good humour. When I was a young prep school boy in shorts he would appear at Crossways and play the piano while reciting STANLEY HOLLOWAY’S Albert and the Lion; we loved it enormously.
Stuart Webster did not drive, so moving out to Hunworth meant he was dependent on his wife to take him home. Before his marriage in 1969 he lived in a flat in Holt and was driven around when necessary by friends such as Mr Dodd. For his day to day movements he had a an old green bicycle on which he would proceed in a very upright posture.
I visited his widow at their cottage in Hunworth with my friend Bill Wragge and we purchased some of his watercolours after his death. The picture illustrated is of the Dun Cow at Salthouse. He did not appreciate the picture and would not sign it, although I think it is perfectly acceptable. By this stage his style had evolved to a looser and more atmospheric one, represented by another picture in my collection. This one he did sign.