Hidden from the public gaze for 90 years, the American art collector who bought a beautiful portrait of a young girl had no idea its subject was one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century.
But now acquired by the Hepworth Wakefield, Ethel Walker’s portrait of a 17-year-old Barbara Hepworth forms the centrepiece of a new exhibition at the gallery looking back at the formative years of the sculptor, Hepworth in Yorkshire.
The portrait has been gifted to Wakefield Council’s permanent collection by the owner, who only came to discover its heritage when an inscription of the back on the painting came to light during conservation work last spring. The collector contacted the Hepworth Estate, and art historian Dr Sophie Bowness, Hepworth’s grand-daughter and estate trustee, was able to confirm that the girl was Barbara Hepworth.
It is believed to be the earliest known portrait of the Wakefield-born artist, and dates back to around 1920, when Royal Academician Walker lived in Robin Hood’s Bay, where Hepworth and her family spent their summers. It is being shown alongside photographs from the Hepworth family collection, some of which have never been seen before, and early paintings, drawings and sculptures by Hepworth.
Curator at The Hepworth Wakefield, Eleanor Clayton, said: “It’s easy to think of Hepworth as a modern woman, because of what she became, but she was born in 1903, just an the end of the Victorian era, and these photographs really put that into perspective.“
The exhibition has been put together to coincide with a major retrospective of Hepworth’s work at Tate Britain, which opens next month. The Hepworth’s show is two-fold, looking at both her early and later years, providing context to the emergence and legacy of one of Britain’s most celebrated artists.
One of the very early piece is signed ‘JBH’, a reference to Hepworth’s given first name, Jocelyn, which was dropped by the artist in favour of her middle name when she was around 15.
A relief of her two cousins, made using plaster donated by her GP uncle, is another early piece which speaks of what is to come.
Ms Clayton added: “Talking to the curators of the Tate show inspired us to do these shows. We wanted to celebrate where she came from and look at what led her to become the celebrated sculptor she did.
“Having Ethel Walker’s portrait as the centrepiece is lovely. There’s wonderful symmetry seeing it alongside early photographs.”
Director of The Hepworth Wakefield, Simon Wallis, added: “We are thrilled to have this important work in our collection, thought to be the earliest portrait of Hepworth.
“We are sincerely grateful for the generosity of the collector in gifting this work to the people of Wakefield, for the wider public to enjoy in many years to come – I think it’s wonderful to see Hepworth come home.”
Hepworth in Yorkshire opens on Saturday and runs until September 6.