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Earliest known portrait of Barbara Hepworth is gifted to Wakefield

12 May 2015

The portrait will be the centrepiece work in a new exhibition Hepworth in Yorkshire, which opened at the gallery on Saturday 16 May 2015.

We are delighted to announce the recent acquisition of a rediscovered portrait of the young Barbara Hepworth.  Generously gifted to the Wakefield Council Permanent Art Collection by a private American collector, the portrait will be the centrepiece work in a new exhibition Hepworth in Yorkshire, which opens at the gallery on Saturday 16 May.

This will be the first time in 90 years that the painting will be publicly shown.  It is considered to be the earliest known portrait of Barbara Hepworth, dated from around 1920, when Hepworth would have been 17 years old.

The portrait was painted by Royal Academician Ethel Walker, who lived part-time in Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Yorkshire coast, where Hepworth and her family spent their summers and was most likely the location where they would have met.

Brought at auction for £1,000 as a ‘portrait of a lady’ it is only recently that the sitter has been identified as Barbara Hepworth, one of Britain’s most significant artists.

The Hepworth in Yorkshire exhibition which was on display at The Hepworth Wakefield in 2015 offered an unprecedented insight into the earliest years of the life and work of Yorkshire-born artist Barbara Hepworth. Hepworth herself asserted that the experience of growing up in Yorkshire was hugely influential on her work. The exhibition will also exhibit for the first time family photographs and images of Hepworth’s formative years, as well as some of her earliest drawings, paintings and sculpture that show Hepworth’s natural gifts in these mediums.

Head of a Lady c. 1920, a sketch by Hepworth during her school years will also feature in the exhibition.  One of just a few works remaining from Hepworth’s teenage years, this will be the first time that this sketch has been publicly displayed. These beautifully executed drawings from Hepworth’s juvenilia are unlike the work Hepworth is known for, taking inspiration from Victorian children’s illustrators like Arthur Rackham.

Image: Ethel Walker, Barbara Hepworth as a teenager, c.1920, oil on canvas (detail). The Hepworth Wakefield (Wakefield Council Permanent Art Collection). The Estate of Dame Ethel Walker/Bridgeman Images.

“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.”

Simon Wallis OBE, Director – The Hepworth Wakefield