Rarely exhibited portrait in spotlight

From A Traveller of the East, undated, c.1930-35, by Ethel Walker. Oil on canvas. COLLECTION OF...
From A Traveller of the East, undated, c.1930-35, by Ethel Walker. Oil on canvas. COLLECTION OF THE DUNEDIN PUBLIC ART GALLERY.
A seldom seen portrait can be viewed in a new light, writes Lucy Hammond.

The newest exhibition at Dunedin Public Art Gallery, "Huikaau - where currents meet", explores the many intersecting stories within the gallery’s permanent collection. Among the works on display is A Traveller of the East, a rarely exhibited portrait by the celebrated British painter Dame Ethel Walker (1861-1951).

A Traveller of the East is characteristic of Walker’s works, a well-dressed, enigmatic woman at ease in a domestic setting. It is also a painting that strikes up a conversation with that of Dunedin’s most famous daughter, the artist Frances Hodgkins (1869–1947).

The Scottish-born Walker began painting without formal training, and it was only later in her career, when she was in her late 30s, that she entered the art school system.

She became a member of the New English Art Club in 1900, exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Royal Society of Arts, the Lefevre Gallery, and represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1922, 1924, 1928 and 1930.

Frances Hodgkins first arrived in England in 1901 to pursue her work, and there were many parallels between the careers of the two artists in their lifetimes.

In 1952 the "decisive contribution" each had made to British art in the early 20th century was celebrated in a joint retrospective at Tate Britain, which also acknowledged the career of Gwen John.

In 1943, aged 82, Ethel Walker was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. At the time, she was only the second woman painter to receive this commendation.

In more recent times, her work has been subject to significant reassessment, particularly within queer art history.

Her major painting, The Excursion of Nausicaa (1920) was celebrated in the landmark exhibition "Queer British Art 1861-1967" (2017), which sought to consider how artists expressed themselves in times when "established assumptions about gender and sexuality were being questioned and transformed".

Through painterly approach and subject matter, A Traveller of the East is a significant work revealing the story of a major figure from British art history.

Lucy Hammond is a curator at Dunedin Public Art Gallery.