William Etty’s ambitious "Preparing for a Fancy Dress Ball" was commissioned in 1833 by MP Charles Watkin Williams–Wynn

YORK- One of the finest portraits ever painted by York ’s most famous artist has been purchased by York Art Gallery.

William Etty’s ambitious Preparing for a Fancy Dress Ball was commissioned in 1833 by MP Charles Watkin Williams–Wynn and depicts two of the patron’s five daughters. It is one of only a handful of society portraits painted by the artist.

The acquisition was made possible thanks to the generosity of Friends of York Art Gallery - which gave £44,000, independent charity The Art Fund - which provided £40,000, the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund which gave £35,000, and £1,000 from the Tomasso Brothers. The painting will go on show in the gallery in the next few weeks.

Preparing for a Fancy Dress Ball was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1835, and depicts Charlotte and Mary Williams-Wynn, the daughters of the Hon. Charles Watkins Williams-Wynn MP. Charlotte, the eldest daughter, is shown helping to decorate her younger sister’s hair with a ribbon and a rose. The theme of the work reflects the popularity such events had acquired in the period. Indeed, in September 1835 York hosted one of the biggest fancy dress balls the country had ever seen, when Princess Victoria, soon to be Queen Victoria , visited the city with her mother. The ball was held at York ’s Assembly Rooms and newspaper reviews of the period vividly describe the ‘wonderful variety’ of costumes on display, which included a mixture of the ‘fanciful’, the ‘outlandish’, and the ‘ridiculous’. The choice of dress in the painting responds to Etty’s passion for Italy , and particularly Venice , which he had visited in 1822.

Andrew Macdonald, Acting Director of The Art Fund, said: “This striking painting with its warm tones and lively subject matter will be instantly attractive to visitors at York Art Gallery . Etty’s York roots make the acquisition doubly significant and The Art Fund is pleased to be helping to bring the work home.”

Laura Turner, curator of art at York Art Gallery , said: “This is a remarkable painting and we are delighted that it will now be enjoyed here in the artist’s home city. It is a captivating work of art and shows another side to Etty and the variety of commissions he undertook. We could not have purchased this work without the fantastic support of the funders who saw the importance of this work coming to York . We would especially like to thank the Friends of York Art Gallery who have donated their biggest ever grant.”

Born in York in 1787, William Etty spent several years as an apprentice to the printer Thomas Peck at the Hull Packet before entering the Royal Academy schools in London in 1806. During the 1820s Etty made several trips abroad, visiting France , Italy and the Low Countries . He completed the the Grand Tour in 1824, spending several months in Venice . Encounters with the Venetian masters helped shape his distinctive painting style, characterised by a rich colour palette.

Etty is nowadays best known for his nude paintings. Yet throughout his career he continued to paint portraits, often of his friends and associates and later in life he began to paint landscapes and still lives. Etty retained close links with his home city of York , campaigning for a new school of design and fighting to save the historic buildings and city walls. In 1911 a statue of Etty was erected in Exhibition Square , in front of York art gallery and the artist is still one of York ’s most famous sons.

Preparing for a Fancy Dress Ball is a significant addition to the gallery’s Etty collection, the largest public holding of his works in Britain . Part of this collection, together with loans from across the country will feature in the gallery’s exhibition on the artist in summer 2011.