Richard Henry Albert Willis, Painter and Sculptor

(b.1853, d. 1905)

Painter and Sculptor

From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

R. H. A. Willis. Photograph.

Was born at Dingle, Co. Kerry, on 5th July, 1853, the son of Joseph Willis and Jane McCarthy. He was brought up in Cork, and at the age of about 16 was apprenticed to Arthur Hill, an architect in that city. As a boy he showed remarkable talent for drawing, and he devoted his spare time to studying in the School of Art, then under the direction of James Brenan. From the beginning his career as an art student was an uninterrupted success, and having gained a scholarship in the National Art Training School at South Kensington, he went to London to continue his studies. He won a travelling scholarship, besides many medals and prizes, and was accounted the best student who ever went through the schools.

In 1882 he was appointed head master of the Manchester School of Art. There he showed his powers as a teacher and organizer, and during the ten years he spent in Manchester he made its school the most important art teaching centre in England. Sir Thomas Armstrong, under whom he had studied at South Kensington, said "he was a born teacher, and with the enthusiasm which provokes enthusiasm in others; he got more out of his pupils than almost anyone I ever knew; to the best of my belief he was the most successful art master produced at the South Kensington Training College."

In 1892 he resigned, and took a studio in London in order to work at his art. He acted as examiner for the National Art competitions at South Kensington, and for some years was art adviser to the Corporation of Preston in buying pictures for its Gallery.

His occupation as a teacher had left him little time for pursuing his art, and the public knew little of him. He exhibited in the Royal Academy between 1882 and 1899, contributing landscapes and sculpture. He was equally at home in oils, water-colours or pastels; and there was scarcely a branch of art or art craftsmanship in which he did not excel; he was not only a modeller and sculptor, but was successful in enamelling, in stained glass and in wood-carving, and with his fine draughtsmanship and wonderful imagination he excelled as a designer.

In 1904 he was offered the head mastership of the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art in succession to his old teacher, James Brenan. He at first refused, as he desired to devote himself to his artistic work; but he was prevailed upon to accept, and was appointed on the 1st July, 1904. He took up his new duties with all his characteristic enthusiasm, and laid himself out to raise the standard of art and of art teaching in Ireland. He was a strenuous supporter of the work of the Gaelic League, and an enthusiast in the development of "Nationalism" in Irish art education.

His organizing powers and untiring devotion to the interests of his pupils soon made themselves felt, and the school was on the eve of important developments when his death suddenly put an end to all his plans. He was accustomed to spend his holidays in Kerry, and while there, the year after his appointment to Dublin, he died suddenly at Ballinskelligs on 15th August, 1905. He was buried on the 18th at Rathcormac, Co. Cork. Willis was married to a daughter of George Twiss, of Steelroe, Co. Kerry.

A bronze plaque, "Fate," from a model by him, was presented to the National Gallery of Ireland in 1907, by "his friends and former pupils in Ireland."

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