William Gorman Wills, Portrait Painter

(b. 1828, d. 1891)

Portrait Painter

From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

Was born at Blackwell Lodge, Co. Kilkenny, on 28th January, 1828, the son of the Rev. James Wills and his wife Katherine, daughter of the Rev. W. Gorman and niece of Chief Justice Kendal Bushe. The Rev. James Wills was son of Thomas Wills of Willsgrove, Co. Roscommon; he was a man of varied gifts as a poet and writer, and was the author of the well-known "Lives of Illustrious and Distinguished Irishmen." William G. Wills was sent at the age of 12 to a small school at Lucan kept by Dr. Dee; afterwards to Waterford Grammar School, and at the age of 19, on the 6th November, 1845, he entered Trinity College, Dublin. He won the Vice-Chancellor's gold medal in 1848 for his poem on "Poland"; but he did not proceed to his degree. During his time at the University he developed a strong taste for painting, and entered himself as a student in the Royal Hibernian Academy. After leaving the University he occupied his time in painting, drawing, flute-playing and writing. With an occasional commission to paint a portrait, and his literary earnings, chiefly from contributions to the shortlived "Irish Metropolitan," he eked out sufficient for his needs, and was able to make a visit to Paris with five pounds earned by painting a copy of Cregan's portrait of Chief Justice Bushe.

He exhibited a few works at the Royal Hibernian Academy, including "The Dead Mother," in 1852, and a portrait of Dr. Lloyd, of Trinity College, in 1854. Going to London in 1862 he endeavoured to make a livelihood by his pen; he tried his hand at novel-writing, but was more successful as a dramatist, his first play of note being "The Man of Airlie," produced at the Princess's theatre in 1866. About 1868 he returned to painting and took a disused brewery store, No. 15 Fulham Road, as a studio. Indifferent to his surroundings, he made no attempt to conceal the bareness of the room beyond hanging some portraits, some in frames and some without, upon the walls. The easels and the most prominent positions in the centre of the room were usually occupied by the works of impecunious friends who were in the habit of using Wills's studio as a showroom. To discover Wills's works one had to look on the floor or in the corners of the room, where they stood stacked against the wall.

He confined himself at this time chiefly to pastel portraits, in which he showed considerable power and achieved success, especially in portraits of children. His studio became crowded, and he was soon able to raise his prices from five to twenty guineas. He painted the Royal children at Windsor, and gave lessons to the Princess Louise. A short visit to Dublin brought him a rich harvest. He did a few oil pictures, among them being "Ophelia and Laertes," exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1874 and in Paris, which was extolled by the critics. The picture was afterwards in Sir Henry Irving's possession, and hung in the vestibule of the Lyceum theatre.

For some time Wills was making a considerable income; but he gradually lost his patrons by his ultra-Bohemian ways, his extraordinary habits and way of living, the dirt and squalor of his studio, haunted by the numerous disreputable loafers and parasites who lived upon his generosity and unblushingly took advantage of his carelessness and kindness. His career was further prejudiced by his absent-mindedness, which made him forget invitations received or given. He now turned once more to dramatic composition as a means of living. His "Charles I" in 1872, and "Eugene Aram" and "Olivia" in 1873, were his great successes and his best works. A number of other historical plays followed, and he continued writing successfully for the stage until 1887. In that year he lost his mother. He had provided her with a house in Wellington Road, Dublin; and through all his struggles and vicissitudes had never failed to support her in comfort. Her death removed the great incentive he had to work; he moved his studio and was little seen by his friends; his health began to fail, and finally he was removed to Guy's Hospital, where he died on the 13th December, 1891.

In the various branches of art which Wills was engaged in, painting was what he liked most; his dramatic work was only undertaken from necessity. Whether he would ever have risen to the eminence as a painter that he attained as a playwright is extremely doubtful, although in some of his works he showed high artistic qualities and perception. In later life his great wish was to be appreciated as a poet, and he was fond of reading his unpublished poems to his friends.

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