The son of a Bristol artist, Henry Brittan Willis acquired an early taste for drawing, spending the summer months of his youth sketching in the cow fields around Bath and Bristol. To help his chances of artistic success, he travelled to America in 1842, spending a year recording scenery in the Catskill Mountains and on the Hudson River, as well as painting pictures for a French dealer in New York.
After a stint as a portrait painter and then a drawing master, Willis eventually settled in London around 1845, where his reputation as a painter of landscapes with cattle was growing considerably.
He regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy and the British Institute, and contributed large numbers of works to the annual exhibitions of the Society of Painters in Water Colours. When he was elected to the Society as an associate member in 1862, The Era, along with a number of other journals, fully endorsed the decision and praised the artist’s talent:
Mr Brittan Willis … has been so successful in his several delineations where cattle, more especially, stand out as the main objects, that his pictures present more the appearance of works of the most able and experienced hands than those of a less practised hand.
Willis was promptly advanced to full membership of the Society the following year, and by this period of his career there was an eager clientele for the rural landscapes with farm animals that he painted in localities all over England, Wales and Scotland. His Highland cattle 1866 was acquired by Queen Victoria, and Ben Cruachan cattle coming south was shown in Paris at the Universal Exposition in 1867.
Willis’s singular devotion to bovine subject-matter was noted with mock praise in The Daily News on 2 December 1869, in a review of the Society of Painters in Water Colours exhibition:
Mr Brittan Willis and Mr Basil Bradley divide the honours in the class of cattle and cart-horses. For our part, we should give the prize to both of them. Mr. Willis’s calves are as wonderfully stupid looking and as intensely obstinate as ever they were in nature …
Willis’s Cattle piece, a scene on the Wye 1873 was among the first works purchased for the fledgling Art Gallery of New South Wales collection.
Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017