The Reverend James Wills

c 1705 - d. 1776

British  Portrait  Artist


The Life and Works of James Wills

Complete Biography and Catalogue Raissone

By David Freeman










 The artist Johan Zoffany gives us a tantalising view of an 18th century art school in his unfinished depiction of a life drawing class at the St. Martins Lane Academy in London.

 But one cannot be more intrigued by this rare glimpse of a young man at the back of the room obviously tutoring students of the arts and wonder if we are seeing a very young artist called the Reverend James Wills?


A Painting, Poesy so similar
To Poesy be Painting: emulous
Alike, each to her sister doth refer.
Alternate change the office and the name;
Mute verse is this, that speaking picture call’d.

Wills 1754




James Wills

By David Freeman


  Documenting the life and work of the British artist James Wills is an ongoing and challenging journey for me. One compounded by scant if not misleading historical records, factual omissions and duplications.

 It's a task akin to being presented with 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of one of his fine portraits in oils to complete. But this one presenting itself with only one corner, two straight edges and a handful of middle sections to piece together.

To make it more challenging, the jig saw is all plain blue, each piece giving us tantalising glimpses of eyes, hands and drapery to start the jig saw puzzle with.






 Authors and commentators of art history have cited James Wills death date as being in the latter part of 1777. However, the Parish burial record for this sad event is quite specific and places the funeral at St. Lawrences church in Little Stanmore, Middlesex, on August 22nd 1776.

 This is the place where James Wills had been both curate and the incumbent vicar for several years and where full circle, George Frideric Handel was employed as composer in residence at the church. Here was a man whose charity for impoverished musicians James Wills strove to assist, way back in his days connected with the Foundling Hospital and James Wills would undoubtedly have seen him perform the Messiah there, possibly at his first benefit concert for the Hospital in 1749.



James Wills - The Early Years:


 James Wills was likely born in London in 1705 and into a wealthy family. It was here that he attended a public school which gave him a thorough grounding in the classics and specifically Latin. This was a subject in which he was an outstanding scholar. 

During his life, Wills was married at least twice, latterly on 17th November 1759 to Ann Bland from Holborn in London and a widow herself.


 It seems fairly certain that the young James Wills, the future British historical painter and portraitist, with what he called ‘a passion for history painting'' was in Italy around 1722.

His name appears listed at the Padua University records of 22. 9. 1722.
Thus it is entirely possible that he studied both art history and traditional history painting in Rome at that time. It is clear that in his translation of Du Fresnoys tome, much later in his life, he refers to several paintings he has seen there.

 What is known about the artist James Wills, is that a pastel self portrait was acquired by the Florentine collector Niccolò Francesco Maria Gaburri (1676-1742) in that same year. Here is a man it is believed, probably assembling his auto portrait collection in order to record the images of artists for a future dictionary of painters.  In time, this important collection would be lent to an exhibition in 1737 at SS Annunziata in Florence.

Veduta della Piazza Firenze (Tuscany, Italy)
Piazza SS.Annunziata.


In the eighteenth century, a visit to Italy was considered by many as essential in the career of a painter. Although contemporary Italian painting was not as prestigious as before. Rome however was still the artistic centre of continental Europe and attracted many artists eager to complete their training and to find patrons among the aristocrats on the Grand Tour.”




 It is not known how long James Wills stayed in Italy, but by 1737 James Wills, who latterly gave up his art and turned to the Church, was back in England and paints his earliest known portrait in oils to date. A picture of his friend, the antiquary the Reverend Thomas Birch; D. D. (1705-1766) Secretary to the Royal Society and a painting which in turn becomes the model for two published mezzotints. (one seen below)

Rev Thomas Birch Portrait by James Wills
Thomas Birch Mezzotint

^ Rev Thomas Birch DD (1705–1766) Trustee of the British Museum Secretary to the Royal Society.

Half-length portrait in black clerical robes by James Wills 1737.

Oil on canvas, 91.8 x 71.2 cm

Collection: The Royal Society

Above: : Thomas Birch

By John Faber Jr, after James Wills
Mezzotint, 1741
Plate size 13 3/4 in. x 9 7/8 in. (353 mm x 253 mm)

Paper size 14 1/8 in. x 10 1/4 in. 361 mm x 262




The St Martin’s Lane Academy


St Martins Lane Academy C 1740

  As a young man recently returned from the Continent, James Wills, like many artists, frequented Old Slaughter’s coffee house in London’s fashionable Covent Garden.

This was one of the most famous of all the Georgian London social meeting places. A place where Britain’s artists and intellectuals would meet and a venue where James Wills would in turn befriend the influential British artist, William Hogarth.

 The result of that profound encounter was that James Wills became both a Director and Tutor to the newly formed St Martin’s Lane Academy, the organisation which, back then was really the first dedicated British Art School.

Here for nearly the next thirty years, the most serious of British artists who could afford the two guineas start fee and the 1 ½ guineas a year thereafter, subscribed to tutelage at St. Martins. Clearly it was the fore runner of the prestigious Royal Academy (the RA) which was founded in 1768 and to which James Wills full angst would latterly be directed





 After its re formation in 1735, the St Martin’s Lane Academy became a hive of activity and the breeding ground for Britain’s upcoming artists, including architects, potters, designers and print makers. Included on that list were people such as the young Thomas Gainsborough, Francis Coates, Thomas Hudson, George Knapton, Robert Maberly and John Shackleton the Principal Painter in Ordinary to the King of England. There were also were clerics, nobles and business men.


George Vertue noted early in 1745

"The academy for the study of painting & other artists is carryd on and conducted by several, Ellis, Hayman, Gravelot, Wills— &c..."


 Its primary art tutors listed there were listed as being: Wm. Hogarth, who had no official role, Francis Hayman RA (1708/2 February 1776) who was in charge of History painting, Hubert François Gravelot 1699/1773, concentrated on teaching Drawing. George Michel Moser (1706/1783) was in charge of the art of ‘Chasing’ and Louis-François Roubiliac (more correctly Roubillac) (1702/1705) Sculpture. Richard Yeo. RA (ca 1720/1779) the engraving of seals. There is an unnamed painter in attendance who was likely George Lambert (1700 /30 November 1765) who taught landscape painting and James Wills, who was also the treasurer, taught not unusually, portrait painting.

William Hogarth



 Clearly James Wills was seen and accepted as both a proven and a talented artist. Not only by artist William Hogarth but his immediate peers and was justifiably worthy of both their trust and this post as tutor of portraiture at St Martin’s Lane.

 But James Wills at this time hated the state of  century British art with a passion, sharing the political view of his friend William Hogarth.
He also grew to despise, as would become quite clear later in his career, perhaps even more than Hogarth did, the young and overly talented artist Joshua Reynolds.

 Reynolds was a man who wanted art to be taught ‘officially’, the correct way, by copying the old masters or making drawings and studies of plaster casts of ancient sculptures. Hogarth’s more modern doctrine, one followed and supported by James Wills, was far more clear and simple solution to the issue. Underlining that ‘art was for the ordinary people and not just for the aristocracy.’ A solid working class ideology.

Here then was the political catalyst for what was to lie ahead in James Wills troubled career as an artist.


Joshua Reynolds







Wills and the Du Fresnoy Translation  




  To date, nothing of great detail can be told of the earliest years of James Wills life, but it is evident that he was exceptionally well educated as he was a proven Latin scholar as I have previously mentioned.
Equally, it’s clear that the French painter and writer Charles-Alphonse Du Fresnoy, whose lengthy poem, De arte graphica(1668) written entirely in Latin and more a treatise on art and how it should be conducted, affected and appreciated, had a remarkable influence, not only on James Wills, but on society of its day.

 James Wills revered in Du Fresnoy’s words, seeing them as his champion and the work itself, the perfect model that all good artists should follow. In his eyes, its mother language, Latin, was also the only respectable and correct way to tell it.  Having studied and followed its doctrine, James Wills would go on to translate and correct the original Du Fresnoy prose in 1754, though you might ask why?

  But his volume he saw as more of a statutory tome and a fine text book for artists to implicitly follow;
“not just of classicism, but of the line of ‘history painting’ with which he himself identified and which he regarded as the highest form of art.” De Arte Graphica (Paris, 1668) Ch 3 145


 Alas, James Wills’ Latin translation was not without great criticism from many, including fellow artists and critics, who saw it to be dry and uninteresting. Some went as far as to say, boring.

For instead of translating and improving the original text into English, as would be expected in this 18th century, modern day age, Wills preferred to honour the words by using a more modern and grammatically correct Latin. Thus making his rewrite one without supplementary addition or re interpretation of its content. Except in that there would be a biographical insight into the life of its author. Monsieur Du Fresnoy, based upon studies and research of his life supplied by James’s good friend, the antiquary Thomas Birch.

 Whilst master of portraiture at St Martins Lane Academy, Wills would go on to meet many aristocratic individuals attending its drawing classes, in the main, there to improve their own draftsmanship skills. This included many members of the clergy and its hierarchy, high court judges, lawyers, architects…..all of whom he would concentrate his talent of painting portraits of as he never rose to the great heights of painting Royalty as we shall see and understand later.



James Wills - The Known Works of Art:



 Records of individual works of art by James Wills are equally scant and in many cases inaccurate. When it comes to many of the formal academic listings of James Will's known paintings, many of Will's works are clearly lost, forgotten, simply overlooked, or innocently described as ‘school of’, or ‘English School’. Sadly left until now without any accurate attribution.

  Countless numbers of his portraits must today be left unattributed and thus not picked up by any compilation of the major institution listings and records. However, this ongoing and ever building catalogue of his known works, grows daily and is pressing 50. But this is still a scant number of paintings for a professional artist to have produced over a lifetime of working.

But many of his works of art are backed up by clear indications of their existence and citing him as to his hand. This is documented in letters, accounts and diary entries of his sitters we have found.

Usefully, the mezzotint reproductions of his many portraits of the Judiciary, Clerics, Nobles and Socialites, define the original author of those works from which they had been copied. In those we learn they were specifically being James Will's doing.

 It is equally interesting that in looking chronologically at his life, there are huge gaps in the time frame where no artistic product has as yet emerged and can be listed. But it seems impractical, almost impossible for a working artist and one active and in his prime, would not be turning out large amounts of product for numerous numbers of years.




1776 Deceased Stanmore Middx. Cannons. Buried 22. Aug
1772 Wills was appointed to the living at Canons,Little Stanmore St Lawrences., by Hallett's grandson. he was a prominent cabinet-maker of St. Martin's  Lane. William Hallett had built a residence on part of the foundations of the great demolished house.

Preached an important sermon before the Chartered Society of Artists at St Pauls Covent Garden for which he received £30.00 gns.

Appointed Chaplain. Published as: A sermon preached at St. Paul's Church, Covent-Garden, on Monday the 19th of October, 1767. Before the Incorporated Society of Artists of Great-Britain. Being the Day of their Annual Election: St. Luke the proper Day, being on Sunday the 18th. By the Rev. James Wills, Chaplain to the Society and Curate of Whitchurch.

Published at the Request of the Society


Paints a portrait of a gentleman. Exh. Society of artists

1765 Probably gone by now as the first perpetual curate, Walter L. Williams was appointed 26.4 1764
1764 Paints a portrait of Miss Elizabeth Turner. Daughter of Sir Edward Turner 2nd Bt. (1719-66), of Ambrosden, Oxon.

6.1.1761 - Appointed Curate Harrow Pinner Chapel. Middx Deanery of Croydon
Peculiar Canterbury by Thomas Secker under the guardianship of Frances Saunders Vicar of Harrow-on-the-Hill and Govenror of Harrow School

Exhibited with the Society of Artists 'St. Peter returning from Prison


Wills exhibited with the Society of Artists ' Liberality and Modesty / 1st Exhibition

1759 *Married Ann Bland 17th Nov. at St Andrews Holborn. Listed as Clerk of the Parish of Northolt Middlesex. Wills listed as Widdower. Anne Bland listed as Widdow of Holborne. Married by Licence. In the presence of Peter Toms and Mary Price.
1758 Probably leaves Market Bosworth

June July; Paints Portrait of Hesta ( Hetty) Miller ( Children of Sanderson Miller Architect ) at Radway, Warwickshire
Paints Portrait of Miss Mary Miller
Paints Portrait of Miss Anna Miller
Paints Portrait of Miss Susanna (Sue) Miller
Paints: Portrait of Lucy Lyttelton
Paints portrait John Nicoll. Canon.

1755 Paints a Portrait of Sanderson Miller at Radway Warwikshire.

1754 Published De arte Graphica; or, The Art of Painting (1754) Fitzwilliam

Privately ordained Deacon 21. 04. By Cornwallis / Bishop Coventry Lichfield at Request. Hon Charles. Yorke
Ordained Priest 22.9 at Buckden Hunts by Bishop John Thoms of Lincoln
23/9/1754 Appointed Curate Market Bosworth

1749 Paints conversation piece the Andrews Family signed "J. Wills pinxit" & dated
1748 Circa paints portrait Reverend Joseph Standen
1747 Circa Paints portrait Sir Michael Foster
1746 At St Martins Lane Academy. Treasurer, teaching portrait painting
Painted ‘Little children brought to Christ’ given to the Foundling hospital
Paints portrait Christian Simpson
1744 Paints portrait of Philip Yorke, Philip, of Wimpole, Baron Hardwicke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke and Lord Chancellor
1743 Described by Vertue as a promising young painter . III, p.117
1741 Paints Alured Clarke (1696–1742) Dean of Exeter
1740 ^ Described as being in the orbit of Francis Hayman RA in the 40’s
Paints Lady Helena Rawdon (née Perceval) Daughter of John Perceval, 1st Earl of Egmont
Draws pastel Sir John Percival. 1st Earl of Egmont
1737 Paints Portrait of Reverend Thomas Birch; D. D. Secretary to the Royal Society
Gabburri the collector: Wills self portrait exhibited SS Anunziata Florence.

1735 St. Martin's Lane Academy set up
1733 Listed at University of Padua Italy 22.9 33
Unknown before  






James Wills and the Foundling Hospital:

 The Foundling Hospital was a children's home established in 1741 in London for the "education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children" by the philanthropic sea captain, Thomas Coram. 

His friend William Hogarth, who had no children of his own, championed the cause and became one of the founding Governors.

 In 1746 James Wills is persuaded by his friend William Hogarth, though I really don’t think he would take much persuading, along with artistic colleagues such as Joseph Hymore and Francis Hayman (fifteen contributing men in all) to paint and gift to the hospital a number of religious pictures especially created to decorate the Foundling Hospital. Thus the artists were seen to be promoting British ‘history painting.



 By donating those major works to this ever popular ‘peoples’ charity. Hogarth knew that Britain, which until that time had no major venue for artists to exhibit their works on a regular basis as the French did with the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Paris, that Britain would indeed now have such a venue.

The Foundling hospital could therefore be called upon from then on in, to provide the perfect opportunity for them to display their works of art and was in essence, to become the first proper contemporary art gallery in the country. The artists involved with the hospital were all made Governors, thus rose in the eyes of society and would now meet there on a regular basis.

So in the year 1746, James Wills presented one of his most major pieces of art to date. A large painting called; ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not.’ [Alt: Little Children Brought to Christ.] Seen on the right. These were works generally revered at the time as being amongst the best historical paintings ever created by British artists.




The coming of the RA.

 By 1754, the time James Wills was translating Du Fresnoys book from the Latin, due to the politics of the time, he was watching his career as an artist founder and gradually slip away from him. Finding himself pushed further onto the outside of the group of ‘more fashionable artists,’ those championed by critics and ‘literary men’ such as Kneller and Gerves and including the more and more resented Reynolds.

Reynolds was a man now heading up a group of artists getting the very best of commissions and because of them, national acclaim.
Without the open admiration and sanction of society, Wills took refuge in the pride of his art.

“If I acquit myself as a painter, I shall be satisfied,” he wrote.
Wills de Arte Graphica p.iii.


 Arts and politics became the profound catalyst to his eventual downfall and with arguments and vast differences of opinion confronting him, Wills was resigned to what he viewed as his eventual and total failure as an artist.



 History records that in May 1761, a Royal Charter was obtained and the newly formed ‘Incorporated Society of Artists’ born. With many founder members of the St Martin’s Lane Academy and prominent artists still striving to promote and exhibit British artist’s works, completely abandoning the original ship. Though James Wills was a formal part of its set up, he somehow slipped or was pushed through the net?

  During this important transitional period in British art, James Wills is best remembered for his ferocious and very public literary attacks. The first on his archenemy, Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Here was a painter who, along with others, left the Incorporated Society of Artists almost immediately that it was set up, to form the Royal Academy and secondly, he squared up to the equally successful and distinguished Irish artist, James Barry.
James Wills scathingly sarcastic opening remark in his sermon preached as the newly sanctioned Chaplain to the Society of Artists at St. Pauls Cathedral on Monday the 19th of October, 1767, is testimony to the fact.

He began;

‘I cannot omit congratulating you both on the present state of arts in Great Britain’

 In his published sermon James Wills personally places the blame directly at the feet of very specific authorities and viciously poured scorn and criticism upon Joshua Reynolds and James Barry who held quite opposite views to his own.

But Wills was now treading on very dangerous ground indeed. He was also seen as openly criticising the King, George III. the Monarch whose personal charter had established the RA and Wills publicly called him an; “arbitrary and politically bias ruler to royal sympathy to a foreign ‘Parisian ‘ academy.”

And that’s precarious talk. Talk that could find him locked, forgotten and and banished to a debtors prison, or committed to a dank asylum, ‘vanished’ for life.... or even worse!

 It is true, the King had approved the RA and was its Patron and it was indeed now showing the elitist traits that Wills abhorred and had warned of. In only allowing an elite elected membership and completely restricting the viewing of its exhibitions to substantially eliminate the working class.
Quite openly and regularly publishing his scathing comments and blunt views in the most powerful tabloid of the day, the Middlesex Journal and hiding under the interestingly chose pseudonym of ‘Fresnoy,’ James Wills faced a disastrous future. In no short measure, he watched his career falter, slow further and eventually tumble.

In his mind, he felt he was a total failure as an artist.


With the Morning Chronical and London Advertiser - 18 May 1773 recording the revelation that;

“Fresnoy is a Parson who spurn’d even by the church, turns scribbling assassin.”










Wills turns to the Church



 James Wills had first turned to his God and the church and became ordained as a minister by Bishop John Thomas of Lincoln at the Bishop's Palace in Buckden, Cambridgeshire on the 22nd of September 1754.

  Without a formal degree from a British University education, allowing a formal sponsorship for entry to the clergy was acceptable and quite normal in this time. Particularly when proven academic ability shone.
And to James Wills, this sponsorship came from the intervention of an extremely influential man. Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke. Nobleman, lawyer, wealthy landowner and politician. A man who was to serve as Lord Chancellor and a man whom James Wills had painted a wonderful portrait in 1740  (right)

 Church records, were, until recently, totally inaccurate about the Reverend James Wills and in the main they were mostly missing and that is odd? Whether that is 18 century spin doctoring and deliberate eradication of the man from public record by the church is questionable, yet understandably quite a plausible view bearing in mind his radical outbursts.

Finding his name appearing quite often in hand written parish records as a priest presiding over burials, weddings and christenings, those errors have now been corrected by the C of E archivists and we are building better and more accurate picture of the chronology and appointments that he held within the Anglican church.


 James Wills was first posted as Curate, to Market Bosworth and Shenton in Leicestershire. However, this was to be a miserable time in his life, though it is clear he did not entirely give up his love of art or indeed painting, nor did he miss out on the opportunity to fire a broadside at old rivals and even old friends!

  This became evident once again in his disappointment of his old friend William Hogarth when he produced his book; Analysis of Beauty, which he published in 1753. In which Hogarth describes six principles which independently affect beauty; fitness, variety, regularity, simplicity, intricacy and quantity.

James did not agree to this change of path in his old friend’s focus on art and wrote of him;

“Mr Wills is sorry any one of the profession should derogate so much from it as to print such stuff as Mr. Hogarth has done.”

 From Market Bosworth on the 8 Nov. 1755, James Wills wrote to his old friend, the antiquary Thomas Birch, desperate to get away from the place and clearly he had two influential men trying to help him escape. But within this letter we find an interesting confirmation. He writes:


 “Dear Sir,

   A Victory over the French and a letter from a kind friend whom I have so long experienced are too much to be silent especially as in that letter there is a confirmation of what I doubted the continuance of.
Mr.Yorks Goodness these are things for which I cannot be enough thankful.
You are very kind in promising your endeavours with regard to another curacy.

If I stay here I must grow obsolete and my faculties languish. I have great reputation in the world some friends and (over) abundance of well wishes and health and I bleys god possess my ‘abilities’ as fully as ever I should being mine in the way be able as I have reducd my necessities tho I live within my small income to make my life more comfortable, my only solace here being that I can retreat to my self and my books some other relief at last a variation however is require here is none.”

What is really interesting is that in an earlier letter to Birch from Market Bosworth, James Wills talks about himself rather oddly in the third party.


Dated Oct. 10.1755

“Our roads grow intolerable, we have nothing but tempests here within and without Doors. I, who had contacted my self to my humble room, am free from these commotions. I thank God my Duty is a pleasure otherwise I should be most unhappy. I retain nothing of worldly vanity but (?) ‘fringe’ paper about my candle and a cloth at breakfast which I will not give up.

  ( He continues) I spent three days lately with a Mr. Miller near Edge Hill the place describ’d in Tom Jones by Sir George Littleton, as Mr Alworthy’s seat, with some alteration. This Gentleman has an excellent taste in architecture, has built a XXXX [written above] ‘county’ house in Warwick very fine. Is building for Sr George a mansion house. I wish we live nearer. Could I have staid, he would have carried me to people of fashion in his neighbourhood, for you must know, there is a namesake of mine in London who is a famous painter, a very clever man. I am sometimes ask’d questions about him
If, Sir, you should see Dr. Stukely, Mr Miller has a Canausius and will give it him’ as he told me, I also beg my compliments who am Sir, with most sincere regard .

Your most Obliged and most Humble servant

James Wills



 Trying to find information about James Wills in the town of Market Bosworth proved difficult, but we are able to build up a picture of life in at the time from the Peter Foss book, ‘The History of Market Bosworth’.

  A John Throsby was a visitor there a few years after James Wills had departed and found the settlement and the church “in a poor state”. Where the pipes of the old organ were “jumbled in all directions”.

At about the same time John Byng visited and wrote, “I happened to come across the town of Bosworth, if anything so mean can be called one”.


 There are many factors which probably contributed to James Wills personal misery. Least of all loneliness, bitterness, failure as he saw it and lack of self-esteem.

He was a widower after all, until he remarried again the following year when back in London.

 So, it would seem that his old friend and ally, Thomas Birch pulls more strings once again for James Wills and he suddenly finds himself back in the capital.

 Somehow he becomes the Chaplain to the Society of Artists, gets mixed up all over again in artistic rows and arty politics, then finds himself out of the capital holding yet another curates position. This time in Northolt. Before finally ending up at St. Lawrences church Little Stanmore, Middlesex. A lovely church full of equally lovely paintings following its earlier restorations and additions of Italian style frescoes.



  Here James Wills ends his days and is formally buried on August 22nd 1776. According to the hand written parish register which records the event, presumably at the church itself, as there was nowhere else consecrated nearby.

Alas, even as a celebrated minister of the church and clergyman, there is no record of where that grave may be. Sadly, no stone marks his last resting place and no engraving of his image marks his troubled life........

There is for certain, still much yet to learn and add to this ongoing story.




Reverend. James Wills

The Paintings



Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not
Alt: Little Children Brought to Christ -

His principal work.

Given by the artist to the Foundling Hospital
Oil on canvas, 172.7 x 209.5 cm

As in the case of the other three biblical scenes displayed in the Court Room, Wills’ subject is an allusion to the benevolent work of the Foundling Hospital. It depicts an Apostle who is trying to turn away a bare-breasted mother and her child, but Christ urges him to be compassionate.

Collection: The Foundling Museum




The Andrews Family.
A group picture:
Oil on canvas, height 110.5cm, width 145cm,
Signature; lower left; J. Wills pinxit
Date; lower left; 1749

Stencil; verso; and sale information

Fitzwilliam Museum - University of Cambridge



3 Liberality and Modesty
Lit. Presented at the first exhibition of the artists to the Spring gardens London. A historical picture
Lit: The gentleman's and connoisseur's dictionary of painters P 658 By Matthew Pilkington

The Society of Artists of Great Britain, 1760-1791 ... p.282-3.
1768. 182 A landskip with the figures of WILLS, Rev. James Summer, and attendants, as described in the Spectator, No. 425.

<Image unavailable. Whereabouts unknown

St. Peter returning from Prison.
Lit. Presented at the second exhibition of the artists to the Spring gardens London. Lit: A Dictionary of Artists of the English School: Painters, Sculptors, Architects, Engravers and Ornamentalists with notices of their lives and work
Artists of the English School. Samuel Redgrave. 1868
"The Society of artists of Great Britain, 1760-1791; the Free society of artists, 1761-1783 ; a complete dictionary of contributors and their work from the foundation of the societies to 1791"
1 76 1. 132 An historical sketch, the return of St. Peter from Prison. Free Society.

<Image unavailable. Whereabouts unknown

Croftes family of Saxham Parva, in Suffolk.
A group picture.
The painting shows John Crofts with his wife Anne Le Pla and some of their children
157.5 x 170.2 cm. (62 x 67 in.)


Date unclear



Time taking away the Powers of Love
Small oil
Lit: Letter to Thomas Birch. From James Wills at Market Bosworth Oct 10. 1755 F82 “I have two little favourite pictures, which I should be desirous of presenting Mr Yorks Lady…” etc

Date unclear
<Image unavailable. Whereabouts unknown

Prudence represented by restoring them Minerva

See as above 6

Date unclear
<Image unavailable. Whereabouts unknown



James Wills, the Portraits




Autoritratto - Self portrait James WILLS (Italy)

Image unavailable

Rev Thomas Birch DD (1705–1766)

Oil on canvas, 91.8 x 71.2 cm

Collection: The Royal Society





Rev Thomas Birch Portrait by James Wills

Illustrated above


Sir John Percival -1st Earl of Egmont


Lit: Diary of the 1st Earl of Egmont, London 1923 iii. 28v / 28th May 1740
“Sat for my picture in crayons to Mr. Wills.”

Image unavailable

Alured Clarke (1696–1742) Dean of Exeter, Principal Founder and First President of Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital

Oil on canvas, 126 x 103 cm

Collection Devon and Exeter Hospital
Lit Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 10
Clarke, Alured (1696-1742) by William Prideaux Courtney

“There are three portraits of Clarke at the Exeter Hospital.

The largest, an oil painting by James Wills, hangs in the board-room; a small portrait, in crayons, is in the dining-room, and with it is a mezzotint engraving by Haskol, after Wills, but differently treated.






Alured Clarke-James Wills


The Very Reverend Alured Clarke, Dean of Exeter (1740–1741)
Oil on canvas, 126 x 101 cm
Collection: Dean and Chapter, Exeter Cathedral

After James Wills Mezzotint, 1740s
13 3/4 in. x 9 3/4 in. (350 mm x 248 mm) plate size; 13 7/8 in. x 9 7/8 in. (354 mm x 252 mm) paper size



Alured Clarke James Wills


Alured Clarke (1696–1742) Dean of Exeter

A small portrait in crayons ( probably pastel) in the dining-room Exeter Hospital

Lit; Dictionary of National Biography

<Image unavailable

Lancelot Blackburne Bishop of Exeter, Archbishop of York.
Lord High Almoner (10 December 1658 – 23 March 1743)

Oil on canvas, 124.5 x 99.7 cm high

Collection Oxford Christchurch College

Previously ascribed to Highmore









Philip Yorke -Philip of Wimpole, Baron Hardwicke,

1st Earl of Hardwicke and Lord Chancellor (1690 -1764)

(1 December 1690 – 6 March 1764)

Oil on canvas, 127 x 101.5 cm

Notes: His purse of office propped up behind him
Mezzotint after the original
Inscribed upper right Philip Yorke, Earl of Hardwicke/ Lord Chancellor of Great Britain/ Obt 1764, Aetat. 74 and, top left, in 18th century hand:

Ld Chancellor Hardwicke, Obt. 1764. Aet 74'. A three-quarter length portrait, standing to right, wearing robes of Lord High Chancellor, which he became in 1737, a paper in his left hand, his bag of office at his right, right hand extended in front of him. A similar portrait is in the Middle Temple and is inscribed with the date 1740.

Collection: National Trust Inventory Number 1151294
Housed Erddig, Wrexham



  Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke

Mezzotint by James Macardell, after James Wills
Mezzotint, (1744)








Lady Helena Rawdon (née Perceval) Countess of Moira.
Daughter of John Perceval, 1st Earl of Egmont. Wife of John Rawdon, 1st Earl of Moira

Mezzotint, 1745
by John Faber Jr, after James Wills












<Original Portrait not found


Rev James Foster DD - Baptist Minister
6 September 1697– 5 November 1753

Mezzotint, circa 1750

by Peter van Bleeck, after James Wills

Portrait, three-quarter length seated directed to right, smiling towards the viewer, right hand on the arm of his chair, left hand holding a small volume in his lap, wearing dark suit with clerical bands and chin-lenght wig; after Wills; state after publisher altered from T and J Bowles to J Bowles and Son.


Further J. N. Bernigeroth, line engraving, 1750 (after J. Wills)






<Original portrait whereabouts unknown

Josiah Hort Archbishop of Tuam ( Ireland)
c. 1674 – 14 December 1751

Lit: British and Irish Paintings in Public Collections: An Index of British and ... edited by Christopher Wright

Pos. Clare College Cambridge cat 1985 no 120 as artist unknown.









Josiah Hort Late Archbishop of Tuam ( Ireland)

Mezzotint after James Wills By Andrew Miller 1752
See MILLER, ANDREW. Mezzotints done in Dublin

Fitzwilliam Collection














Sir George Lee LLD, DCL. MP

Commissioner of the Admiralty President of Doctors Commons.. 1700-1758

He was Member of Parliament for Brackley, 1733 to 1742 and afterwards represented Devizes, 1742 to 1747, Liskeard, 1747 to 1754 and Launceston, 1754 to 1758.

By and published by John Faber Jr, after James Wills
Mezzotint, circa 1742-1752
12 7/8 in. x 8 7/8 in. (328 mm x 226 mm) paper size







<Whereabouts of the original painting are unknown



Sir Michael Foster (1689–1763)
Kings Justice – Recorder of the city of Bristol

Mezzotint 1748 after the original engraved by John Faber Jr,

after James Wills
13 7/8 in. x 9 3/4 in. (352 mm x 248 mm) paper size

Whereabouts was in the possession of Michael Dodson Esq








Whereabouts of the original painting are unknown



Christian Simpson

Oil on canvas - 23 x 17in. (58 x 43cm) - monogram and dated 1746 Lit: Christopher Wright - 2006

British and Irish Paintings in Public Collections. P 830
Register of Conditionally Exempt Works of Art Christian Simpson 1746 List 2005 no.97831


Image unavailable.

Whereabouts of the original painting are unknown.

15 Rt. Rev Thomas Secker - Lord Bishop of Oxford Archbishop of Canterbury, 1764

Mezzotint, 1747 by James Macardell, sold by Mary Overton, after James Wills

14 in. x 9 7/8 in. (355 mm x 252 mm) plate size; 14 1/8 in. x 10 in. (358 mm x 255 mm) paper size

<Original whereabouts unknown




Joseph Standen Rev. Vicar of Speen Berks.

Pre 1749

This Mezzotint exists after the original portrait by Wills
Lit: Anecdotes of Painters who Have Resided Or Been Born in England: Edward Edwards spelling mistake.

Joseph Standon

Mezzotint, early 18th century. After James Wills
10 3/4 in. x 7 3/4 in. (273 mm x 197 mm) plate size; 12 1/2 in. x 9 in. (319 mm x 228 mm) paper size.

Lit. A Catalogue of Engraved British Portraits: From Egbert the Great to…. By Henry Bromley


Whereabouts of the original painting are unknown



A Lady and her son

James Wills

Lit: Country Life May 10.1962

C 1748

Whereabouts of the original painting are unknown


18 Thomas Pennant - Naturalist, traveller and writer (1726–1798)

Stipple engraving by J. Hopwood after J. Wills.
10in x 6in.

Wellcome Library, London #

Published by White and Co 1810









Whereabouts of the original painting are unknown


Sarah Hicks, Mrs William Windham (1710-1792)

Mrs Robert Lukin

Signed JW

Reverend James Wills (fl.1746 – London 1776)
National Trust Inventory Number 1401206


Lit: Maddison 1995.P71.

Collection Felbrigg Museum, Norfolk. Ketton Kremer






Thomas Herring. (1693 – 23 March 1757)
Bishop of Bangor Archbishop of Bangor, Archbishop of Canterbury

Cat 1972 pp 26 27 as attributed to James Wills
Collection York Bishopthorpe Palace

The portraits of Herring are discussed by Ingamells Catalogue of Portraits at Bishopthorpe Palace, 1972.
Herring had promised to sit and may already have sat, to 'Willes', presumably James Willes / sp.

A further painting is cited Ingamells A1 - Courtaulds List 1987 No 36 As attrib.

Image not currently available

Stephen Niblett - Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University

Oil on canvas, 73.6 x 62 cm

James Wills (attributed to)

Collection All Souls College, University of Oxford




Sanderson Miller of Radway Warwks. Gentleman Architect
(1716 - d. 23 April 1780)

Oil on canvas - Painted oval

64 x 76.5 cm approximately 25.5 x 30 inches

Provenance: by direct decent from Sanderson Miller


 The portrait was used as the model for an early engraving by Emery Walker circa 1908 for the frontispiece of a book entitled;

An eighteenth-century correspondence.
Being the letters of Deane Swift, Pitt, The Lytteltons and the Grenvilles, Lord Dacre, Robert Nugent, Charles Jenkinson, the Earls of Guilford, Coventry, & Hardwick, Sir Edward Turner, Mr. Talbot of Lacock and others to Sanderson Miller, esq., of Radway :

Edited by Lilian Dickins and Mary Stanton and published in 1910




John Nicoll.
Canon Christchurch 1751-65. Chief Master of Westminster School

Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 63.5 cm


Note: Half length in clerical garb
Collection: Christ Church, University of Oxford.

Lit: Gutch; List of church portraits 1790. This picture by Wills was in the hall. It appears to have been acquired between 1766 and 1770. See 172.

Poole Oxford Portraits. 1925 III

Lit. British and Irish Paintings in Public Collections:



Miss Susanna (Sue) Miller
Eldest daughter of Sanderson Miller of Radway

Lit: Diaries of Sanderson Miller July 22 > 31st

2nd June: SM: “With Mr Wills painting Sue.”
24th SM: With Mr Wills painting Sue, Last sitting
28th> Finished Sue and Mary’s Pictures

The whereabouts of this painting are unknown
25 Portrait of Miss Anna Miller of Radway B 1753
4th daughter of Sanderson Miller

Lit Diaries of Sanderson Miller July 22 > 31st

June 29 SM – “Making frame for Mr Wills to paint upon”
June 30th: With Mr Wills painting Anna
July 1st. With Mr Wills painting Anna
SM “ July 30th. With Mr Wills, painting Anna.”
30th. SM was with Mr Wills painting Anna

The whereabouts of this painting are unknown
26 Portrait of Miss Mary Miller of Radway
2nd daughter of Sanderson Miller.

Lit Diaries of Sanderson Miller July 22 > 31st

26th July SM: With Mr Wills painting Mary
27th July SM: With Mr Wills painting drapery, hands etc
28th July SM: Finished Sue and Mary’s pictures.

The whereabouts of this painting are unknown

Portrait of Hesta ( Hetty) Miller Radway
Possibly a pastel
Lit Diaries of Sanderson Miller July 22 > 31st
29th July SM: With Mr. Wills Painting Hetty

Whereabouts unknown
28 “The Beautiful Picture” Mention of a double portrait

Lit: Diaries of Sanderson Miller P 238/ 3:
“Miller intended to bequeath a double portrait of his two eldest daughters ‘the beautiful picture’ to George Lyttelton’s son in his will of 1779, but this has not been traced (D & S p 454)”

Whereabouts unknown
29 Portrait of Lucy Lyttelton

Daughter of Lord and Lady Lyttelton
Lit: Diaries of Sanderson Miller P 238/ 3: In a letter of 26th July 1756 unrecorded in the diary Lady Lyttelton reports she has obtained art Birmingham a rather large piece of canvas than she intended for the portrait of “my child” She suggests that more of her figure is included to compensate.


George William Coventry 6th Earl of Coventry

Lord Deerhust  age 42.

(26 April 1722 – 3 September 1809)

Letter to Sanderson Miller in July & Aug 1764.
Deerhurst’s letter refers to Mr Wills having painted his portrait and thanking Miller for expressing his admiration of it.


Miss Elizabeth Turner. Daughter of Sir Edward Turner 2nd Bt. (1719-66), of Ambrosden, Oxon.

Lit:  A couple of letters from Sir Edward Turner to Sanderson Miller in July & Aug 1764, the first mentioning to Miller that he had not forgotten that Miller had asked to be told when Wills was at Ambrosden, the second confirms he is at Ambrosden and that Miss Turner has already sat to him.
Miller designed Ambrosden manor.


Mrs Ann Bowney Portrait of a Lady

Cit. Wills, Rev. James

Private Collection / Photo credit Agnew's, London












The Rev. Dr. William Stukeley1687-1765

FRS, FRCP, FSA. Antiquary and Medical doctor Pioneer of field archaeology. Ref: Stone Henge.

Lit: National Portrait Gallery: Early Georgian Portraits Catalogue: Stukeley

Stukeley concludes his own portrait list with 'My picture in clerical habit, by Wills'.

Whereabouts possibly Lydiard House


34 Reverend Mr. Sanders
A mezzotint exists after the original portrait by Wills

Lit The gentleman's and connoisseur's dictionary of painters P 658 By Matthew Pilkington


Image currently unavailable.

Whereabouts unknown







Candidates as possible Attributions      

Reverend John Taylor (1711–1772)

Oil on canvas, 124.5 x 99 cm
Collection: Leicester Arts and Museums Service

John Newcome (1684–1765), DD, Master (1735)

Oil on canvas, 74 x 61 cm
Collection: St John's College, University of Cambridge

Reverend Bryan Faussett (1720–1776)
At Alberbury Hereford vicar 1759

Oil on canvas, 97.5 x 84.5 cm
Collection: National Museums Liverpool

Reverend John Loder

Date painted: c.1740–1760

Vicar Napton on the Hill 1745
Oil on canvas, 74 x 62 cm (estimated)
Collection: Warwickshire Museum Service

Thomas Balguy(1716–1795),

DD, Platt Fellow (1740),

Archdeacon of Winchester (1771)

Date painted: c.1750 Oil on canvas, 73.6 x 61 cm
Collection: St John's College, University of Cambridge

Richard Newton (1676–1753), DD, Principal of Hertford Hall (1740)

Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 62.2 cm
Collection: Hertford College, University of Oxford

George Ingram (1694–1763),

8th Viscount Irwin and Canon of Windsor

Oil on canvas, 74 x 64 cm


Mrs Niblett

Oil on canvas, 33 x 29.2 cm
Collection: All Souls College, University of Oxford

John Garnet (1709–1782), Chaplain to the Duke of Dorset, Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin (1752–1758)
Oil on canvas, 73.6 x 61 cm
Collection: St John's College, University of Cambridge

Sir Lister Holte (1720–1770)

5th Bt of Aston Hall

Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 50.8 cm
Collection: Birmingham Museums Trust

Eleanor Frances Dixie 1760





If you have any factual information or know of any regionally or privately held works by the English Artist the Rev James Wills, please advise the author of the details for inclusion in this ongoing project



Literature: James Wills. Rev.

Edwards, Edward; Anecdotes of Painters who have resided or been born in England London 1808

Nagler: Künstler-Lexicon 1851

Samuel Redgrave; A Dictionary of Artists of the English School

Bryan M; A Biographical and Critical Dictionary of painters and engravers 1905

Algernon Graves; Society of Artists of Great Britain, 1760–1791

Algernon Graves; A Century of Loan Exhibitions 1812-1912

Mrs. Reginald Lane Poole; Catalogue of Oxford. Portraits.

F. O'Donoghue and H.M. Hake; Catalogue of engraved British portraits preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum.

Benezit; Dictionary of Artists

Thieme Becker; Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler

Saur; Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon

Hargraves; 'Candidates for Fame': The Society of Artists of Great Britain, 1760-1791

S Pugh; Reading Landscape: Country, City, Capital

William T.Whitley, Artists and their Friends in England 1700-1799, 2 vols. (London, 1928),

Douglas Fordham; British Art and the Seven Years' War: Allegiance and Autonomy

Brewer; The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century

Lawrence I. Lipking Ordering of the Arts in Eighteenth-Century England













































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Incorporated Society of Artists, Academy of St Martin’s Lane
Rev. James Wills | English Portrait Artist 18C | Catalogue Raissone of the Paintings & Biography
Reverend James Wills - English Portrait Artist 18C British
His Historical Paintings & Portraits. Time at Academy of St Martin’s Lane. Biography