Skip to main content

Public Statues and Sculpture Association

Wills, W.J. & T. (also Wills Bros) (per. c.1857–c.1895)

Born in London, the sculptors William John Wills (1826–?) and Thomas Wills (c.1835–c.1896) were two of the sons of William Wills, a plasterer. The Art Journal (1 May 1861) implied that they did not attend art school: ‘… they are not sculptors by profession, yet are true artists’. While Thomas and another brother George (born c.1827) began their working lives in their father’s trade, William started out as a modeller to a silversmith and by 1852 had been appointed teacher of modelling ornament at the Central School of Practical Art (to be renamed the National Art Training School in the following year), a post he held until he and his brother Thomas went into partnership as the Wills Brothers in c.1857. They showed four pieces as the Wills Brothers at the Royal Academy (RA) annual exhibitions, 1857, 1859 and 1860, and three, 1863, 1866 and 1884, under the name W. and T. Wills. In addition, William made three ostensibly solo appearances, 1856, 1867 and 1870, although his first exhibit, The Milton Vase, was reported in the Illustrated London News as the work of both men. The five-feet-high vase, which had been commissioned by the Coalbrookdale Company for production in electroformed bronze, was purchased in 1860 by the South Kensington (later Victoria and Albert) Museum as an example of ornamental work produced by modern industrial methods. Although the Wills Brothers went on to design a number of cast iron drinking fountains for the Coalbrookdale Company, their first fountain – and also the first drinking fountain in London – was an independent commission. Carved from granite and marble and set into the wall of the churchyard of St Sepulchre, Holborn, London, in 1859, it was paid for by Samuel Gurney who in that same year founded the Metropolitan Drinking Fountains Association. In its April 1860 edition, the Art Journal published a four-page article on the new drinking fountains movement, using as illustrations four designs by the Wills Brothers – two free-standing, two wall-mounted – which were being produced by the Coalbrookdale Company. The two wall-mounted designs, one surmounted by a portrait head of Queen Victora and the other with figures of Christ and the Woman of Samaria – enjoyed considerable popularity: an example of the former may be found in Bristol (1859) and of the latter in Cardiff (1862). Another of their popular designs for wall-mounted fountains depicted Moses striking the rock to release a stream of water, an example of which survives at Hythe in Kent (1886). The brothers’ most popular free-standing design was their figure of Temperance. The model, which was shown at the RA in 1860, had been funded by Gurney who also commissioned a version in marble for himself. The Coalbrookdale Company seems to have produced casts both in bronze and in iron for fountains in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent (1859); Bolton, Lancashire (1860; vandalised and replaced, 1978); New Bridge Street, City of London (1861); Liverpool (after 1872); and Redditch, Worcestershire (1883). In addition to fountains, the brothers produced a number public statues, generally carved from Sicilian marble, including Richard Cobden, Camden Town (1866–68); Sir Humphrey Davy, Penzance (1872); Richard Southwell Bourke, 6th Earl Mayo, Cockermouth, Cumbria (1875); George Leach Ashworth, Rochdale (1877); Sir Thomas White, Coventry (1883); Sir Henry Edwards, Weymouth (1886); and King William III, Brixham, Devon (1889). W.J. and T. Wills lived in the St Pancras area of London, operating from addresses in the Euston Road, c.1860–c.1895.

Bibliography: Art Journal: (i) 1 April 1860, p. 114, (ii) 1 May 1861, p. 148; T. Cavanagh, Public Sculpture of Liverpool, Liverpool, 1997, pp. 107–08; T. Cavanagh, Public Sculpture of South London, Liverpool, 2007, p. 18; D.A. Cross, Public Sculpture of Lancashire and Cumbria, Liverpool, 2017, pp. 159–60; Illustrated London News: (i) 31 January 1857, p. 90 [Milton Vase], (ii) 12 February 1859, p. 149 [Royal Exchange fountain], (iii) 4 July 1868, pp. 17,18 [Cobden statue], (iv) 19 October 1872, pp. 371, 373 [Sir Humphrey Davy statue], (v) 28 August 1875, pp. 213, 214 [Lord Mayo statue], (vi) 31 August 1878, pp. 203, 204 [Ashworth statue], (vii) 20 October 1883, pp. 381, 382 [Sir Thomas White statue], (viii) 9 November 1889, p. 598 [William III statue]; Mapping Sculpture: ‘Thomas Wills’; Mapping Sculpture: ‘William John Wills’; Mapping Sculpture: ‘Wills Brothers’; D. Merritt and F. Greenacre, with K. Eustace, Public Sculpture of Bristol, Liverpool, 2011, pp. 219–20; Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, Papers, held at the London Metropolitan Archive; G.T. Noszlopy, Public Sculpture of Warwickshire, Coventry & Solihull, Liverpool, 2003, p. 156; G.T. Noszlopy and F. Waterhouse, Public Sculpture of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire, Liverpool, 2010, pp. xx, xxi, 219–20; G.T. Noszlopy and F. Waterhouse, Public Sculpture of Staffordshire and the Black Country, Liverpool, 2005, p. 137; J.S. Rogers, ‘How Cobden came to Camden Town’, Camden History Society Review, no. 9, 1981, pp. 20–22; P. Ward-Jackson, Public Sculpture of the City of London, Liverpool, 2003, pp. 145–46, 283–85, 343; P. Ward-Jackson, Public Sculpture of Historic Westminster. Volume 1, Liverpool, 2011, pp. 8, 322; T. Wyke, Public Sculpture of Greater Manchester, Liverpool, 2004, pp. 204, 215, 315–16.

Terry Cavanagh, June 2024