Wednesday, 5 December 2012

James A C Willis, surveyor and landscape painter

In earlier posts we looked at the pioneer landscape views of Blackmans Crown and the Capertee Valley painted by Eliza Thurston in the 1860s and Conrad Martens in the 1870s. One of the last known Capertee themed works from the 19th century is James A C Willis' 1892 watercolour, Capertee Valley, New South Wales, a work in the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of NSW. Unlike Thurston and Martens, Willis seems to have painted this image down in the valley itself rather than from the more easily accessible elevated position of the Mudgee Road lookout near the Crown. This therefore may be the first known work painted in the Capertee Valley.

Capertee Valley, New South Wales
1892 watercolour by James A C Willis
Art Gallery of New South Wales collection

This work followers in the landscape tradition of the middle years of the 19th century when picturesque views of awe-inspiring landscape were all the rage. Unlike many similar works of the time, Willis does not include any figures in the foreground, a compositional device to give the viewer a sense of scale and a feeling of insignificance within Gods mighty world.

One anonymous critic writing in the Windsor and Richmond Gazette of 25 September 1897 mentions this work in his account of a recent visit to the National Art Gallery (now Art Gallery of NSW) in Sydney:

J C Willis has certainly given us a most realistic picture of the wild and romantic region. "Capertee Valley," - with its high beetling walls of rock, its tree clad mountains, and the deep an inaccessible ravines which score their precipitous sides at close intervals.

Willis, James A. C. Map of New South Wales 1871 [cartographic material]
Map of New South Wales (1871), compiled by James A C Willis
National Library of Australia

Willis was born in Devon, England and arrived in Sydney in c.1845. His principal occupation was surveying and during his career he produced many maps for the NSW Government. In c.1848 he took art lessons with Conrad Martens, then the most talented artist active in the colony. Over the following years he painted many landscapes, often of remote areas of the State as in this Capertee painting. As well as his surveying duties, Willis was involved in the establishment of the Art Gallery of NSW in the 1870s. In 1892 he donated this work to the galleries permanent collection. Although rarely on show, this work can be privately viewed with a prearranged appointment with gallery staff.

Does anyone know where in the Capertee Valley this work was painted?

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