William John Wills, 2nd. In command of the Victorian Expedition

Henry Samuel Sadd1860

National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery
Canberra, Australia

William John Wills (1834–1861), explorer, had started studying medicine in London before coming to Victoria in 1853. With his brother, Wills worked as a shepherd and then went to Ballarat to assist in his father’s medical practice. He later studied surveying, becoming an assistant at Georg von Neumayer’s astronomical and magnetic observatories in Melbourne. Neumayer, a member of the Royal Society of Victoria’s Expedition Committee, encouraged Wills to join the expedition to the Gulf; he was duly appointed its surveyor, astronomer and third-in-command. Wills became Burke’s lieutenant when clashes with the expedition leader resulted in the resignation of the man initially appointed to the post. A skilled bushman and navigator, Wills was modest, loyal, serious and self- disciplined and some have suggested that the expedition would not have ended so disastrously had Wills been more forthright in challenging Burke’s decisions. Despite the awful trials of the expedition’s final months, Wills continued to record meteorological and other observations in his diary up until the last. In late May 1861 Wills recorded: ‘We are trying to live the best way we can, like the blacks, but find it hard work.’ Wills was later left in camp while Burke and King went to find Aboriginal people to help them obtain food; he wrote his last letter on 29 June, reporting to his father that ‘spirits are excellent’, despite anticipating being able to survive only another four or five days. King, having left Burke dead, returned to find Wills in the same condition. His body was buried by a search party on 18 September 1861, but later his remains were returned to Melbourne and he was accorded a public funeral with Burke in January 1863.

Henry Samuel Sadd (1811–1893) arrived in Australia in 1853 and worked in Sydney for a time before relocating to Melbourne. Sadd became known for his mezzotint portraits of governors, clergymen and other public figures, exhibiting his work at the Victorian Exhibition of Art in 1856 and with the Victorian Society of Fine Arts in 1857. Many of Sadd’s portraits were taken from photographs: these mezzotints of Burke and Wills are based on ambrotypes taken by Thomas Adams Hill in Melbourne in 1860. Though Sadd’s work was much admired he, like many other artists, suffered from photography’s increasing popularity as a medium for portraiture. He died in St Kilda in 1893.


  • Title: William John Wills, 2nd. In command of the Victorian Expedition
  • Creator: Henry Samuel Sadd
  • Date Created: 1860
  • Physical Dimensions: w25.5 x h31.5 cm (Image)
  • Provenance: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra. Purchased with funds provided by Ross A Field 2007.
  • Type: Prints
  • External Link: Further information
  • Rights: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

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