Benjamin Britt’s art is hard to classify and even he admitted that he hated “to be pinned down and categorized.” He has been called a Surrealist and, although he was often inspired by artists and elements of that movement, the label does not always apply; he was truly eclectic. He often worked on commission selecting styles and subjects to please his customers. The resultant paintings varied from abstract to realistic, and Cubist to Minimalist.

Britt was born Benjamin Franklin Roundtree in Winfall, North Carolina, a small town known for its lumber mill near the coast south of Norfolk. Early childhood was spent in Winfall with his family, including two siblings. However, an altercation between his father and his white employer resulted in the latter’s death, and his father went into hiding—fearing he’d become a likely target of the Ku Klux Klan. The family adopted Britt, the name of the doctor who employed his mother, as its surname and fled to Philadelphia. Britt’s interest in art happened early; he later explained that when he was about nine years old, “We had an artist come to my class and he showed some of his abstract paintings on stage and I said, ‘Shucks! I can do that.’” 

At Dobbins Technical High School in North Philadelphia, Britt specialized in commercial art classes, where Samuel J. Brown was one of his teachers. He served in the United States Coast Guard for two years, which took him to places in England and France. Upon his return to Philadelphia, he studied at the Hussian School of Art, a school for commercial artists, between 1947 and 1950, and attended the Philadelphia Museum School of Art (now the University of the Arts). Subsequently, in 1952–1953, he enrolled in classes at the Art Students League in New York. To support himself he was at times a machinist, at others a cab driver; he worked on advertisements for a drugstore, and he and his brother, Willis, also did commercial illustrative work. He taught at the Wharton Center, at YMCAs, the Salvation Army, and the Kensington Neighbors United Civic Association, all in the Philadelphia area. In 1963 he started to paint full-time, both for himself and for clients, creating “custom-made” paintings after discussing their tastes and visiting their homes. In an interview that appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, he rationalized: “What they are getting is a decorative wall piece and an original painting that encompasses my ideas and symbols.” A particularly special commission was for an elementary school in Philadelphia. It was a double portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King—one pose depicted him as a minister and the other as a civil rights leader. According to Britt, “I wanted to do something unlike anything that had been painted before.”

Britt’s paintings were often selected for exhibition, including Atlanta University’s Annual Exhibition of Paintings, Sculpture, and Prints by Negro Artists, a series that had been inaugurated by Hale Woodruff. Examples of Britt’s work were on view in exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Woodmere Art Museum, and the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum (now the African American Museum), all in Philadelphia. He was happiest when he was painting: “This is life to me and if I had to give it up, I might as well give up living.”