The renowned artist David Paynter who had the distinction of being the first artist from Sri Lanka to receive his art education in Europe. He was the son of Arthur Stephen Paynter and Agnes Weerasooriya, missionaries of the Salvation Army of India.

They were working in a colony at Almara close to the Himalayas in Uttar Pradesh, India when their son David was born on March 5, 1900 and he received his early education at the Brecks Memorial School on Ooty South India, where the children of the missionaries received their education.

After some time, his parents decided to leave India for Sri Lanka, arrived in the island and made their home in Nuwara-Eliya where they founded the Arnold Paynter Home in memory of his father Stephen, for children and mothers who were left out as destitute by the First World War.

The Home, later became a sanctuary for the needy children of mixed parentage. Today, the Home provides a training for boys and girls to make them independent.

David and his elder brother were admitted to Trinity College Kandy for their secondary education. While David was in the class, he was in the habit of filling the margins of his exercise books with sketches of his teachers and friends. He drew their heads and hands displaying his early aptitude for art.

He was 19, when he chanced to meet a lady named Mason who was seen painting a scenery of the Lake Gregory in Nuwaa-Eliya. After getting acquainted with her, she volunteered to give him a six month painting trial and encouraged him to enter an open art competition, to follow a four year course in art at the Royal Academy School in London.

After he completed his course of studies, he won the coveted gold medal awarded bi-annually, with it the Edward Scott Travelling scholarship to study further in Italy and France. On completion of his two year course he returned to the island in 1925.

The Principal of Trinity College, McLeod Campbell offered him a teaching post on his teaching staff. In addition to teaching art, he coached students in boxing, rugby and athletics.

During the school vacations he was in the habit of going into jungles in the dry zone in the company of one or two teachers or some of his students and spend nights under the canvas. In these exciting trips, he carried his shot gun and walked along the beaten tracks in search of game.

The favourite places he visited were on the East coast, north of Trincomalee which he described vividly, “just before the North East monsoon becomes thundery and heavy lowering in the East, towards sunset shafts of sunlight from the West lit up, the landscape in a strange unusual way” which he ably captured with his brush and paint.

The preliminary painting “Offering” he painted in his studio – cum room in the school on a stone slab. The Principal then gave him the opportunity to paint murals on the surface of the bare stone walls of the newly built College Chapel.

The first mural he painted was “Are ye Able”. He portrayed the episode from the Bible, showing the mother of James and John, sons of Zebedee making a request from Jesus, to give her sons an honoured place when he establishes his kingdom.

Paynter illustrated this scene set against the Sri Lanka’s scenery using models of his students and some members of the school staff. He painted Jesus as a young man of thirty, sans his beard and Arab dress to give him an Asian appearance.

The Crucifixion painted above the main altar has a background with an outcrop of rocks, low hills, overcast sky, mangrove swamps and lagoon which fascinated him on his visits to the East coast, which he painted in great detail.

The Good Samaritan was painted above the pulpit with a background showing a stream lined by Kubuk trees and rocks with young lads and passers by, a member of the despised race, a Samaritan goes to help a wounded Jew who was lying on the roadside. He painted this mural with the other mural Washing the Feet of the Disciples using different colours.

The original murals he painted were damaged by exposure to the elements of weather. The figures he drew gave the Biblical stories a Srilankan look and contemporary relevance. His earlier paintings on Biblical themes were The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalam and The Entombment convey his deep religious convictions.

His portrayal of the beauty of the Mongolian women, L’Apre Midi Nepalianne and Nepali Mother and Child are paintings he did with great skill showing the training he received at the London Royal Academy schools.

Before he commenced to paint, he did a rough sketch of his paintings and worked on it capturing the facial expression of his figures and colour. Then with his selected colours,he painted making the colours permanent to last for a life time.

In painting, he concentrated on the visual aspects like line, colour, light, mass, movement and structure which he harmonized with realism displaying his craftsmanship.

One of his paintings, Paddi shows farmers tilling the soil with long handled mamoties which he painted using brownish grey.

Paynter, while teaching his students instructed them to study the human figure and he stressed that it is the most important aspect of studying art. He discouraged them not to distort the human figure until one acquires the proper skill. Explaining his concept of art he said, “art demands from his followers a deep desire to experience aesthetic feeling.”

In his pursuit of the ideal, he painted the male figure similar to the figures in Greek sculpture. The male nude and semi nude figure form the central image in art and sculpture of the Greek classical period which he followed rivaling with the Greek artists.

In 1931 he exhibited two of his painting; Goats and Cactus and Boy with a Catapult at the Royal Academy exhibition which won him praise and they were described as “underlying rhythm of forms and colours.”

The salient feature of his work was that he treated his objects with “reverence for life” because of his belief that all works are of the creator. The murals he painted at the Trinity College chapel and in the Chapel of the Transfiguration of S.Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia was based on the themes described in the Bible. He painted them skillfully and imaginatively to bring out the essence of the message of Jesus. Thereby he created Sri Lankan Christian art with an indigenous outlook and he was considered as one of the artists of the Asian Christian art movement.

Paynter had selected varied themes comprising ordinary people from everyday life, fishermen, peasants etc. Some of these paintings adorn the walls of private homes in Sri Lanka and India.

Portraits were his forte and he painted the celebrates of his time like Sir John Kotalawala, Sir Ivor Jennings, Dr. R.L. Spittle, Mahathma Gandhi, Shri Jawaharlal Nehru which he painted capturing the facial expressions when they sat before him.

He described a painting as “a decoration, a part of the architectural setting of the building to be decorated.” The religious faith of his parents and the Renaissance Christian Art he studied in Italy influenced him to paint Biblical themes in terms of his country and people.

Albert Dharmasiri writing on the art of David Paynter has said, “He had a passion for pure vivid colours, infusing it with true tropical hues. There is also the poetic relationship with the figures and the landscapes, a theme he has developed.”

Paynter held exhibitions of his work from 1923 for 17 years at the Royal Academy. In 1936 he held a one-man exhibition in the Wartheim Galleries in London which brought him recognition among the critics.

He also participated in four International Exhibitions in Pittsburg, Rome, New York and New Delhi and in addition he exhibited his paintings in the galleries of Edinburgh, Liverpool, Hull, Brighton and Manchester.

Most of his figures were painted in brownish-grey and he also used brilliant colours of the impressionists. While painting a landscape, he would select a typical Srilankan scene with foliage of trees and creepers.

He was essentially a master of pictorial compositions and painted figures following the academic style without using a limited range of colours. He had a strong reverence for all forms of life and it arose from his belief that everything was the work of the creator. There are unmistakable signs of his love for life and his surroundings.

Visit Sri Lanka's Largest online shop. Over 125,000 unique categories such as Fresh Flowers, Cakes, Food, Jewllery, Childrens Toys and other Sri Lankan e-commerce categories. Low delivery cost to most cities here and free delivery in Colombo.

Add new comment