Sir Edward John Poynter, British (1836 - 1919)

Neo-classical painter; son of the architect and painter Ambrose Poynter (1796-1886). Born in Paris. Visited Italy in 1853, where he met the young Frederic Leighton, and was much influenced by his neo-classical ideas. Returned to London and studied with Leigh and W.C.T. Dobson, and also at the RA Schools. In 1856 he entered Gleyre's Studio in Paris. From 1856-59 lived mainly in Paris, where he met Du Maurier, T.R. Lamont, T. Armstrong and Whistler, all of whom were to feature later in Du Maurier's novel Trilby. Returned to London in 1860. Appointed Slade Professor and later Director of Art at the South Kensington Museum. Exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1861, and at the British Institution, Old Watercolour Society, Grosvenor Gallery, New Gallery and elsewhere. He scored his first major success with 'Israel in Egypt', RA 1867. Later he turned more to Greek and Roman subjects, e.g. 'A Visit to Aesculapius', 'Psyche in the Temple of Love' and so forth. He also painted many smaller scenes of Roman or Greek life, mostly figures in marble interiors similar to those of Alma-Tadema. He had a stellar Royal Academy career: ARA 1869, RA 1876, PRA 1896-1918. Director of the National Gallery 1894-1906. Poynter was a strictly academic artist, who believed in study of the life model, and made studies for every figure in his pictures. He was also an illustrator, medallist, designer of tiles, and painter of wall decorations. His studio sale was held at Christie's, 19 January 1920. Manuscripts relating to him are held by the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Source: Christopher Wood, 'Victorian Painters'.


The following biographical information about Poynter comes from "Louisiana and the Fair" by James William Buel, 1904, published to accompany the St Louis Exposition, at which a couple of paintings by Poynter had been exhibited:

"The Royal Academy, after losing in quick succession two such distinguished presidents as Lord Leighton and Sir John Millais, has been most fortunate in being able to select another so able as Sir Edward Poynter. This distinguished painter was a life-long friend of Lord Leighton. He was born in Paris in 1836, but lived his childhood in England. When he was seventeen he spent a winter in Rome, where he met Leighton, who at that time was working on his picture, "Cimabue's Madonna Carried Through Florence." It was in Leighton's studio that he decided to make art his profession. He studied in Paris in the studio of Gleyre, where Whistler, Du Maurier, and Val Prinsep were students at the same time, and afterwards he and George Du Maurier, Lamont, and Thomas Armstrong set up that studio in Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs which Du Maurier made so famous in Trilby, and which Sir Edward said "was a faithful description of their student life--except there was no Trilby." He was represented at St. Louis by "The Catapult," an incident in the seige of Carthage, lent by Sir C. Furness, M.P. This picture, together with "Israel in Egypt," is said to be typical of his first period; they are remarkable as studies of primitive mechanics and engineering, and the vigorous action of the figures. The "Catapult" is a huge, cumbersome machine composed of heavy beams which take up nearly the whole of the canvas. Four powerful men, with the help of a windlass, are pulling down an enormous lever. On the right a Roman captain on horseback is directing operations, and on the left some soliders, under cover of the catapult, are exchanging shots with the enemy. Could we have been choosers, we would have exchanged it gladly for the beautiful "Visit to AEsculapius," which is in the National Gallery and which is universally regarded as his "masterpiece." But we saw also "The Greek Dance" and "The Cave of the Storm Nymphs," lent by James Gresham, Esq., which illustrate what an excellent draughtsman he is of the human figure. Among his best-known pictures are "Atalanta's Race," "Faithful Unto Death," the latter showing a Roman soldier at his post in Pompeii until he was engulfed by a stream of lava,"Nausicca and Her Maidens Playing at Ball," "Zenobia Captive," and "The Ides of March." The care with which he draws the human figure is seen in his portfolio of drawings and studies for his pictures, as he not only draws the figure nude before draping it, but even the skeleton in the attitude required. His life has been one of hard work and many honors. He married in 1866, at Wolverhampton, Miss Agnes McDonald, one of whose sisters is Lady Burne-Jones, and another Mrs. Kipling, the mother of Rudyard Kipling. He is not only president of the Royal Academy, but the director of the National Gallery, the duties of which have been lately increased by the New National Gallery of British Art, and the Wallace Gallery."


Poynter lived with Whistler for a time when both were students in Paris, although they were not great friends. More can be read about their interactions during their student days, and later on when Poynter was a "great swell", in The Life of James McNeill Whistler by Elizabeth Robins Pennell, 1908.


Poynter taught for a time at the Slade Schools--he was highly respected as an art teacher. His pupils at the Slade included several artists represented on ArtMagick, including Evelyn De Morgan and the Hon. John Collier and Mary Huxley, the future wife of Collier. More can be read about Poynter's friendship with Evelyn and William De Morgan in William De Morgan and His Wife by Anna Maria Diana Wilhelmina Stirling, 1922.


Poynter's father was Ambrose Poynter, a distinguished architect and co-founder of the Royal Institute of British Architecture. His mother was a grand-daughter of the British Neoclassical sculptor Thomas Banks, RA (1735-1805). His sister was Clara Courtenay Bell (1834-1927) a prolific professional translator (translating from German, French, Spanish and Italian) who was friends with Burne-Jones and George du Maurier (who thought her 'the cleverest woman of our acquaintance and the most exquisite amateur singer I ever heard'). Among the works she translated were Chesneau's Education of the Artist (1886), historical German romances by the Egyptologist Georg Ebers, and works by Guy de Maupassant, J.K. Huysmans and Balzac. (Information about Clara Courtenay Bell from The Oxford History of Literary Translators in English).

Poynter, like his sister, was also a talented linguist and spoke French and Italian well. His friend Adolphus George Charles Liddell noted in Notes from the Life of an Ordinary Mortal (1911) that when travelling with Poynter in Italy, "another advantage of Poynter's society was that, having been much in Rome as a young man, he was thoroughly up in Italian swear-words, and could frighten away the most persistent beggar or cicerone with the utmost ease."


In 1860 Poynter executed the painted ceiling at Waltham Abbey to designs by William Burges. Burges wrote in 1860: "The flat plaster ceiling has been taken away, and the ceiling joists boarded. Upon this the outline and ornaments of the ceiling of the nave of Peterborough have been painted by Harland and Fisher, while the centres of the compartments have been filled by a series of paintings representing the labours of the year and the signs of the zodiac. These latter have been executed by Edward Poynter, Esq., the son of Ambrose Poynter, Esq., the former architect." The ceiling can still be viewed today.

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