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David Paynter: his art was essentially Sri Lanka

by Derrick Schokman

DN Sat June 7 2003

June 7, 2003 marks the 28th death anniversary of David Paynter RA, OBE (1900-1975), a celebrated painter of Sri Lanka.

His father was a Christian missionary, who worked in India at the foot of the Himalayas. His mother was a Sinhalese lady from the South of Sri Lanka. They were the founders of the Paynters Homes for orphan children in N'Eliya.

Young David had his primary education at Breeks Memorial School in Uttar Pradesh, and his secondary education at Trinity College, Kandy.

At the age of 19 Paynter won a scholarship to study art in the Royal Academy in London, where he won the coveted Gold medal and went on to further his studies in Italy. The Renaissance Christian art to which he was introduced there had a marked influence on his creative work.

In 1925 he returned to Sri Lanka to carry out the task of painting the murals in Trinity College Chapel, which had been built to reflect local architecture and sculpture.

His murals in the chapel which comprise 'Are Ye Able', 'Washing the Disciples' Feet', 'The Good Samaritan' and 'The Crucifixion' are Bible stories transferred to Ceylon people and scenery. 'The Crucifixion' is set in the magnificent if unscriptural gloom of a mangrove swamp, with a beardless Christ on the cross. Paynter's 'Madonna Con Bambino' is typical of his portrayal of Biblical figures. In this piece of art the famous nativity scene is presented as a scene from Sri Lanka.

Paynter, who had studied in France and Italy, found that the painters there had painted their own countries in their own times, so he decided to paint the same way with more or less Sri Lankan landscapes and Sri Lankan types of people.

This is true of his murals in the Trinity College Chapel, Kandy and the Chapel of Transfiguration in S. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia. The 'Transfiguration' is thought to be one of his best murals. From 1923 to 1940 Paynter had his pictures hung regularly at the Royal Academy. He had several exhibitions in London, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester, Brighton, Hull, Pittsburg, New York and New Delhi.

When an exhibition of contemporary Christian art from all countries was held in Rome in 1951 to commemorate the Holy Year celebrations, Pope Pius XII is said to have asked for Paynter's work. In 1940 Paynter was appointed Director of the College of Fine Arts in Colombo, and served in that capacity for several years. During that period he ws made a distinguished citizen and honoured wit the Order of the British Empire.

Another feature of his creative work was portraiture. He proved to be remarkably successful in this field, his portraits achieving distinction by virtue of their exceptional clarity, precision and balance. He had many distinguished people sit for him. Among them Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru whose protrait hangs in the Prime Minister's residence in Delhi and Mahatma Ghandi whose portrait is in the Law College in Colombo.

The portrait of Sir John Kotelawela is in the Jayawrdenapura Kotte Parliament; that of Sir Ivor Jennings in the Peradeniya University Campus; and another of Dr. R. L. Spittel entitled 'Surgeon in the Wilderness' in the possession of his daughter.

A portrait of Sir Thomas Villiers hangs in his one time residence "Adisham" near Haputale, now a Benedictine monastery, along iwth Paynter's beautiful 'Last Supper'. His portraits of lesser figures, the ordinary people of this country, fishermen, carters, peasants mammotying their fields or harvesting their crops and many others adorn the walls of private people.

Apart from his painting, Paynter was also involved in the social service work of the Paynters Homes in N'Eliya, and the Salt Spring Farm at Kumburupiddi near Trincomalee, which was started in 1962 to settle boys from Paynter's Homes.

That was where David Paynter spent his last years.

He was struck down by a sudden heart attack, and was laid to rest in the Union Church cemetery in N'Eliya.