David Paynter

David Paynter, “Pumpkin Boy”, 1935. Oil on Linen, 73.7 x 76.2 cm, Private Collection

David Shillingford Paynter was born on March 5, 1900, to Arthur Stephen Paynter, a British missionary, and Anagi Weerasooriya, a Sinhalese woman from southern Sri Lanka. His two parents, both members of the Salvation Army, moved to Sri Lanka in 1904, where they founded a mission in Nuwara Eliya, and later, the Nuwara Eliya Children’s Home where they welcomed children who often had mixed or unknown parentage.

David Paynter attended Trinity College in Kandy, Sri Lanka, where he received a five-year scholarship to the Royal Academy in London. At the end of his fourth term, he won the Gold Medal for Art, and the Edward Stott Traveling Scholarship, which enabled him to study for two weeks in Italy. Deeply inspired by the Christian artwork of the Italian Renaissance, Paynter would reference these themes in his future work. 

Returning to Sri Lanka in 1925, Paynter began work on mural designs for the chapel of the Trinity College, an architectural work which exemplified the merging of a European world view with Sri Lankan culture. In 1929 the chapel was completed and he began his first mural. Six years later, Paynter’s four murals of Bible stories, transferred to the Sri Lankan people and landscapes, were complete: “Are You Able”, “Washing the Disciples’ Feet:, “The Good Samaritan”, and “The Crucifixion”.  The large-scaled depiction of “The Crucifixion” was the central image in the work; Paynter presented Christ, as a dark-skinned, clean-shaven native of the land, on a cross in  the gloom of a mangrove forest.    

David Paynter traveled to London for the third time in 1936, a trip which began a very productive and rewarding period in his career. His solo exhibition at London’s Wertheim Gallery resulted in recognition from art critics and journals in Europe. From 1923 to 1940, his paintings were shown every year at the Royal Academy in London. By invitation, Paynter entered his work in major international exhibitions in Rome and Delhi, an exhibition at Pittsburg’s Carnegie Institute, and at the 1964 World Fair in New York. 

In addition to the creations of many acclaimed theatrical set designs, Paynter was also a very accomplished portraiture artist. His clients ranged from the elite of Sri Lanka, to British Governors to the Prime Ministers of Sri Lanka; he also painted a portrait for Mahatma Gandhi, now in the Law College in Colombo, and, in 1954, a portrait for  Jawaharlal Nehru, then Prime Minister of India. 

David Paynter was appointed Director of Colombo’s  College of Fine Arts in 1940, a position in which he served for several years. During his service as director, he was honored with the Order of the British Empire. Paynter was involved in the social service work of the Nuwara Eliya Children’s Home his parents founded; in 1962, he founded an addition to the Children’s Home, the Salt Spring Farm at Kumburupiddi, where he permanently settled as a farmer. In 1968, Paynter  returned to his palette again to complete his final masterpiece, the mural known as “The Transfiguration” at the Chapel of the Transfiguration at Saint Thomas’ College at Mount Lavinia, Sri Lanka.

A pioneer who integrated Sri Lankan culture into the Western art tradition, David Shillingford Paynter died of a heart attack in June of 1975, at the age of seventy-five. He is buried in the Union Church Cemetery in Nuwara Eliya. 

“Having studied art for some time in Italy and France, I found that the painters there had painted their own countries and their own times. So I decided to paint in the way I did, with more or less Ceylon landscapes and more or less Ceylonese types. Besides, I intensely disliked many of the paintings of comparatively recent times where Christ has been portrayed as a blond Englishman and wearing Arab costume” -David Paynter

Top Insert Image: David Paynter, “A Study, Ceylon”, 1937, Oil on Canvas, 112 x 91.5 cm, Private Collection

Bottom Insert Image: David Paynter, “L’Après-Midi (The Afternoon)”, 1935, Oil on Canvas, 99 x 122 cm, Rrighton and Hove Museums, United Kingdom

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