Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/Poynter, Edward John

POYNTER, Sir EDWARD JOHN, (1836–1919), painter and president of the Royal Academy, was born in Paris 20 March 1836, the only son of Ambrose Poynter [q.v.]. His schooldays were interrupted by delicate health. An inherited bent for art was strengthened by the influence of his grandmother, the daughter of Thomas Banks, R.A. [q.v.]; and the acquaintance of Lord Leighton, which he made in Rome in November 1853, fixed his determination to become a painter. In the following year he entered the school of James Mathews Leigh [q.v.], and worked there, at the Royal Academy, and in the studio of W. C. T. Dobson, R.A. A visit to the Paris exhibition of 1855 filled him with admiration for contemporary French painting and led to his becoming in 1857 a pupil in the atelier of Gleyre. Here he met Whistler, Lamont, Du Maurier, and others of the group described in Du Maurier's Trilby, with some members of which he shared a studio in Paris. He used later in life to complain that he had not remained with Gleyre long enough to master completely the technique of oil painting, but the insight which he obtained into French methods was afterwards of great value to him.

Returning to London in 1860 he occupied himself with decorative work, some of it, like the painted ceiling of Waltham Abbey, in conjunction with the architect William Burges [q.v.]. At the same time he earned his place amongst the ‘Illustrators of the 'Sixties’ by drawing for Once a Week and other publications, including the truncated Dalziel Bible to which he contributed several elaborate Egyptian subjects. His first exhibit in the Academy was hung in 1861. From that year until 1919 he never failed to contribute. Many of his minor works were shown at the Dudley and later at the Grosvenor and New galleries, as well as with the old Water Colour Society; but his larger pictures, with a single exception, appeared at the Academy and can be dated from the catalogues. The first to attract attention was ‘Faithful unto Death’ (1865), now in the Liverpool Gallery. This was followed in 1867 by ‘Israel in Egypt’, which at once established the artist's fame. This immense work, now in the Guildhall Gallery, London, is characteristic of Poynter's aims and limitations throughout his career. In particular a tendency is manifest to overburden his subject with accessories, selected with extreme learning and taste and painted with great patience and in a sound and workmanlike style. In ‘The Catapult’ (1868) this is less marked; and the admirable drawing of the nudes places it amongst his best pictures. It secured his election as A.R.A. About this time he was engaged on several important decorative designs: the mosaic of St. George in the Houses of Parliament (1869); the tile-work in the grill-room at South Kensington Museum (1868–1870); a project for painting the semi-dome of the lecture theatre in the same museum (1871), unfortunately left unexecuted, as it would have been his finest achievement; and a fresco in St. Stephen's church, South Dulwich (1872–1873), which remains one of the few successful works in true fresco by an Englishman and is one of Poynter's most striking designs, especially the predella. He next undertook for the Earl of Wharncliffe the decoration of the billiard-room at Wortley Hall, a scheme combining four large oil-pictures in an ornamental setting; in these pictures, ‘Perseus and Andromeda’ (1872), ‘The Dragon of Wantley’ (1873), ‘Atalanta's Race’ (1876), and ‘Nausicaa and her Maidens’ (1879), he reached his highest level. He was elected R.A. in 1877.

On the foundation of the Slade chair and school at University College, London (1871), Poynter was chosen as professor. He took the opportunity to adopt in the new school the principles of French art education, of the superiority of which he had personal experience; but this revolutionary policy was not universally approved. It was in the face of much opposition that he established it firmly by securing on his retirement (July 1875) the election of his friend, Alphonse Legros [q.v.], as his successor, thus giving to English art teaching a direction which it still follows. His resignation was due to his acceptance of a still more influential position at South Kensington. As director for art, he became jointly responsible for the acquisition of specimens for the museum, a task for which the uncommon catholicity of his taste and his wide knowledge of art history peculiarly qualified him; as principal of the National Art Training School, he had to superintend the system of government art education elaborated by his predecessor, Richard Redgrave [q.v.], as well as to give personal instruction. He made considerable changes, again founded on French precedents, and his appointment of Jules Dalou as head of the modelling school was not less epoch-marking than the election of Legros at the Slade School. In connexion with his office at South Kensington he edited a series of freehand drawing-copies and another of manuals of art history, each far superior to any previously available in this country. Finding that his duties interfered with his painting—Lord Wharncliffe's four canvases had taken seven years to finish, and the only other important picture of this period was ‘A Visit to Aesculapius’ (1880), now in the Tate Gallery—he resigned the directorship in August 1881.

He next undertook another piece of decoration, the preparation of gigantic cartoons developing part of Alfred Stevens's sketch-design for the interior of the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral. When tested in position they were found to be invisible, and the permanent realization of the scheme was abandoned. At this time he began the picture of ‘The Queen of Sheba's Visit to King Solomon’, a vast canvas containing more than fifty figures and heads. It was completed in 1890 and bought by Messrs. McLean, who sold it to the National Gallery at Sydney. The price, £3,000, although the highest he ever received, was small compared with those earned by many of his contemporaries, and cannot have remunerated him for the time and research lavished on one of the most elaborate pictures of its class ever painted. During its progress Poynter maintained the reputation he had earned by a number of portraits and by those subject-pictures of Graeco-Roman genre which henceforth formed the staple of his output.

Public attention having been attracted to the destructive influences at work on the monuments of ancient Egypt, a society was formed for their preservation in 1889, Poynter becoming the honorary secretary. An active controversialist, he usually took part in any correspondence in the press relating to artistic matters.

In March 1894 the directorship of the National Gallery fell vacant by the retirement of Sir Frederick Burton [q.v.]. Since 1855 the gallery had been managed with conspicuous success by autocratic directors who were also practising painters. On this occasion strong efforts were made to procure the appointment of a professional critic. Doubtless in response to this agitation, the prime minister, before offering the post to Poynter, enacted a new constitution curtailing the power of the office; in practice, as Poynter found to his cost, the influence of one trustee was sufficient to reduce the director almost to a cipher and produce constant friction. In spite of this, Poynter was able to render good service to the gallery. The number of pictures, above five hundred, added during his directorship, was swollen by the Tate gift and by the absorption of the collection formed by the Chantrey trustees. The most conspicuous purchases made in his time were the De Saumarez Rembrandts and Titian's ‘Ariosto’. He also acquired the Northbrook Mantegna and Antonello and the Ashburnham Pisanello, and was instrumental in securing for the gallery its first pictures by Dürer, Goya, and Alfred Stevens, as well as in filling many less serious gaps in it; he also edited the first complete illustrated catalogue (1899). He was responsible for the arrangement and opening of the Tate Gallery (1897). He retired at the end of 1904.

On the death of Millais, Poynter was elected (December 1896) president of the Royal Academy. A man of distinguished bearing, a good linguist, an artist with practical knowledge of every process of painting, possessing intimate experience of art education and long familiarity with the business of the Academy, he was well suited for this position. During his tenure the Academy was called upon to face a rancorous attack in connexion with the Chantrey bequest. A committee of the House of Lords held an inquiry (1904) and recommended some modifications in the administration. Poynter was a principal witness, and by his dignity and integrity gave strong support to an unpopular cause. In April 1917 his colleagues in the Academy made him a present to commemorate his twenty years' tenure of the chair, Reynolds and West alone among his predecessors having presided for so long a period. About this time his health and eyesight began to fail. In the autumn of 1918 he resigned the presidentship. He died at 70 Addison Road, Kensington, on 26 July 1919, and was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral.

He married in 1866 Agnes, daughter of the Rev. G. B. Macdonald, a lady of great beauty and musical talent, one of whose sisters was the wife of Sir Edward Burne-Jones. She died in 1906, leaving two sons. Poynter was knighted in 1896, created a baronet in 1902, and G.C.V.O. in 1918. He possessed a fine collection of drawings by the old masters, which was sold at Sotheby's in 1918.

There are numerous portraits of Poynter: a drawing by Legros, the original of a well-known etching, and a bust by Dalou are in the possession of the family; an autograph portrait is in the Uffizi Gallery, and pictures by (Sir) Arthur Cope and Seymour Lucas, both painted in 1911, belong to the Royal Academy; an excellent likeness by Sir Philip Burne-Jones is in the National Portrait Gallery, and another is introduced into the vast group of the ‘Hanging Committee’ by Sir H. von Herkomer in the Tate Gallery; there is also a bas-relief showing his head (life-size) by W. R. Colton, R.A. (Royal Academy Pictures, 1911 and 1920).

Poynter was probably, with the exception of Alfred Stevens, the most versatile and accomplished academic draughtsman the English school has ever produced. He loved drawing for its own sake, and put the best of himself into the numberless studies from life which he made for even the most inconspicuous details of his paintings. As happened with the old masters in similar circumstances, the spirit frequently lost force in the process of transference to the finished picture, especially as Poynter was a deliberate worker and, as he himself was fully aware, although a sound never a brilliant manipulator of oil paint. His water-colours show perfect mastery of the medium according to the principles of the school to which he belonged. His work in fresco has been mentioned. He executed a few very original medals and designed reverses for the coinage of 1894. Representative series of his drawings are in the British and Victoria and Albert museums. In addition to the works in public galleries already noted, others are at Birmingham, Manchester, and Bristol.

[The Times, 28 July 1919; Morning Post, 20 March 1913; Poynter's MS. autobiography (to 1855), diaries, and correspondence; The Easter Art Annual, 1897; Lugt's Marques de Collections; personal knowledge. ]

C. F. B.