Sir Edward J. Poynter Bt PRA (1836-1919)

The Catapult, from an engraving of 1896

E. J. Poynter, last of the great Victorian Classical painters, was born in Paris, his father Ambrose Poynter being an architect and landscape painter. He studied under W. C. T. Dobson, afterwards at the RA Schools, and then returned to Paris, working under Charles Gleyre at the same time as Alma Tadema, Whistler and Du Maurier. He was very much part of the British establishment thereafter, becoming ARA in 1868, first Slade Professor of University College London 1871-5, RA in 1877 and Director of the National Gallery 1894-1904. In 1896, Poynter was elected President of the Royal Academy, narrowly beating Briton Riviere to the post, and he seems to have got the job because of his very wide teaching, lecturing and administrative experience and depth of scholarship.

Poynter's term as PRA came after Millais's brief occupation of the post, and follows rather from his predecessor Leighton, who was PRA for nearly two decades. It had been Leighton who, in 1854, originally persuaded Poynter, then painting only landscapes, to turn to figure studies, and he helped the younger man with drapery studies. Like Leighton, Poynter studied abroad, trained as an academic artist, and was a superior draughtsman, technically masterful, working on largely ideal Greek-style pictures. Again like Leighton, Poynter was enormously influential, though in his case it was because of his large number of official positions and teaching posts. He was created a baronet in 1902 - only Leighton was made a Lord for being PRA.

Poynter's first exhibited at the RA in 1861, and thereafter contributed both regularly and abundantly. His first success there was Faithful unto Death (1865), now at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, followed by the large, evocative and popular paintings Israel in Egypt (1867), and The Catapult (1868). His peak artistic period was certainly the 1860s and 1870s, as thereafter he spent more and more time on his official and institutional activities. However, he was still able to produce various important works, as for example A Visit to Aesculapius (1880), bought by the Chantrey Bequest and now in the Tate Gallery. Good also is Horae Serenae of 1894, an utterly classical frieze-shaped picture with girls dancing, a picnic, a peacock and an elegant, symmetrical composition. His 1895 picture The Ionian Dance has elements of Albert Moore, marble worthy of Alma Tadema, and again a lovely classical composition.

As well as paintings, Poynter worked in a variety of other media, including some book illustrations early on in his career, most notably for Dalziel's Bible Gallery, drawn in a Pre-Raphaelite manner. He designed and drew panels for cabinets by Burges, did stained glass designs for Powell, mosaics for the House of Lords and at South Kensington, fresco work, pottery, and the reverse sides of the British coins of the time. In his later years, Poynter's paintings became less epic and more decorative, with lots of pictures on the 'girl on a vaguely classical terrace' theme, with or without decorative drapery.

One late and important picture is The Cave of the Storm Nymphs (1903). But Poynter carried on producing Classical paintings until his death in 1919, long after the mood had swung against such works. His followers included Frederick Goodall and Edwin Long, both keen on Egyptian paintings, and also in his circle were Simeon Solomon and Burne-Jones, the latter by virtue of being a brother in law.

A Visit to Aesculapius is at the Tate Gallery and Psyche in the Temple of Love is at the Walker Art Gallery. The Champion Swimmer is at Wolverhampton Art Gallery. A room at the Victoria and Albert Museum has tile panels designed by Poynter. Excellent ceiling panels by Poynter may be found in Waltham Abbey.

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Classical painters // Other artists