David Shillingford Paynter – ‘Paynter the Painter’

Sep - 12 - 2014
Mrs. S. Kuruwita

David PaynterDavid Shillingford Paynter, son of missionary parents, was born in Almora, U.P., North of India, on 5th March 1900. His father was English and “Country” and his mother Sinhalese, of a Southern Sri Lankan family. He was educated at Breeks memorial school, a school for the children of missionaries, in South India, Ooty and at Trinity College, Kandy, Sri Lanka. (David and big brother Arnold) Arnold very studious and a superb athlete, David clever but scatter-brained, exercise books filled to the brim margins and all with sketches of the boys, the masters, a horse, an arm, a hand, anything and everything and always in trouble, but he boxed and played rugger.

In 1916, 1917, 1918, he volunteered, in the 1st world war, but his father went to Colombo from the family home in Nuwara Eliya and showed the Army Commander David’s birth certificate and did not allow David as he was already terribly gassed and shell shocked.

Then at the age of nineteen, David met Miss. Mason, painting a scene from the Nuwara Eliya Lake. A six months painting trial was coaxed, he won in the open competition, a scholarship to the Royal Academy schools in England. Four years later at twenty three the coveted Gold Medal, awarded only in alternate years, and with it the Stott Traveling scholarship gave him two years in Italy.

In 1925 he returned to Sri Lanka to begin work on the frescoes in the new Trinity Chapel. In-between he taught art, coached the school teams in their varied activities attracted attention as a sportsman and athlete; Indulged his flavors for theatricals and the cult of the body beautiful; spent school vacations under canvas in the jungles with a gun and painting.

David himself said in an interview over Radio Ceylon;

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….

Are Ye Able

Are Ye Able

David’s 1st mural was “Are Ye Able” in the meditation Chapel in Trinity. This is very much damaged, but one can still see its delicate and detailed beauty and the artist’s youth of the “Crucifixion” when David was asked how he conceived the strange landscape, full of rocks, lush mangroves, deep brooding, somber-hued water, the heavy sky, He said, one of my favourite haunts was the east coast of Ceylon, North of Trincomalee. There the lagoons, the dry zone jungle and the strange rock formation always fascinated me. Just before the north-east monsoon breaks, the weather becomes thundery and heavy and lowering in the east. Nearly every evening towards sunset, shafts of sunlight from the west light up the landscape in a strange, unreal vivid way I had seen this so often and I painted as I remembered it….” This mural is still perfect and unbearably beautiful.

By April 1941 he was in the Himalayan Colony at the urgent request of his missionary brother, Arnold. Too young for the 1st world war, he was too old for the 2nd. So he fought his private war in the foothills of the Himalayas in those fierce jungles.

Good Samaritan

Good Samaritan

David was 41 when he left Ceylon. He came back in 1949. He held a three man show in Colombo with Karl Kasman and J.D.A.Perera. David was decorated with O.B.E. and later counted among the twenty five distinguished citizens of Ceylon in 1951 when he accepted an appointment in the College of fine Arts.

David Paynter died suddenly of a heart attack on the 7th ofJune 1975. Paynter had found in Italy that the work of her painters was consonant with the spirit of their time and place. And so he painted the murals in the Chapel of Trinity College with Sri Lankan Models. The trees, rocks etc.

Paynter had a passion for pure vivid colours, infusing his work with true tropical hues. Another notable quality of his work was the singularly poetic relationship between the figures and the landscape – a theme which he has developed.

The paintings and writings of David Paynter express his appreciation of these Renaissance masters” concentration on all the visual aspects of a subject: colour, line, light, mass, movement, structure and the rich combination of realism and decoration, observation and formalization which found expression in a style that was basically linear and draughts manly. Paynters own style reflects these values.

Rev. John McLeod Campbell, Principal of Trinity College, offered him a job, teaching art, teaching boxing and preparing himself by painting on rocks for the Trinity College Chapel Murals. In his studio cum bedroom in Trinity, a picture on a great slab of rock (“Offering”) was done, when he wasn’t on College business, he was painting. He had his pictures hung on the line in the Royal Academy from 1923 and every year after that till the 2nd world war started.

During the College holidays he would put a couple of canvases, a box of paints, an easel, ground sheet a gun in the back of his old Citroen Car and with one of the masters or a couple of boys drive off to the jungles and beyond. He was a lovely companion.

Washing of the Disciple's feet

Washing of the Disciple’s feet

The Murals in the Chapel gradually came alive:”Are Ye Able” 1929, 305×457 cm in the meditation Chapel; the models mostly masters and boys and an occasional arresting head or figure that he would find on the streets, and the author remembers (Eve Darling) posing for the mother of Zebedee’s two sons. The heart moving and glorious “crucifixion” in 1932, 335x 640 cm and later the Good Samaritan. 1958 (335x221cm) and later 1958 “Washing of the Disciple’s feet” months and indeed years of work.

In 1965-66 Trinity College urged David to come and look at the side Murals in the Chapel: “The washing of the Disciples feet” and the Good Samaritan” Those had been left open to the elements and though a thick sacking curtain had been hung over them, they had suffered disastrously. The rock had sweated, not having been treated properly, and the outline of the chiseled rock-face were horribly visible. Seeing there was no hope of saving them, David watched with sorrow as the mason chipped the paintings right off their rock background. He then painted completely new conceptions of these two lovely Murals.

David Paynter O.B.E.,the first Sri Lankan to have a modern art education in England and Italy, was a Royal Academician and had an extensive academic training. David Paynters acceptance of the academic principle is evident in his work but this principle was never pursued to the point of a dogmatic statement; he adapted the academic framework to his own creative ends. He refined and modified these principles in such a way that they resulted in a precise language of his own. Because of his academic training, Paynter placed great emphasis on craftsmanship. His ideas flow and express themselves freely because he was prepared to subordinate the claims of academism to those of his creativity.



David Paynter absorbed what was of value not only from the academic school but also from the Renaissance tradition, the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists, the moderns and the eastern traditions and then proceeded to reconstruct according to his own sensitive vision. Accordingly, he achieves in his work, a harmonious blending of form and colour, thought and feeling, truth and beauty, the ideal and the real.

References: David Paynter by Eve Darling and Albert Dharmasiri (1982), Paynter by Eve Darling and Albert Dharmasiri (1987) and Trinity College Library Archives and Museum.

Article Written by: Mrs. Sujatha Kuruwita. Librarian of Trinity College, Kandy. 

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Posted in Alumni, Choir, History, Letters, News, Societies

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