the painter within Paynter


David Shillingford Paynter, despite his European Christian name, was a Sri Lankan artist whose reputation as one of the unique artists of his time went far beyond the shores of our island nation. Paynter was born with the 20th century, on 5 March 1900 in the picturesque Indian village Ellora, right beneath the mighty Himalayas. His father was Arthur Stepehen Paynter – an Englishman who was a member of The Salvation Army – and his mother was Anagi Weerasooriya – sister of Arnolis Weerasooriya who was the first Sri Lankan Colonel of The Salvation Army. Paynter was born when his parents were in India on a ‘mission’ of Salvation Army. They moved back to then Ceylon in 1904 to start a mission in Nuwara Eliya. At the time the Young Paynter was receiving his elementary education in Breeks Memorial School in India but after moving to Sri Lanka he was enrolled at Trinity College, Kandy.

Paynter was a born artist. Apart from the regular education he received at the Trinity College, Paynter didn’t necessarily study arts at school but he always had a knack for drawing. To his friends and family he was a kid who loved to draw but soon they realised Paynter’s talent goes well beyond being a hobby.

At the age of 19 Paynter managed to enter Royal Academy of Arts in London on a five-year scholarship. He managed to secure this scholarship by winning an open competition in which many students from Sri Lankan as well as from other countries who had received formal arts education competed.

His time at the Royal Academy of Arts was an illustrious one. Paynter managed to win the Royal Academy Gold Medal at the end of his fourth year and managed to secure a two-year travelling scholarship to Italy. During his time in Italy paynter was able to study the Renaissance art and the contemporary European art which helped him to brew his own style later on. Also, at the age of 20, he wrote a book called, The Sticks.

In 1925, Paynter returned to Sri Lanka and was monumental in establishing Haywood Institute for the benefit of Arts. He was selected as a lecturer at the institute and he became the Principal of the institute in 1956 when it was Government-sponsored arts institute. It eventually became the University of Visual and Performance Arts as how we all know it today.

Paynter had a keen interest in drawing the human figure. He loved to draw humans in detail and opted to go for brighter shades of colour rather than dark ones. He used different shades of the same colour to bring out details and to add contrast to his art. His style is a fine mixture of both Western and Eastern styles of art and upon inspecting his works of art it can be suggested that Paynter liked pink and purple.

Paynter was a talented portrait artist. His portraits are lean and bear a unique ‘Paynter’ signature. The colour combinations and the brush strokes of his portraits are unique to himself and he was never the one to use paint sparingly. Different shades of colour were put on canvas, stroke after stroke, until Paynter was satisfied with the outcome.

Paynter was a unique artist with his own style but he never strayed beyond the conventional norms of the academics. Perhaps this was a result of the formal education he received in England or perhaps he was quite content with his both ‘unique and normal’ style.

Some of the best works of Paynter include; the self portrait with lotuses, the portraits of his father, Sir John Kotelawala, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Sushila Jayaram.

He used oil paint in his portraiture. He paid much attention to bringing out intricate details of the human figure and balancing the light and shade in his portraits rather than detailing the background.

Apart from portraits Paynter loved to draw village life. Lives of a coastal village, bullock carts pulling slowly on a gravel road, fishermen, gypsies, women working in paddy fields, and cacti and goats; are all encounters which intrigued Paynter to draw. Some of these paintings bear qualities of modernism.

In his life Paynter had held exhibitions in many parts of the world and had won many accolades. However, he saved his greatest work for his hometown and alma mater.

When Paynter returned to Sri Lanka in 1925, he started working on the Trinity College Chapel murals. These murals are arguably the best work of Paynter and one of the most monumental works of his career. The full spectrum of Paynter’s talent is on display at the Trinity Chapel. His unique style, the ability to bring out intricate details, balancing light and dark, colour combinations, and infusing a local identity to biblical content. Fine examples of this are his murals ‘The Crucifixion’ and ‘Washing the Disciple’s Feet’.

However, as it is common with almost every humble artist is Sri Lanka, Paynter was also somewhat ill-impressed with the local art-sphere towards latter years of his career, mainly because how internal politics cast the spotlight away from the well-deserved. This was true to Paynter as well. He left Colombo and moved to Nuwara Eliya to spend his last years of life. He also took a break from painting and engaged in charity work and farming.

Paynter passed away on 7 June 1975 of a sudden cardiac arrest. His remains were buried in the cemetery of Union Church in Nuwara Eliya.           

(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)

By Chandana Ranaweera