Sir Edward John Poynter: 1st Baronet, KB (March 20, 1836 – July 26, 1919) was a British painter, designer, draughtsman and art administrator.
The son of Ambrose Poynter, an architect, he was born in Paris. He was educated at Ipswich School and Brighton College before studying in London, in Rome (where he became a great admirer of Michelangelo) and with Charles Gleyre in Paris (where he met James McNeill Whistler). He became best known for his large historical paintings such as Israel in Egypt (1867, his first great success), Visit of the Queen of Sheba (1871–75) and King Solomon (1890).
Poynter held a number of official posts: he was the first Slade Professor from 1871 to 1875, was Principal of the National Art Training School from 1875 to 1881, was Director of the National Gallery from 1894 to 1904 (overseeing the opening of the Tate Gallery), and became a Royal Academician in 1876. On the death of Sir John Millais in 1896, Edward was elected President of the Royal Academy from 1896, and received a knighthood. He was made a baronet in 1902.
Poynter married Agnes Macdonald whose sister Georgiana married Edward Burne-Jones. The couple had two sons.
His old school, Brighton College held an exhibition of Poynter's paintings and drawings entitled 'Life at Arms Length' in its Burstow Gallery in November-December 1995.
Early in his career Poynter studied in Rome, where he met Frederic Leighton, his greatest single artistic influence. He then moved to Paris in 1855. On returning to London, he became involved on book illustration. In 1865 he produced his first really successful picture, Faithful Unto Death, a Roman sentry staying at his post in Pompeii as Vesuvius overwhelmed the city. This dramatic painting was probably never bettered by Poynter throughout his whole long career. Poynter became an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1869, at an unusually early age. Much of the rest of his life was devoted to the Academy, he was hardworking, conscientious, and a competent administrator.
Poynter married Agnes MacDonald, the sister of Burne-Jones' wife Georgiana. Burne-Jones disliked Poynter, who was an unsympathetic, brusque character. When Leighton died in 1896, he was succeeded as President of the Royal Academy by Millais, who was suffering from cancer of the throat. On the death of Millais a few months later, Poynter succeeded him, narrowly defeating Briton Riviere in the vote. He was PRA for the next two decades.
From the turn of the century Poynter's paintings declined both in numbers and standard, his main priority being the running of the Academy. He lived to see the death of classicism, and the total eclipse of his own artistic standards, and those of his contemporaries. He adopted the approach of ignoring new developments of which he did not approve. Unhappily Poynter outstayed his welcome. One of the last duties of the eighty one year old PRA, was to attend the funeral of J.W. Waterhouse. There was, though, something splendid about the way he remained consistent to the last, resisting what he saw as the corruption, and denigration of all that was beautiful in art. He may even have been right.
Sir Edward John Poynter, first baronet, President of the Royal Academy from 1896 to 1918, and Director of the National Gallery from 1894 to 1905, was the son of Ambrose Poynter, an architect, well-known in his day as the designer, among many other buildings, of St Katherine's Hospital, Regents Park. On his mother's side he was the grandson of Thomas Banks, RA., a sculptor of eminence, whose funeral oration was pronounced by Flaxman. The young Poynter was of artistic descent on both sides, and though neither of his ancestors was a painter, his love for architectural backgrounds and for a sculpturesque treatment of form may perhaps be traced to those inherited influences.
He was born in Paris on March 20, 1836; but soon afterwards his parents returned to London, and most of his boyhood was spent in Westminster, the family living first near Poets' Corner, and afterwards in Queen Anne's Gate. Delicate health made his early education somewhat unsettled; he was for a short time at Westminster School and afterwards at Brighton College and Ipswich Grammar School, which, again for reasons of health, he left in 1852, spending that and subsequent winters in Madeira and Rome. As many of his pictures show, he had a good acquaintance with classical literature, and the intention was to send him to university; but the accident of these winters abroad and a very pronounced inclination for Art caused the plan to be changed, and it was decided he should be an artist. In 1853 he met in Rome young Frederick Leighton, his senior by six years, who, after a full training in art in Italy, Paris, and Germany was at that time at work on the afterwards celebrated picture Cimabue's Madonna carried through the streets of Florence. The personality, the talk, and the example of Leighton had a great influence on young Poynter, then a youth of 17, and contributed much not only to increase his enthusiasm for art, but also to form his style.
On returning to London he entered Leigh's well-known academy in Newman-street, afterwards working with Mr Dobson RA, and at the schools of the Royal Academy. These were then in a very unsatisfactory state, and it is not surprising a lad of keen perceptions like Poynter, who had breathed the artistic atmosphere of Rome and Paris, should have demanded something better. So in 1857, when he was just 20, he induced his father to allow him to work in the famous studio of Gleyre, who was maintaining, rather against the spirit of the time, the strictest traditions of Ingres and the French Classicists. Here among his fellow pupils Poynter had his lifelong friend George Du Maurier, and, strange to say, James McNeill Whistler, and the life and adventures of the group in the artistic quarter in Paris have been immortalised in Trilby. For a time after leaving his master, Poynter set up a joint studio with Du Maurier, Lamont, and Thomas Armstrong, afterwards so well-known for his work at South Kensington; and in due course after leaving Paris, he began to send pictures to the London Exhibitions. The first that was accepted by the Royal Academy was a little pen-and-ink drawing (1861), and this was followed next year by an oil picture of a scene from Dante.
His more important work at this time, however, was of that decorative kind of which he afterwards produced many important examples for the South Kensington Museum, for the Houses of Parliament, and for St Paul's. In these early years he was also a good deal employed, as were Millais and Frederick Walker, in those illustrations for Once a Week, which mark such an important epoch in the history of British graphic Art. This is as much as to say that already at five-and-twenty years of age, Poynter had already taken his place among the foremost group of young artists.