“Faithful Unto Death” – the dying world of Sir Edward Poynter

27 July 1919, the English Academic painter and President of the Royal Academy Sir Edward Poynter died in London at the age of 83.

“ … conceived in the severest mood and revealing Mr Poynter’s true love of classical art." (The Art Journal on the exhibition of Poynter’s “Ides of March“ in 1883 at the Royal Academy)

"… every evidence of having fully profited by recent Egyptological research ... a typical example of the successful application of the modern principle of wedding archaeology to art" as the London Illustrated News put it in 1867. Poynter’s “Israel in Egypt”.

Few epochs have concerned themselves with myths and legends as much as the long 19th century did. While technological and social progress advanced with the steam-powered speed of the iron horse and time-honoured knowledge and customs were superseded by the decade, there was the subliminal urge to keep a lid on it, somehow, to cry “stop!” and to find something to cling to, bourgeois morals and pride of rank, nationalism and myths of all sorts. The Romantics began to recreate the past along with several otherworlds as it should have been and the Academics, entangled in Classicistic respectability, divested these myths of Dionysian outbursts, clothed them in white chitons, togas and Biblical garments only to undress them again to suit the repressed tastes of connoisseurs and art buyers. The world of Academic Art was, in her own way, as divorced from reality as that of the Romantic Movement, only better behaved and educated. By the end of the epoch, the Academics made their last stand in the losing battle against reality, most of their output had degenerated into pure kitsch and their beacons, if they were still alive by then, had usually occupied important positions in the art world and preferred to close their eyes to the death of Classicism. When Sir Edward Poynter became President of the Royal Academy in 1896, there was not even a Swan Song sung of High Victorian Art, he just oversaw the creation of artworks painted a generation too late like those highlights of his fellow mourners Dicksee and Waterhouse. Poynter carried the latter to his grave in 1917 and died two years later in a world that was completely turned upside down.

Like his nephew Kipling, Poynter probably was a Freemason – hence several depictions of King Solomon. Here: “The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon“ (1890)

Having studied in Rome at the feet of Sir Frederic Leighton in the 1850s, Poynter, something of a stepson of the muses, lived a bit of the vie de Bohème in Paris, public health patient edition, until he returned back home to England in 1865, married one of the four celebrated MacDonald sisters, Agnes, became brother-in-law of the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones and uncle of Rudyard Kipling and prime minister Stanley Baldwin and thoroughly respectable. Like Alma-Tadema and other Academic artists, Poynter took great pains to create his historicising, religious and mythological imagery as anatomically and archaeologically accurate as possible. Not that the nascent disciplines of history and archaeology were not caught in the same Victorian web of myths and drew, more often than not, rather similar Romantic conclusions as artists did. When Poynter finally succeeded Leighton as President of the Royal Academy, the number as well as the quality of his works declined, even though he proved to be a competent Academy administrator and buyer for the National Gallery. Nothing too modern, of course. Ironically enough, Poynter achieved his breakthrough as painter in 1865 with the image of a Roman sentry staying at his post while the eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroys Pompeii in the background. He named his work “Faithful Unto Death” and it would characterise his own attitude and the beauty of resisting the destruction of everything he regarded beautiful in art until his own death and that of his world.

And more about Sir Edward Poynter on:

Sir Edward Poynter “Faithful Unto Death” (1865)