Paynter’s scenes of nature and the Bible | Sunday Observer
Trinity’s treasure trove of fine art

Paynter’s scenes of nature and the Bible

12 December, 2021

In this third instalment on works of fine art at Trinity College Kandy, I wish to draw attention to four works of the internationally celebrated Sri Lankan artist David Paynter, which are not of the portrait category. Among these four, three can be classified as sceneries while the other is a work with a biblical theme.

Mountain scenery

The first of these depicts what is identifiably a scene that captures the traits of Kandy’s mountainous geography. This painting which was said by the current Curator of the Trinity College Archives to be an oil painting done on canvas, hangs on display at the College library. A painting that emphasises the elements of greenery and mist which coalesce in the mountain landscape typical of Kandy.

Paynter’s lines indicate in the upper right quarter part of the canvas the image of what may be assumed is Bible Rock [Batalegala] in the distance. The impression of tiered paddy fields created with hues of green dominate the centre portion of the canvas while greenery, mountains and mist constitute the overall impression of a place that is cool and lush.

By any large this untitled work appears to depict a view of Kadugannawa, Kandy. Devoid of human images to establish any presence of humans experiencing the landscape, this scene has a sense of being experienced from a ‘detached distance’.

Bamboo grove by the water

The second scenery piece is one that doesn’t, in my opinion, depict an impression that evokes a typical central Kandyan geography. This untitled work by Paynter depicts a water fronted bamboo grove. This ‘bamboo grove by the water’, evokes an impression of tranquility where images of water and foliage combine to deliver a picture of cosiness and comfort through shade and coolness one finds along the banks of a body of freshwater.

The ‘flora’ in this painting by and large clearly depicts giant bamboo, which can be found along certain stretches of the Mahaweli River in Kandy. On the lower part of the lower left quarter of the canvas the image of a human with some indiscernible cargo, canoeing on the water, is found.

This scene evokes a sense of the idyllic, connecting man with the environment, as the foliage and water which hold central presence are not presented as scenery devoid of any human connection.

Although the element of human presence is not given centre stage in the painting, the canoe and its rower are not placed in pallid obscurity as a spec in the distance either. The human presence is neither obscured to be of little importance, nor obtrusive upon the ‘pride of place’ given to water and foliage and thus possibly nuances the artist’s desire for calm and harmonious coexistence between man and nature.

‘Nature is centre stage and man is a humble and unobtrusive beneficiary of her kindness,’ is perhaps what Paynter wishes those who behold this work to meditate on. This work too was stated to be an oil painting done on canvas, on display at the Trinity College library.

Seascape and artist

The third of the sceneries by Paynter, which can be assumed, is a ‘seascape’ painting, had been gifted to Trinity College on November 18th this year by the daughter’s of C. N. Simithriarachchi a past principal of the college. An oil painting done on canvas, this scenery doesn’t present flora that is typical of the ‘tropical island beach’ image. This lack of ‘palm fronds’ is a notable factor when focusing on the setting of the scene.

The tree trunks are prominently positioned on the foreground yet do not obstruct the central element of the painting, which is the body of water which expands to the horizon marked by a simple blue line that subtly demarcates the blue water from the greyish blue sky.

Composition of the body of water which shows no opposite bank or shore, indicates the central element must be the ocean and not a body of inland water. If it was intended to be the latter, the location cannot reasonably be considered to be Sri Lankan. I am unaware if Sri Lanka’s geography contains inland bodies of water so vast that one finds the opposite shore not visible to the naked eye.

Similar to the ‘bamboo grove by the water’ this seascape contains an unobtrusive human element, and similarly located; on the lower part of the lower left quarter of the canvas. The human figure appears to be male, and presented as a painter seated on a small stool, in front of his easel engaged in his art. ‘A painter at work by the sea, working on a seascape piece;’ seems to be the fundamental that can be said about this solitary human figure.

Compared to the ‘bamboo grove by the water’, this seascape shows a more pronounced sense of solitude despite being composed of a scheme of lighter and airy colours. The canoeing boatman is slightly covered by the bamboo trunks, devoid of discernible features, [and compared to the painter in the seascape], more ‘figurative’ than characterised.

A more purposeful human image

The seascape in comparison offers its human element more visibly. Although the ocean appears the more overtly central and dominant element, visually taking centre stage, the presence of the painter at the lower left gives way to an interesting interpretation. Perhaps this unobtrusive yet unhidden human element is possibly the ‘purpose giver’ to the overall picture.

Paynter could have easily conceived this piece without any human figure in it, similar to the mountain scenery piece. He could have unfolded a mighty ocean which figuratively extends to a great expanse and meets the sky, and allowed that subject of nature to be the undisputed focus.

Yet he decided to include the figure of a solitary and somewhat nondescript artist who is making the sea the subject of his work. Perhaps Paynter wished to gently convey the importance of the role of artists in human society as ones whose work convey to their fellow humans the grandeurs of nature, since nature cannot simply be ‘transported’ and put on exhibition for human appreciation.

The good Samaritan study

Paynter’s murals in the Trinity College chapel are world renowned. Among the Paynter pieces possessed by Trinity is a partially coloured work done as a ‘study’ for the Chapel mural titled ‘The Good Samaritan’. This work too is an oil painting done on canvas currently on display at the Trinity College Archives. It was a work donated to the college by S. N. R. Breckenridge.

These four paintings together with the four portraits discussed in the two previous instalments of this series, thus constitute, to the best of my knowledge, the collection of ‘oil on canvas’ paintings by David Paynter currently in the possession of Trinity College Kandy.

Images of the four scenery pieces included in this article were photographed by Sheshan Abeysekara who is hereby credited for the photographs.

To be continued...