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Sir Edward John Poynter, Bt, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1836-1919)
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Sir Edward John Poynter, Bt, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1836-1919)

St Stephen led to Martyrdom

Sir Edward John Poynter, Bt, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1836-1919)
St Stephen led to Martyrdom
pencil and black and white chalk heightened with white, on paper
27½ x 82½ in. (69.8 x 209.5 cm.)
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 10 March 1995, lot 124, where purchased by the present owner.
Springville, Utah, Springville Museum of Art, Victorian and European Art, 2009-2010.
Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Victorian Visions, 2010, no. 12.
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Lot Essay

This magnificent drawing is the cartoon for part of the fresco that Poynter executed in the chancel of St Stephen's Church, Dulwich, in 1872-3. It is a brilliant demonstration of his academic style, the fruit of the three-year training he had enjoyed in Paris in the late 1850s at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and in the studio of Charles Gleyre, a follower and intense admirer of Ingres. The St Stephen's scheme inspired some of Poynter's finest drawings. No fewer than eighty belong to the Royal Academy, London, and there are further examples in the British and Victoria and Albert Museums. Three are illustrated in Malcolm Bell, The Drawings of Sir E.J. Poynter, Bart, PRA, London, 1905, pls. 5, 6 and 8. Such studies, however, tend to be of heads or single figures. The present cartoon is unique in its scope and power. Indeed there seems to be nothing comparable in Poynter's oeuvre as a whole, and despite its preparatory nature it is not going too far to describe it as one of his greatest works.

St Stephen, the Christian protomartyr, was a deacon, appointed to relieve the Apostles of administrative duties. By his preaching and good works he aroused the wrath of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish legislative council in Jerusalem, and when he was falsely accused of blasphemy they condemned him to death by stoning. In Poynter's mural, the Saint's trial takes place in the upper part of the arched space, while below he is led to martyrdom, with figures of angels standing in separate compartments to either side. Our cartoon is for this lower section, but omits the angels. St Paul, making his first New Testament appearance as Saul, the persecutor of Christians, stands to the left; according to Acts, Ch. 7, vs. 58, he was present at the event, the false witnesses 'laying down their clothes at his feet' as they left the courtroom. Two Roman soldiers hustle Stephen to the place of execution, while keeping at bay the bloodthirsty ruffians who are already gathering stones and preparing to throw them. The detailed notes in which Poynter set out this iconographical programme survive, and are quoted in the catalogue of the Victorian Visions exhibition cited above.

The mural was carried out in the exacting technique of 'buon (or true) fresco', in which the paint is laid directly onto the newly applied wet plaster. The area to be covered is divided up systematically, and a portion of the plaster is applied and painted each day. According to Poynter's notes, the upper part of the fresco took him forty days and the lower part thirty-seven, and he spent a further four-to-five days retouching the mural on the dry plaster. He had accepted the commission in April 1871, and worked on the preparatory material during much of that year and 1872. This material not only included drawings but an oil sketch, now in the Royal Academy, and a trial piece of fresco, now in Tate Britain. Dated July 1872, the latter, entitled Paul and Apollos, shows two of the small figures that can be seen in the far distance behind the group of thugs gathering and preparing to throw stones. The cartoons, including presumably the present example, were ready for inspection in August 1872. The upper part of the mural itself was completed by the following Christmas, and by September 1873 the whole mural was finished. It had been a two-and-a-half-year project.

St Stephen's Church was a new one, built to cater for the needs of a rapidly expanding London suburb. Started in 1867, it was still under construction when Poynter was painting his mural. The architect was Charles Barry, Junior (1823-1900), the eldest son of Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the new Houses of Parliament. Both father and son had worked on the buildings of Dulwich College, situated nearby, and much of the son's architectural practice was focussed on the Dulwich area.

At St Stephen's Barry followed a practice he often adopted of collaborating with another architect, Robert Richardson Banks (1812-1872). Banks must have been some relation of Poynter's since the artist was the great-grandson of Thomas Banks, the well-known sculptor and collector of old master drawings. Architecture, moreover, was a family profession, one which his own father, Ambrose Poynter, had adopted.

In fact it is tempting to go further and wonder if the mural was not painted as a memorial to R.R. Banks. After all, Banks died in 1872, and, according to some accounts, Poynter did not charge the church for his services. But there are problems with this theory. As we have seen, Poynter agreed to undertake the painting in April 1871, when Banks was still alive. And he does seem to have been paid, asking for an honorarium of £300 at the outset and submitting an invoice for a final payment in September 1873. In other words, it would seem that more research is needed both to clarify Poynter's relationship with Banks and to determine the true circumstances of the commission.

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