John Kinder was born on 17 September 1819 at London, England, the oldest surviving child of Thomas Kinder, a wealthy merchant, and his second wife, Fanny Pickworth. John's interest in art began early when he took walks near Southampton in the mid 1830s to look at Gothic architecture. At Southampton he also met Aaron Penley, a noted watercolourist and teacher, who taught him the principles of watercolour painting and related disciplines such as perspective. In 1838 his father took him on a trip to Belgium, where he was impressed by the medieval cathedrals and the paintings he saw in churches and galleries. John was not alone in his artistic interests as two of his sisters, Charlotte and Sarah, also painted.
In 1838 he began his studies at the University of Cambridge. He studied mathematics, but his real interest lay in Classics and theology. In 1842 he graduated a wrangler in the first class of the mathematical tripos. Instead of studying law as his father wished, Kinder was able, thanks to a scholarship, to attend Trinity College to further his studies. He joined the Cambridge Camden Society which had been formed to study church architecture and advise on the restoration and building of churches. This enabled him to develop his interests in architecture, antiquarianism and sketching. Through the society he came into contact with the ideas and writings of Augustus Pugin, an advocate of the Gothic Revival.
After graduating MA in 1845 Kinder studied for the Anglican priesthood in London. He was ordained deacon on Trinity Sunday 1846 and priest at Lichfield Cathedral in 1848. He initially took a position as an assistant stipendiary curate at St James's, Hoxton, before being appointed master at Alleyne's Grammar School at Uttoxeter in the Midlands. While he was at Uttoxeter, where he taught for 8½ years, he encountered opposition to his strict application of high church religious observances. Matters came to a head when the townspeople petitioned to have him removed from his post. Kinder was subsequently interviewed by Bishop G. A. Selwyn for the new position of headmaster at the Church of England Grammar School to be established at Auckland, New Zealand. He was accepted, and in July 1855 sailed with his mother and sister Fanny for New Zealand. He was never to return to England.
In New Zealand Kinder expanded his activity as a painter, responding to the challenge of his new environment. One of his first tasks was to make a map of inner Auckland, inscribed with figures identifying related sketches of the town which he painted about 1856–57. The views are topographical, showing the new houses, streets and especially the buildings of the Anglican church. For Kinder, the works have a personal dimension relating to places he knew and interests he favoured. These early drawings, while often taking an architectural focus, have a deep landscape setting with atmospheric effects. An example is 'St Paul's. Auckland. 1856' (now in the Hocken Library, Dunedin).
In 1857 Kinder moved with his mother and sister into the headmaster's house at 2 Ayr Street, Parnell, now known as Kinder House. The house was built specially for Kinder as one of Bishop Selwyn's projects for the Anglican church. Over the road was the new Church of England Grammar School where Kinder was to teach for some 15 years. Until this time he had conducted his school in hired premises in Karangahape Road. He took classes in Greek and Latin as well as calculus and mathematics, but did not teach drawing; instead he employed J. B. C. Hoyte for this task.
On 15 December 1859, at Te Papa, Tauranga, Kinder married Marianne Celia Brown (known as Celia), the daughter of Charlotte and Archdeacon Alfred Nesbit Brown. They were to have no children of their own; but after the tragic murder of John's younger brother, Henry, in Australia in 1865, they adopted his two children, Frances Nester (Nessie) and Harry. John Kinder's mother and sister continued to live with the family at Parnell.
While he was at Ayr Street Kinder also practised as an amateur photographer. There is no indication that he had taken an active interest in photography in England. Rather, it seems likely that he learned the wet-plate photographic process in Auckland about 1860–61. He was friendly with Hartley Webster, a prominent professional, who was the Kinder family photographer in the 1860s. He also collected prints of the work of Daniel Manders Beere, a photographer working in Auckland at the same time, whose photography has some affinities with his own.
Kinder was primarily a landscape and architectural photographer, although he did take a few portraits of family and friends, including Celia Kinder and the Reverend Vicesimus Lush, vicar of Howick. One of his best-known photographs is the portrait of Wiremu Tamihana, which was used as the frontispiece for John Gorst's The Maori King (1864). There are also a few fine photographs of Maori artefacts, including canoes and canoe prows. He took photographs of Parnell in the 1860s, especially of Anglican buildings such as the first St Mary's Church, St Stephen's Chapel and Bishopscourt (Selwyn Court). These provide a good historical record as well as having high artistic merit. Kinder also travelled extensively and his paintings and photographs are not confined to Auckland. After his sisters Mary and Sarah settled in Dunedin in 1878 he made several trips to the South Island.
In his photographs and paintings Kinder imposed a sense of order on his views, as if regulating them to current conventions of composition where clarity and intelligibility were paramount. This tidiness, combined with the serene calmness of the depicted weather conditions, can give a Utopian or idealised dimension to his colonial scenes. While there is a high degree of objectivity in his works, this does not exclude an element of interpretation – an adaptation of landforms and buildings to an ideal. His art expresses a positive view of the colonising process. It is worth noting that many of his finished paintings were made late in life, during his retirement, when he was looking back through rose-tinted glasses to a time of great achievement and rapid progress. In an unpublished autobiography, written in his later years, he recalled with pride how the city of Auckland had grown from the humble beginnings he encountered in 1855, when there were only one or two decent buildings to be seen.
Kinder also pursued his interest in architecture in New Zealand, especially ecclesiastical architecture. One building with which his name is connected is St Andrew's Church, Epsom: Kinder claimed that the architect, Reader Wood, realised the building to his designs. The church was erected in 1867 in the so-called Selwyn style, with a steeply pitched roof, board-and-batten walls, square-headed windows, a chancel and a porch entrance from one side. A feature was the tall broach spire over the belfry. The church still stands, but has been greatly enlarged and transformed from its original appearance.
In 1872 Kinder was appointed master of St John's College, Tamaki, a position that enabled him to leave both school teaching and Parnell. While at St John's he made extensive improvements to the college grounds and endowed the college chapel. He was awarded a doctorate of divinity shortly after his appointment, conferred by the archbishop of Canterbury. His work at St John's was clouded, however, by his forced resignation in 1880 due to personality and religious differences with Archdeacon Robert Maunsell and the college board of governors. As at Uttoxeter 25 years earlier, concern at Kinder's high church practices was at the centre of this conflict. Thereafter, he spent his long retirement in a new house, Woodcroft, in Remuera.
As a clergyman Kinder took services at various churches, including St Barnabas's in Mechanics Bay, St Andrew's in Epsom and St Mark's in Remuera. During the New Zealand wars of the 1860s he was chaplain to the British forces. Although he saw painting and photography as hobbies, it is these that now appear to be his greatest achievements. During his lifetime his work was shown publicly on only two occasions: in 1871 and 1873 at the first two exhibitions of the Auckland Society of Artists, of which Kinder was a founding member. Major collections of his work are now held by the Auckland City Art Gallery and the Hocken Library, Dunedin.
John Kinder died at his home in Remuera on 5 September 1903, and was buried in the graveyard at St John's College. He was survived by his wife, Celia Kinder, who died in 1928.