John Barr Clark Hoyte was born in England, probably in London, on 22 December 1835, the son of Samuel Hoyte, a landowner. His mother's name is not known, nor are any details of his childhood. From 1856 to 1859 he was employed as a planter in Demerara, Guyana, after which he returned to England. On 20 January 1860, at Leamington, Warwickshire, he married Rose Esther Elizabeth Parsons, daughter of an iron merchant. Within three months they sailed on the Egmont for Auckland, New Zealand, where they were to live for 16 years. Three daughters were born in Auckland, and the couple may also have had a son. A brother of John Hoyte emigrated to New Zealand, possibly in the 1870s.
Hoyte is said to have worked as a customs clerk in Auckland before embarking on a career as a school teacher, private art teacher, watercolourist and sometime importer of artists' supplies. He taught English, drawing and other subjects at the Church of England Grammar School intermittently between 1862 and the 1870s, and taught briefly at Wesley College in Queen Street and at Auckland Grammar School. He was giving private art tuition by June 1862. As his career as a painter developed he travelled extensively and began to play a prominent role in the Auckland art world. He was one of the founders of the Auckland Society of Artists in 1869–70 and served for several years as its secretary. He was also active in church affairs, serving for a time as vestryman at St Mary's Church, Parnell, and was a member of the volunteer militia.
In 1876 the family settled briefly in Nelson before moving to Dunedin, ostensibly because of that city's reputation as a centre of culture and taste and because of 'the fruitful source of subjects which our Provincial scenery offers to the painter's brush'. Another reason may have been the divisive bitterness which had entered the affairs of the Auckland Society of Artists. In Dunedin Hoyte immediately joined the Otago Art Society and was in due course co-opted to its governing body. Two of his daughters attended Otago Girls' High School, where Grace Joel was a fellow pupil. The family remained in Dunedin for only three years, however, moving to Australia in 1879. Apart from a brief residence in Melbourne in 1888–92 Hoyte lived and painted in Sydney for the remainder of his life.
Nothing is known of Hoyte's education and artistic training and we are reduced to the obvious deduction that he was heir to the English tradition of topographic draughtsmanship and watercolour painting. Firm drawing underlies his landscapes, making it appropriate to group him with colonial surveyor–architect artists such as Edward Ashworth, Edmund Norman and George O'Brien. A Dunedin critic recognised this quality in 1876 when suggesting that W. H. Raworth, a lesser exponent of misty Romanticism, would do well to receive drawing lessons from Hoyte.
During his years in New Zealand John Hoyte travelled assiduously in search of new scenes to exploit. In January 1866 he exhibited views from Whangarei, Coromandel, Auckland, Waikato, the Wellington region and Nelson, although some of these pictures were not painted from the subject. In the 1870s he travelled each summer, progressively adding the thermal region, Taranaki, Nelson, Christchurch, Arthur's Pass, Banks Peninsula and Otago to his repertoire between 1872 and 1876. His pictorial exploration of the colony's principal dramatic landscapes was completed when he took a cruise circumnavigating the South Island in early 1877, exploring the coast of Fiordland with particular attention. New Zealand subjects would continue to inspire his production long after he had settled in Australia, where they shared his attention with coastal and mountain views drawn chiefly from the neighbourhood of Sydney.
The success of the art unions of his work shows that the subjects he painted were in harmony with public taste. Despite the exceptional landscapes which appear so frequently in his production – geysers, the Pink and White Terraces, fiords, mountains and lakes – it appears that his preference was for a more gentle, picturesque mode of landscape art rather than the heightened tensions of the sublime. The Otago Guardian in 1876 described 'the aspect of repose which usually characterises Mr Hoyte's illustrations of native landscapes'. A comparison of Fiordland subjects painted by Hoyte and John Gully shows that Hoyte eschewed the manipulation of the viewer's emotions which the latter exploited so regularly. Even in his pastoral subjects Gully could be relied on to introduce an epic element which Hoyte usually avoided. Despite his apparent commercial success, however, Hoyte's standing, like that of George O'Brien, waned in the 1870s: a decade which marked a major shift in New Zealand colonial taste as the Turnerian Romantics such as Gully, J. C. Richmond and W. M. Hodgkins moved into greater prominence. They and their style were to dominate the following decades.
Hoyte brought a professional determination to his career. He exhibited paintings whenever and wherever he could, in his home and studio, at fêtes and fairs and in many formal art exhibitions in both New Zealand and Australia. He was tireless in his support of formal structures for the embryonic antipodean art world. In addition to his role in the art societies in Auckland and Dunedin he was a co-founder of the Art Society of New South Wales in 1880 and a member of the Victorian Academy of Art. In New Zealand he organised art unions of his own work on numerous occasions, persuading the Otago Art Society to operate them in conjunction with its annual exhibitions. Concern for his own career extended to solidarity with his fellow artists: he bought art union tickets from as far away as Melbourne, and in 1878 he donated 10 guineas received from the sale of a picture in Melbourne to the Victorian Academy of Art's building fund. Occasionally he organised auctions of his work.
There is also scattered evidence of Hoyte's painting and preparing illustrations on commission: in 1866 he completed two views of Lake Takapuna (Lake Pupuke) for John Copland of the Waitemata Hotel; in 1873 he painted three watercolours of subjects from the Rotorua region for J. C. Helmore of Christchurch; and on at least two occasions in Dunedin he painted what can only be described as advertisements for property developers. Later, many of his drawings were reproduced as wood engravings in an illustrated Sydney newspaper. But the most significant instance of commercial art work of this kind is a book written by his son-in-law, Francis Myers, The coastal scenery, harbours, mountains and rivers of New South Wales, which was published by the New South Wales government in 1886 and extensively illustrated by Hoyte.
Life for Hoyte was, nevertheless, 'a continual struggle to live', although 'it is not for the sake of trying, I never leave a stone unturned'. In Auckland his career had clearly gone reasonably well, for by 1875 he was the owner of a house and grounds with an estimated market value of £550 and paid rates of almost £3. However, there is no trace of his ever owning real estate in New South Wales, which suggests that his last years were more difficult. He died, apparently intestate, in the Sydney suburb of Mosman on 21 February 1913. He was buried in the Church of England cemetery, Gore Hill, the following day. Rose Hoyte died four years later, in January 1917.
Two testimonies allow us to glimpse something of Hoyte's personality. Among his pupils at the Church of England Grammar School in Auckland was Charles Lush, whose personal diary reveals Hoyte as a man who was at times a strict disciplinarian, but was also a gentle and rather vulnerable figure. Lush records how on one occasion a pupil 'was very impudent to Mr. Hoyte, and as soon as school was over Mr. Hoyte went over and complained to Mr Kinder [the headmaster] about him and says that if the boys choose to insult him that way, he will leave the school.' However, the warmest assessment of the artist appeared in the Otago Daily Times just after his departure for Sydney in 1879: 'Quite free from the too common jealousy of other artists, he rarely had a word to say against the work of another man. Ever ready to help the amateur or struggling artist with useful advice and example…he made for himself a considerable circle of friends – among the general public on account of his sterling worth, and in our small artist-world'.