Friday, 10 April 2020

Arthur Melville - part 1



Arthur Melville (1855-1904) was one of the most innovative Scottish painters of his generation. The intensity of his colours, his fascination with effects of brilliant light and his dramatic compositions had a revolutionary impact on watercolour as an art form.
Melville was born at Loanhead-of-Guthrie in Angus, and raised in East Linton near Edinburgh. He spent much of his life travelling around the world, including time spent in France, Spain, Egypt, Morocco, and the Middle East. He enjoyed a varied career as an artist and is respected as an Orientalist, a forerunner and close associate of the Glasgow Boys and a painter of modern life. Melville’s life was sadly cut short due to his premature death aged just forty-nine from typhoid he contracted in Spain.
He entered the Royal Scottish Academy Life School in 1875, staying at various addresses in Edinburgh. Most of Melville’s early works, including his first exhibited picture A Scotch Lassieare untraced.

"A Cabbage Garden" 1877, was the first painting he sent to the Royal Academy in London. The realistic, down-to-earth subject matter of it tells us that by 1877, Melville had already decided which direction he wanted to take with regard to the subject matter of his pictures. Costume-pieces and romantic ‘Rob Roy’ landscapes were rejected in favour of contemporary scenes, and the cabbage patch encounter between a gardener and his daughter had no obvious literary source. Of greater importance to Melville was the accurate observation of spatial recession across the expanse of garden, mapped out in blues and greens – colours that seem to glow under the menacing sky. 

1877 A Cabbage Garden
oil on canvas 45.5 x 30.5 cm
National Galleries Scotland, UK

Melville’s humble setting suggests that he may have been hoping to emulate the success of London Scots painters such as John Robertson Reid and Robert Walker MacBeth, both of whom were painting field workers. These artists, alongside their Lothian counterparts, Robert Mc Gregor and William Darling McKay set powerful precedents for the emerging Glasgow School.
Melville’s skills developed significantly when he travelled to France in the summer of 1878, and began to experiment with watercolour. In June of that year he worked at Granville on the Normandy coast. He also made sketching trips to Brittany and the forest of Fontainebleau. Melville was inspired by the rural landscapes populated by peasant workers by the Barbizon school painters, especially Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Jean-François Millet.
In 1878 Melville registered at the Académie Julian in Paris. In 1879 he painted at the artists’ colony at Grez-sur-Loing to the south of Paris. Early in 1881 Melville embarked on an extended trip to the Middle East. His first stop was Cairo, where he stayed at the famed and luxurious Shepheard’s Hotel and made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Pyramids of Giza. The majority of his Cairo pictures are external street views. It was these crowded lanes and alleys that captivated Melville. He made sketches of what he observed, and would later work these up into finished paintings such as "An Arab Interior." 

1881 An Arab Interior
oil on canvas 95 x 72.8
National Galleries Scotland, UK

Melville sent all his completed sketches from this Cairo adventure back to his brother George in Edinburgh. He then set sail on the steamer to Aden and Karachi in February 1882, and then on to Baghdad. The watercolour "Baghdad" is clearly dated 1883, however it is possible that this picture was painted from drawings as an exhibition-piece after his return to Scotland.

1883 Baghdad
watercolour on paper 34.8 x 50.2 cm
National Galleries Scotland, UK


From Baghdad he travelled overland to Constantinople (Istanbul), encountering a lot of conflict and adventure on the way. Few artists in the late nineteenth century could boast that they had been pursued on horseback by bandits, dodged bullets, or been cast into prison as a spy by a Pasha in Kurdistan, but all of this happened in the thirteen weeks prior to Melville’s arrival in London at the end of August.
The long, indirect journey from Cairo to Constantinople which had taken eighteen months to accomplish, would colour Melville’s entire career. The resulting sketches from these adventures provided the material for much of his work throughout the 1880s and 1890s. He would frequently revisit his Cairo and Baghdad sketches, reworking them to inspire spectacular exhibition watercolours.

Melville returned to Edinburgh in September 1882 to fulfil the first of a series of portrait commissions. At the Glasgow Institute exhibition in February 1883 he met James Guthrie, and through him, future Glasgow Boys, Joseph Crawhall and Edward Arthur Walton. He was immediately impressed by these kindred spirits. At various times during the following winter, all four spent time working at Cockburnspath on the Berwickshire coast - Melville beginning his large canvas, "Audrey and her Goats."

1883-89 Audrey and her Goats
oil on canvas 204.5 x 213.4 cm
Tate, London

The circle of ‘Glasgow Boys’ friendships widened throughout 1885. Guthrie and Melville visited the painter John Lavery while he was working in Glasgow. Guthrie and Melville then travelled to Orkney. It was at this stage in his career that Melville increasingly chose to paint scenes of modern life, in particularly leisure activities such as tennis, ice skating and golf.

In the late 1880s, the lure of London was increasing, and in January 1889 Melville took a studio in Kensington. In the spring of this year he set off for Paris with some of the Glasgow Boys to see the Exposition Universelle, which that year attracted over six million visitors. While in Paris, they also experienced the throng of the dancing and drinking dens in the district of Montmartre. Since his watercolours of the early 1880s, his handling was more practiced and he was not averse to employing Chinese white in watercolour washes. Dull, wet days made opacity somehow appropriate as he caught the passing lady of Paris with her well-groomed poodle. Such a fashionable parade, even on a colourless afternoon, typified the city of modernity.


1889 A street scene in Paris, a wet sunday afternoon
watercolour on paper 48.8 x 37.2 cm
National Galleries Scotland, UK

Melville was one of the few British painters of his generation to actually work in the city streets and inside public venues painting from life. In his tiny sketchbook, Melville made watercolours that captured an almost impossible subject. Working on the spot in a dancehall amid the raucous elbowing of a noisy crowd, it is surprising how much he was able to achieve with a small watercolour field-box. These sketches of dancers are essentially colour notes which capture to the luminous flare of gas-lamps, and the blur of flicks and kicks of the Can-can ‘skirt dancers'.

1889 Dancers at the Moulin Rouge
watercolour on paper 9.4 x 15.5 cm
National Galleries Scotland, UK

 After the excitement of Paris, a tour of his clients in Scotland followed, and then he was back in London over the winter. There Melville could network with painters such as George Clausen, John MacAllan and  William Quiller Orchardson whom he shared the honours on the hanging committee of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1890

In May of 1890, Melville set off for Spain – a trip that would not see him back in Britain until late in July. The tour was extensive and seems to have followed a trail that began in Tangier and crossed into Spain connecting Ronda, Seville, Granada and Toledo, and ending in Madrid. In 1892, he visited northern Spain with Welsh painter Frank Brangwyn. The trip completely altered Brangwyn’s approach to his craft, and for Melville it led to some of his most avant-garde drawings and paintings. While staying at the port of Passages he painted "The Sapphire Sea," a view of the harbour from high above the rooftops.

1892 The Sapphire Sea
watercolour on paper 120 x 80 cm
National Galleries Scotland, UK

 In the great inaugural exhibition of the Grafton Gallery in 1893, a show which included Degas' l'absinthe and works by Whistler, Melville exhibited The Sapphire Sea. His highly worked watercolour was striking, both for its spectacular vertical composition and extraordinarily intense colouring. It seemed that Melville had deliberately strengthened his palette to arrive at colour contrasts that were exceptionally modern in character. In many ways his colouring anticipated the ‘Fauve’ painters André Derain and Henri Matisse working at Collioure thirteen years later. 

In 1894 Melville made the first of at least two trips to Venice, a city that captured the imagination of many British painters of his generation. The tours in Spain and Italy nevertheless continued, interspersed with visits to clients and friends in Scotland. His visit to North Africa seemed to recall to him with the drama and ritual of Arab life, and this continued to play a major role in his choice of exotic subject matter. He revisited the streets scenes and architecture of his eastern adventures in watercolours such as "King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid." It was a popular literary theme; the tale appears in Elizabethan ballads and was a subject favoured by Victorian artists. Popular subjects were more likely to sell, and Melville was in need of money after making some bad investments.

1898 King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid
watercolour on paper 70.2 x 51 cm
National Galleries Scotland, UK

 In 1896 Melville became engaged to Ethel Croall and they spent much of the summer together on the Isle of Mull. The wedding was however put on hold for three years as a result of the declining health of Ethel’s mother. Around this time the artist was also introduced to Walford Graham Robertson, a young admirer, with strong connections in the theatre and the art world. Almost overnight the Pre-Raphaelite-influenced Robertson changed his style to replicate that of Melville and being moderately wealthy was able to offer him sanctuary at Sandhills House in Surrey.
During these years the artist’s work, although controversial, was increasingly accepted at the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours with his election to full membership in April 1897. Melville’s ideas were developing, and while in Surrey he started to produce landscapes such as "The Chalk Cutting." This view into a quarry is likely to have been inspired by one of many chalk pits that dotted the Surrey landscape, within easy reach of his new home. This painting is startling in its originality; pools of blue-grey shade snake across the terrain masking the chalk cliffs and their crevices. The narrow gauge railway cutting is partly obscured by dust, and the trucks loaded with blocks of stone are some of the clearest parts of this painting that mostly shows a shadow scattered with spots of detail.

1898 The Chalk Cutting
oil on canvas 85.1 x 92.8 cm
National Galleries Scotland, UK

 From 1900, Melville’s focus turned towards religious subjects. He began a suite of four large canvases depicting scenes of the Nativity. While trips to Spain with Ethel continued, his regular submissions to exhibitions in London, Edinburgh and Liverpool petered out and all other work took second place as he struggled to bring these canvases to fruition. Sadly this great sequence was never to be completed, as a result of his sudden death from typhoid in August 1904.
In 1905 when "Christmas Eve" was exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy, it was revealed that Melville had been working on religious subjects. The work is unfinished, but there was, according to one critic, an ‘indication that it would have been of considerable importance … if the artist had been spared to finish it’. This painting was the most advanced of the four and only one other, Christmas Morning (Aberdeen Art Gallery) has survived.

1900-04 Christmas Eve: 'And there was no room for them in the inn'
oil on canvas 191 x 203 cm
National Galleries Scotland, UK

1900-04 Christmas Morning
oil on canvas 199.1 x 185.3 cm
Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums, UK

Melville’s bold and innovative compositions and particularly the abstract quality of his later work was greatly appreciated by the next generation of artists. For the Colourist painter John Duncan Fergusson, Arthur Melville’s work was the road to freedom. They never met, but for the young Fergusson Melville signified ‘not merely freedom in the use of paint, but freedom of outlook’. He did not explain himself any further, but it is tantalizing to speculate on what he might have meant. Melville’s creative energies were stirred by his life experiences and the freedom of his work is evidence that he was much less constrained by tradition than most of his contemporaries.

This is part 1 of 3 parts on the works of Arthur Melville:


1877 The Tragedy of the Morn
oil on canvas 61 x 91.4 cm
Glasgow Museums Resource Centre, Scotland, UK

c1877 Portrait Sketch
oil on canvas 88.9 x 68.6 cm
Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection, UK

1878 The Shepherd
oil on canvas 55 x 32.5 cm
Private Collection

1878 Washerwomen at Gréz
watercolour 27 x 38 cm
Private Collection

1879 A French Peasant
oil on panel 32 x 21.5 cm
Private Collection

1879 Market Day, Granville
watercolour on paper 27.9 x 45.9 cm
Private Collection

1879 Swans in a Meadow
watercolour 26 x 44 cm
Private Collection

1880 Apple Blossom
watercolour 28 x 35 cm
Private Collection

1880 Homeward
oil on canvas 64.5 x 96.8 cm
City Art Centre, Edinburgh, UK

1880 Honfleur Harbour
watercolour on paper 49.5 x 34.5 cm
Dundee Art Gallery and Museum, UK

1880 Old Enemies
oil on canvas 165 x 112 cm
Private Collection

c1880 Old Enemies study
watercolour 24 x 16 cm
Private Collection

1880 Outside a Wine Shop, Bercy, Paris
graphite and watercolour on paper 27.3 x 44.6 cm
 Private Collection

1880 Paysanne à Grez
oil on canvas 53.3 x 30.5 cm
Robertson Collection

1880 The The Rush Gatherers (inscribed "Winter Fuel")
watercolour, heightened with touches of bodycolour and with scratching out 29.7 x 45.7 cm

1880 Two Mowers
oil on canvas 30.9 x 46 cm
Private Collection

c1880 A Lady with a Fan
oil on panel 34 x 46 cm
Private Collection

c1880 Honfleur
watercolour on paper 28 x 43.5 cm
Private Collection

1881 A Cairo Coffee Stall
watercolour on paper 37 x 52 cm

1881 On Board the Magdala
watercolour and gouache on paper 36.5 x 52 cm
 Berwick Museum & Art Gallery, Berwick-upon-Tweed

1881 Past and Present
watercolour with scratching out 64.7 x 47.6 cm
 Private Collection

1881 Portrait of a Lady
watercolour 48.2 x 30.4 cm
Private Collection

1881 The Pilgrim's Prayer
watercolour on paper 101 x 66 cm
Private Collection

1881 The Pyramids, Egypt
graphite, watercolour, gouache and gum arabic with scratching out on paper 28.1 x 44.6 cm

1881 The Turkish Bath, Paris
watercolour 76 x 56 cm
Private Collection

1881 The Water Seller
watercolour and gouache on paper 54.6 x 40.6 cm
 The Burrell Collection, Glasgow, UK

1882 Cairo Bazaar
watercolour
Berwick Museum & Art Gallery, Berwick-on-Tweed, UK

1882 The North Gate, Baghdad
watercolour on paper 36 x 51 cm
Private Collection

c1882 Pearl Fisheries
watercolour on paper 27.9 x 45.7 cm
The Burrell Collection, Glasgow, UK

1883 A Cairo Street
watercolour 50.8 x 35.5 cm
Fleming Collection, London

1883 Kirkwall
watercolour 36 x 55 cm
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, UK

1883 The Babylonian Girl
watercolour 47 x 35.5 cm

1883 The Snake Charmer, Baghdad
watercolour 83 x 64 cm
Private Collection

1884 Banderilles à Cheval
watercolour 41 x 63.5 cm
Private Collection

1884 Cecilia Cuthbertson, wife of Mark Sanderson
watercolour and bodycolour on paper 64 x 47 cm
 National Galleries Scotland, UK

1884 Mark Sanderson
watercolour and bodycolour on paper 64 x 47 cm
 National Galleries Scotland, UK

1885 Kirkwall, Orkney
watercolour and gouche on paper 35.6 x 50.8 cm
 Private Collection

1885 The Big Tree, Kirkwall
watercolour 55.9 x 35.6 cm
Private Collection

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