Arthur Melville

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. His travels inspired spectacular watercolours and paintings. When not travelling, Melville was based mainly in Edinburgh.

He enjoyed a varied career as an artist and is respected as an Orientalist, a fore-runner 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.

Early Work

Melville was from a fairly large family that moved from Angus to the village of East Linton near Edinburgh, where he became a grocer’s apprentice. As a young teenager he was allowed to travel into Edinburgh to attend evening drawing classes. His mother did not approve of her son’s artistic interest, believing hard work to be more virtuous than creative activities. 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 Lassie, are 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. 

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 McGregor and William Darling McKay, set powerful precedents for the emerging Glasgow School.

Arthur Melville, A Cabbage Garden 1877

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 September 1878 Melville registered at the Académie Julian, and was deemed a very diligent student and particularly skilled at making studies from life. In 1879 he painted at the artists’ colony at Grez-sur-Loing to the south of Paris. Already celebrated in the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson, the village was no more than ‘a cluster of houses’ lining the river, with ‘an old bridge, an old castle … and a quaint old church’. Here, Melville encountered Frank O’Meara and a group of plein air (artists who paint outside directly from nature) Naturalist painters who were followers of Jules Bastien-Lepage (1882).

The Eastern Journey

Francis Frith,The Great Pyramid and the Sphinx 1857

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. He made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Pyramids of Giza in May when he spent a week helping Egyptologist Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) to measure the ancient structures, and he also made sketches. When he returned to Cairo, he was just as fascinated by what he saw of the Citadel, bazaars, narrow streets, fruit stalls, carpet sellers and coffee houses as he had been with the ancient Pyramids.

Despite the difficulties of working in the heat, which he reportedly found ‘absolutely suffocating’, the majority of his Cairo pictures are external street views. It was these crowded lanes and alleys that captivated Melville, offering the chance to record dazzling light. He made sketches of what he observed, and would later work these up into finished paintings such as An Arab Interior (1881), a comparatively rare indoor scene. Rich with detail, he carefully picked out the particulars of the smoking and drinking paraphernalia, and the effect of light filtering in through the lattice screens. 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. 

Arthur Melville, An Arab Interior 1881
Arthur Melville, Baghdad 1883
Arthur Melville, Waiting for the Sultan Dated 1891

Although he claimed to have been disappointed by Baghdad, he remained there for six weeks working feverishly, and reporting in a letter to his brother that he had sixty ‘big sketches’ in hand. 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. Its crisp delineation would tend to confirm this. The riders watering their horses carry what appear to be long Arab rifles known as ‘jezails’, while an Arab man on the right of the group teases a goose or swan with a stick.

From Baghdad he travelled overland to Constantinople, 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.

Scotland and Modernity

Arthur Melville, Audrey and her Goats Tate. Available under a CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence
James Guthrie, In the Orchard 1886

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, although his admiration for Bastien-Lepage was considerably less than theirs. 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 (Tate), while Guthrie began In the Orchard (NG 2866) alongside Walton who was sketching and planning A Daydream (1885).

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, probably to stay with the Clouston family who were solid patrons throughout the decade. 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.

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'.

Arthur Melville, A Street Scene in Paris, a Wet Sunday Afternoon 1889
Arthur Melville Dancers at the Moulin Rouge 1889

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 Swan and William Quiller Orchardson, with whom he shared the honours on the hanging committee of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1890.

This exhibition, thanks to his efforts more than any other, launched the Glasgow Boys as an international force in the art world. They were immediately commandeered for the forthcoming ‘Glaspalast’ exhibition in Munich and thereafter appeared as a group in exhibitions in Europe, Russia and North America. Despite Melville’s growing international reputation, regular visits to Scotland continued as he remained in touch with his patrons. 

Travels in the 1890's

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 where he copied Velazquez’ Aesop (1639–1641) and El Primo (1636 – 1638) at the Prado Museum. It was a route that he retraced the following year and one that would become familiar in subsequent years.

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 (1892), a view of the harbour from high above the rooftops.

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. 

Arthur Melville, The Sapphire Sea 1892

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 (1898). 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.

Arthur Melville, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid Dated 1898
Arthur Melville, Eastern Scene Date Unknown

The Late Oils

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 impressive landscapes such as The Chalk Cutting (1898). 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.

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’ (Aberdeen Journal, 2 February 1905). This painting was the most advanced of the four and only one other, Christmas Morning (Aberdeen Art Gallery) has survived. Quite why Melville chose to devote himself to this unfamiliar territory remains a mystery.

Arthur Melville, Christmas Eve: 'And there was no room for them in the inn',, 1900-1904

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.

Arthur Melville, The Chalk Cutting, 1898

Lachlan Goudie on Arthur Melville


Arthur Melville (1855-1904) was the most radical and exciting Scottish artist of his generation and one of the finest British watercolour painters of the 19th century. His bold, dramatic compositions, and ability to evoke colour and light with the brilliance of stained glass, mark him out as a painter of outstanding talent and originality. In this video, BBC Presenter Lachlan Goudie discusses his love for the art of Melville, and the artist's unique watercolour technique.