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, his scintillating watercolour technique, and his ability to evoke colour and light with the brilliance of stained glass, mark him out as a painter of outstanding talent and originality.
Adventures in Colour, the first retrospective exhibition to be staged by a museum for over 35 years, is a comprehensive survey of Melville's rich and varied career as artist-adventurer, Orientalist, fore-runner of the Glasgow Boys, painter of modern life, and re-interpreter of the landscape of Scotland. It includes over seventy watercolours and oil paintings, drawn from public and private collections.
Image: Arthur Melville, The Sapphire Sea
Long loan in 2011
About the Exhibition
Arthur Melville was born in Loanhead-of-Guthrie, Forfarshire (now Angus) in 1855, the son of a coachman, and brought up in East Lothian. At the age of thirteen he began commuting to Edinburgh for drawing lessons, while working as a grocer’s assistant, eventually studying at the RSA Schools. In 1878 A Cabbage Garden (Scottish National Gallery) was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London and Melville set off for Paris. He spent much of the next two years in France, initially in Paris and later at the artists’ colony of Grez-sur-Loing, where he painted plein air studies of fieldworkers, influenced by the rural naturalism of Jean-Francois Millet.
The Eastern Journey
In early 1881 Melville set out for Egypt, embarking on a journey that was to colour the rest of his career. He spent six months in Cairo, painting the pyramids and the bustling, atmospheric streets and bazaars of the city. After a romantic disappointment, he set off for Karachi, travelling via Aden, then on to Baghdad, where he spent two months. His return journey on horseback across Kurdistan was the stuff of adventure stories – he was attacked by bandits in the desert, robbed and left for dead, and latterly detained on suspicion of espionage. Melville’s travels were to inspire spectacular Orientalist watercolours, such as Awaiting an Audience with a Pasha.
Scotland and Painting Modern Life
On Melville’s return to Scotland in September 1882, he set to work on a series of portrait commissions. His portrait of Evie or a Flower Girl (untraced) was exhibited the following spring and attracted the attention of James Guthrie and his fellow ‘Glasgow Boys’, E.A. Walton and Joseph Crawhall. Melville worked and exhibited alongside the ‘Glasgow Boys’ throughout the next decade – visiting Orkney with Guthrie in 1885 and travelling to the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889 with Guthrie and Walton. He also painted the sporting and leisure activities of his growing circle of Scottish patrons, including tennis matches, golf and skating on Duddingston Loch, as well as Scottish landscapes. In 1893 Melville worked at Brig O’Turk in the Trossachs, painting the autumnal Highland landscape with unprecedented freedom and colour.
Travels in the 1890s
In 1890 Melville discovered Spain – he was to return there repeatedly over the next decade. Melville’s Spanish pictures, in particular, show the radical character of his work – ranging from impressionistic depictions of religious processions to the wondrous intensity of colour shown in The Sapphire Sea. He also visited Venice in 1894 – embracing the city by night – and twice went to Tangier, where he painted the city's clamour and tumult.
From the late 1890s, Melville focused increasingly on painting in oils. Critical response to his paintings at the time were frequently mixed; yet to a modern eye they are the work of a pioneer, a progressive and a master of his medium.