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Arthur MELVILLE 1855 - 1904

RSW 1885, ARSA 1886, ARWS 1888, RP 1891, RWS 1899

Biography

Arthur Melville was born into a large family in Angus, but moved as a child to East Lothian. After attending evening classes in art in Edinburgh he enrolled as a full-time student at the RSA School under John Campbell Noble. In 1858 he visited Paris where he met Robert Weir Allan who introduced him to the work of the French Impressionists. He stayed for a while at Grez-sur-Loing where the school of painters known as ‘the Glasgow Boys’ were working and was influenced by the work of Bastien-Lepage.

It was in Grez that he started experimenting with the transparent qualities of watercolour. In the autumn of 1880 he set out for the Middle East visiting Istanbul, Cairo, Baghdad and Karachi, only returning to Scotland in August 1882. During this period his watercolour style developed rapidly and some of his most sparkling watercolours are of Eastern subjects. He continued working on these throughout the 1880s, making tow trips to Paris in 1886 and 1889. In 1884 he worked at COCKBURNSPATH along with HENRY, Guthrie, WALTON and other ‘Glasgow Boys’ and in the summer of 1885 he painted some superb watercolours in Orkney with Guthrie. In 1890 he was drawn again to the southern sun, visiting Spain and Algiers and returning in 1891 and 1892 this time with Frank Brangwyn whose watercolour style he influenced.

In 1894 Melville visited Venice, but although he painted some important watercolours, he found it less interesting than Spain, North Africa and the Middle East. It is possible that Melville was influenced by the English painter, Sargent – whom he met in London, especially in The Music Boat, a nocturnal scene in Venice with Chinese lanterns. Melville was by now living in London and moved in the artistic circle around Graham Robertson. In 1899 Melville married and settled in Surrey: he did not stop travelling, however, working in Spain in 1899, Italy in 1902 and returning to Spain in 1904 where he contracted typhoid, dying shortly after his return to England. During the last six years, Melville had been working largely in oil. Melville is the greatest watercolourist of his period, lifting the medium, as Turner did, onto new planes.

His technique is dazzling; he worked onto wet paper, sponging out superfluous detail and carefully allowing certain areas of colour to run together. Other touches of colour were added as the paper dried, sometimes calculated on glass laid onto the paper before committing himself. But Melville’s watercolours are about more than just technique: he captures the heat and sun of the South, and moments of great drama, such as The Capture of a Spy or a bull fight.

He manages to build up psychological tension within his pictures, which are often painted on a large scale, doubting their impact. As a colourist Melville had few rivals.