Arthur Melville (1855-1904) was a Scottish artist of enormous technical skill and this exhibition at The National Galleries of Scotland is a wonderful collection of his work in both oils and watercolour and covers a huge variety of styles and subject matter from this innovative artist.
Although Melville was born at Loanhead-of-Guthrie in Angus, and raised in East Linton near Edinburgh, much of his life was spent travelling, and when not travelling he was based mostly here in Edinburgh which makes this really an exhibition of a local artist.
This exhibition starts with a small oil painting “The Cabbage Garden” from 1877 which was the first work he submitted to The Royal Academy summer exhibition, and it was accepted for display. Another early but far larger work in oils on canvas is “Old Enemies” from 1880 depicting a young girl hiding behind her mother as a flock of turkeys get closer to her in the street. The fact that in such a short time Melville had moved to large and very detailed work like this is a statement itself to his rapidly developing abilities as an artist.
There are many other interesting works in oil in this exhibition and the contrast in subject matter and styles is amazing for one artist to produce. Showing what a large contrast in style Melville worked in, we have the highly detailed “An Arab Interior” from 1881 in the same room as “Scarlet Poppies” from 1885 in which the poppies are strewn across a table and painted in an almost impressionist style.
Wonderful as many of these oil paintings are, it is the watercolour work of this artist that personally appeals to me the most – particularly his work done on his journey through the Middle East, with his ability to capture light and use open space so well in many of his compositions. Also obvious in these works is the fact that Arthur Melville is simply a master of water colour techniques and in particular the very difficult to control “wet on wet” style.
It is really difficult to pick a favourite from these “Eastern works”, but a few such as - Awaiting an Audience with the Pasha, and King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid are favourites here. What they all have in common is wonderful light, tone and composition and just enough detail on the individuals to make your eye see what he wants you to see and no more. Wonderful restraint from unnecessary detail but an instinctive understanding of how the human eye views subject matter from a slight distance.
Some of these paintings have an unbelievably delicate touch to them too. Almost as if you expect the watercolour to disappear before your eyes...like someone has captured a mirage in the water of their paint.
There are also some outstanding Scottish watercolours here too such as Autumn Loch Lomond (1893) in which the trees, branches and leaves are almost nothing more than circles of delicate water colour. Also from this period is the almost abstract “Highland Glen”.
Arthur Melville of course, like any successful artist, had to make a very commercial living and this was done painting the houses and pastimes of wealth clients. One such painting on display is “The Lawn Tennis Party At Marcus” from 1889. Interestingly here Melville concentrates more on the people in the background of the picture than the actual lawn tennis match itself.
Another interesting (and easily overlooked) picture is “A Gitina Dancing Girl”. The model is from the Cigarette factory in Seville which is of course famous for its setting for Bizet’s Opera Carmen.
There are also some wonderful fishing port watercolours here and this was a theme that Melville was to return to many times.
The exhibition poster is from Melville’s 1892 Spanish coastal landscape “The Sapphire Sea”. This is a watercolour full of incredibly vibrant colours that pre-dates the intense colours associated with The Fauve painters.
Almost in stark contrast in the room to this picture is the large oil on canvas portrait “The White Piano” from 1897 depicting Mary Jane Margerison, youngest daughter of a wealthy Preston soap manufacturer.
Again, on the adjacent wall to this picture another stark contrast in style and medium of watercolours of Spanish bullfights.
Two of the smallest, but most interesting items in this exhibition are not on the walls, but in the display cases. They are two almost abstract watercolours of MJoulin Rouge dancers from his sketch-book – probably painted as he watched them dance, in pure running wet on wet colour swatches.
Arthur Melville’s work and life were tragically ended way too soon as he died of typhoid at his home in Surrey after contracting Typhoid on a visit to Spain.
If you want to see some amazing work by an influential Scottish artist then this is an exhibition not to miss. If you have even the slightest interest in the techniques of watercolour painting then this is a must not miss exhibition. This is simply a master of the technique at work, and even trying to figure out how he accomplished some of this work is worth the admittance price alone.
Review by Tom King & Lisa Sibbald