I am grateful to mary Stratton Ryan for information drawn from the letters of Belle Bowes, a Grez resident and girlfriend of Frank O’meara, who reports that Melville remained in Grez throughout the autumn of 1880, at least until the end of November.
Bright sunlight falls across the terrain in Arthur Melville’s The Chalk Cutting, (no 11), forming pools of colour in the shadows. The narrow gauge rail tracks leading into the man-made defile disappear under trucks loaded with freshly milled stone. The rest is a mirage in which smudges can be read as birds in the foreground and figures in the distance, barely visible in the glare. Where is this dramatic limestone quarry? As the eye scans the landscape abstraction for clues, the questions remain.
Left: The Chalk Cutting. Right: Stable Boy with Fez, Soldiers Seated, Morocco. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
According to Melville’s biographer, Agnes E. Mackay, it was painted in 1898, at a time when Melville was taken up by Walford Graham Robertson, the pupil of Albert Moore and follower of Edward Burne-Jones (Mackay 130; see also Gale 99). A wealthy young ‘Dorian Gray’, he is best known today for his full-length portrait by John Singer Sargent. His reminiscences of Melville, a painter whose ‘… strong, colourful work had been the inspiration, nay, the very origin of what was known as the Glasgow School of Painting’, reveal that Robertson was enthralled (298-99). Yet they were an ill-matched pair: Robertson, eleven years younger than Melville, was effete, while the Scot was a ‘tremendously vital’, ‘breezy’ ‘athletic’ Empire boy whose determination, even in his teens, had been formidable
Left: La Paysanne à Grez. Right: Faggot Gatherers, Grez-Sur-Loing. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
In the early 1870s the youthful Melville regularly walked from East Linton into Edinburgh to attend evening classes in drawing. After his early successes at the Royal Scottish Academy and the Royal Academy in 1875 and 1878 there was no going back. He decamped to Paris and from there to Grez-sur-Loing where he painted studies of peasants (no 1; above left) alongside Middleton Jameson, Bertha Newcombe and Frank O’Meara. At one point Middleton Jameson and Melville painted from the same model holding a sheaf of corn or rushes (McConkey, ‘Les peintres'). However, he found himself attracted to the work of Orientalists such as Alberto Pasini, Mariano Fortuny and Benjamin-Constant, and conceived the idea of a long trek across the Syrian desert to discover the Orient for himself.
First, he returned to Scotland for the summer but was back in Grez by October, and contrary to the belief of his later biographers he appears not to have set off for the middle East until the following spring. Ensconced in Shepherds Hotel in Cairo, surrounded by military and Civil Service types en route to India, the young Melville fell for the daughter of an unidentified colonial administrator, whose family immediately considered him unsuitable. Delayed by illness and fruitless conquest, he finally embarked from Suez in February 1882 for Aden and karachi, following the british Imperial route. Then, travelling up the Persian Gulf he reached basra, and sailed on, up the Tigris and Euphrates to baghdad, where he remained for several weeks, before setting out across the desert to Asia minor, the balkans and Europe, only to reach britain the following year. Along the way he was chased by brigands, and detained by a local Pasha who thought him a spy. Nevertheless he was not deflected from his purpose and at one stage reported that he had completed ‘sixty big sketches’ (Mackay p 49) These watercolours reveal a painter who had come prepared for what he would see and they formed an essential repertoire. Revolt of a Tribe (no 2; immediately below) for instance carries unmistakable echoes of Benjamin Constant and Pasini - one for his themes of captured rebels and the other for the crisp delineation of moorish architecture against cloudless cobalt skies (McConkey, ‘Incongruous Impressions', 82-83).
Left: Revolt of a Tribe. Right: Algiers. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
When he got back Melville dined out on his adventures, and backed them up with pictures. These were sent to London, Edinburgh burgh and Glasgow exhibitions and while one example — The Call to Prayer (unlocated) - was praised for its qualities of tone and colour, W.E. Henley also considered that it lacked the brilliancy of eastern sunlight (346). Thereafter the painter would often revisit these defining experiences of sun-bleached courtyards, draped in colourful Persian carpets, to intensify contrasts of colour and tone. but artistic tendencies in Scotland were very different. Art students were still flocking to Paris to imbibe the Rural Naturalism of Bastien-Lepage. by the time he visited the recently returned John Lavery who was painting The Tennis Party at Cartbank in the summer of 1885, Melville realized that his contemporaries had found their ideal subject matter on their doorstep. He had already become friendly with James Guthrie at Cockburnspath and they travelled to Orkney together.
Left: The Stones of Stennis. Right: Tennis Party, Kilmaron Castle, Fife. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
Physically and mentally he was a long way from the dusty citadels of Cairo and Baghdad when he painted the standing Stones of Stennis (no 5). There were nonetheless, sunny days on which he too adopted the lawn tennis craze at Marcus and Kilmaron Castle (no 7), as he struggled over a large canvas of Audrey and her Goats (Tate). This scene from As You Like It, referred to as ‘my Touchstone’, was the most talked about picture at the Glasgow boys’ inaugural London exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1890 (Billcliffe 103).
Left: The Procession of the Corpus Christi, Toledo. Right: Boy on a Mule. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
Melville would never return to Baghdad, but Spain and morocco where he spent much of the early nineties would provide surrogates. Toledo for instance, where he witnessed The Procession of the Corpus Christi (no 8; above) took him to dazzling canopied streets and steep perspectives. As The Spectator pointed out, the moving crowd, ‘massed humanity’ (18-19), the most difficult thing to paint, was tackled with apparent ease. How did Melville achieve these remarkable effects? Theodore Roussel who married Melville’s widow, told Martin Hardie that the painter would first soak his paper in diluted Chinese White, presumably before stretching. He would then work into this surface, ‘sponging out superfluous detail’. Sometimes, dropping blobs of colour on glass placed on top of the basic composition, he would establish the positions of ‘dominant accents’ (III, 201). These ingenious methods enabled him to perfect the Eastern experience and answer Henley’s criticism with suitable brilliancy. back in Spain in 1892, with Frank Brangwyn, Melville explored the north. They hired a barge, the Santa Maria, and sailed along the Ebro. The Welsh painter was keen to learn from the Scot and he may well have witnessed Melville painting splendid little panels such as Boy on a Mule (no 13) where, with one or two colours the artist could describe a dramatic silhouette. Shape consciousness, separating light from dark, forming a figure from its background, was the by-product of a self-trained sensibility – disciplined yet free.
Another small panel painted on this expedition acted as a sketch for one of Melville’s most ambitious paintings – Contrabandista (no 14). This exceptional canvas suggested itself as the train sped north through the hills of northern Spain to San Sebastian. Brangwyn notes that his companion was fascinated by the ‘long shadows [of] cold blue thrown by poplar trees’ across hills of warm grey that were ‘scored with runnels of winter’s streams’.
…under the long shadows …we could see a goatherd surrounded by flocks of black goats, looking like spots of ink on the sunswept hills: above the swell of a hill a great white cloud hung. There was something dreamlike about this experience. If monet painted a row of poplars, Melville would paint the shadows of poplars that were actually outside the picture. And to the romantic adventurer, fed on the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson, the humble goatherd and his flock became smugglers. [13; see also Mackay 84]
Left: The Rialto, Venice. Right: The Contrabandista. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
At Tangier, where in 1893 he painted the little souk, his genius fed on complexity; his technique, christened ‘blottesque’, matched serene skies and ethereal, stage-flat structures with the bustle of street life. In Tangiers (no 9; see above) bobbing heads and colourful bournous are cast into a kind of musical notation and given a lively visual syncopation. We make up the rest. When shown in London in 1894 it was described as ‘the highest form of impressionism’ (quoted in Mackay 101). by this time no one could doubt Melville’s mastery of the medium. His Rialto (no 10; immediately above) of that year was a dazzling performance. A low viewpoint, also taken by Sargent and Jacques-Emile blanche, gave ample scope in which to set the taut span of the bridge against the free play of reflections. Other impressions include The Boat Yard at San Trovaso, c. 1894 (Kirkcaldy) and the resplendent Blue Night, Venice, 1897 (Tate).
by all accounts around 1900, Melville’s thoughts were increasingly turning from watercolour to oil paint, and from visual reporting to grand biblical narratives - perhaps in rapport with those of Brangwyn. by this stage he had been introduced to Robertson by James Jebusa Shannon and they had, despite their ‘many points of dissimilarity’, become friends. The latter now became Melville’s studio assistant as, in a barn studio near Sandhills in Surrey, he embarked on a series of big pictures – his ‘Christmas Carols’ – of the Nativity and the Crucifixion. The Boy on a Mule became Mary in Christmas Eve: And there was no room for them in the Inn, for the most finished canvas of the group.
Elsewhere in unfinished works there is the sense of someone courting danger. ‘Accidents’, he declared, ‘are the makings of a picture’ (Robertson 308). For him there would be no distraction from the composition of big looming masses and shapes not photographic details, would be declared almost at the expense of legibility. Sadly this project was cruelly interrupted by his death from typhoid in 1904. Perhaps he was impressed by William Yorke MacGregor’s quarry landscapes at the New English Art Club when he painted The Chalk Cutting (MacGregor’s A Rocky Solitude (National Galleries of Scotland) and A Quarry [unlocated] were shown at the NEAC in 1897.). Yet MacGregor lacks his lyricism. No one was better equipped for the limpid pools of shadow than Melville. Little spots of bright light at the periphery act as anchor points, but shadows ‘painted wistfully, with the sense that they hid mysteries…’ were his forte (Wood 286). Nothing could be more daring than this. Faced with the impressive range of his work at the memorial exhibition in 1906, Frank Rinder concluded that the athletic Scot ‘…played for accident’, and was ‘a marvellously skilled player’ (86).
Billcliffe, Roger, et al, Pioneering Painters, The Glasgow Boys. Exhibition catalogue. Glasgow Museums, 2010.
Brangwyn, Frank , ‘Letters from Artists to Artists 1 – Spain’, The Studio 1 (no 1893).
Gale, Iain. Arthur Melville. London: Atelier Books, 1996.
Hardie, Martin. Watercolour Painting in Britain, Vol. 3 (The Victorian Period). London: Batsford, 1968.
Henley, W.E. ‘Current Art’, The Magazine of Art (1883).
MacKay, Agnes Ethel. Arthur Melville, Scottish Impressionist, 1855–1904. London: F. Lewis Publishers, 1951.
McConkey, Kenneth., ‘Incongruous Impressions: Scottish Painters’ Journeys at the Turn of the Twentieth Century’, Journal of the Scottish Society for Art History 14 (2009-10).
McConkey, Kenneth. Lavery and the Glasgow Boys. Exhibition Catalogue. Clandeboye, County Down: The Ava Gallery; Edinburgh: Bourne Fine Art; London: The Fine Art Society, 2013. No. 3.
McConkey, Kenneth. ‘Les peintres britanniques et irlandais à Grez-sur-Loing’, Artistes du Bout du Monde 7 (Automne 2011).
McConkey, Kenneth. Paintings by Arthur Melville. Exhibition Catalogue. Edinburgh: Bourne Fine Art; London: The Fine Art Society, 2013.
Rinder, Frank. ‘London Exhibitions’, The Art Journal (1906): 86.
Robertson, W. Graham. Time Was (1922). London: Hamish Hamilton, 1955.
Wood, T. Martin. ‘The Art of the late Arthur Melville RWS, ARSA’, The Studio, 37 (May 1906): 286.
‘Works of Arthur Melville at the Institute, The’, The Spectator, (13 January 1906): 18-19.
Last modified 4 October 2011