Arthur Melville: Adventures in Colour

Scottish National Gallery: Until January 10th

Arthur Melville’s watercolour and oil paintings from Scotland to the Middle East are on display at the Academy, showing off the talent of this nineteenth century Scottish artist.

Watercolour often brings to mind sentimental, gift-card pictures of quaint seaside views or village greens. This is also where the viewer’s mind jumps to on entering this exhibition, as on first sight the gallery is filled with paintings of cabbage patches and village markets. Melville’s lack-lustre realist tendencies to concentrate on the poor countryside folk are seen at once. However, as soon as the artist’s paintings begin to follow his adventurous travels, the exhibition begins to affirm his radical and exciting reputation.

After training in the fine arts at the Royal Scottish Academy and following in the footsteps of en-plein-air painters in France, Melville left for the Middle East in 1881. He spent months at a time in Egypt, Afghanistan, India and Turkey, exploring their very different cultures in his art. His treacherous travels by sea and land, with ensuing attacks by bandits and heart breaking love affairs, encouraged stories of his as a rebellious adventurer, while his watercolours of the desert cities and middle-eastern markets fuelled the obsession with Oriental fashions back home.

The effectiveness of the artist’s choice of medium of watercolour can be seen outright in his sketch of the Great Pyramids, as the transparent quality to the paint suggests the haziness of a landscape when looking through a wall of heat. Furthermore, in multiple scenes of interiors and outdoor markets, textured fabrics and intricate tessellation of windows and mosaics are fascinating in the controlled application of what is generally a fluid, uncontrollable medium. He juxtaposes this detail with a ‘blottesque’ technique, dabbing at the paper with colours that melt across the white page. These aspects alone serve to entrance the viewer, across the paintings of the Middle East, from small sketches to grand exhibition pieces.

In ‘Awaiting an Audience with the Pasha’ of 1883, Melville exhibits most fully his immense skill and virtuosity. The bold colours of blue and red at once suggest his art to be the antithesis of all pastel-prominent watercolours typically known. Defined edges of harsh shadows oppose bleeding colours melting away in the harsh sunlight. The scene is one of everyday life with a great crowd of waiting people, yet the eyes of a woman controlled by a guard’s sword create a sense of urgency and drama.

In the last decade of Melville’s relatively short life the artist travelled again, across Spain and Morocco. However, these paintings seem to have lost some of the vividness created by the intense light of the paintings from further east. Instead, Melville proves his continued radicalism in his mixed media watercolours and in his abstraction of the landscape.

This exhibition clearly proves the brilliance of an under-appreciated medium through Melville’s colour and treatment of light, and in the excitement of his far-flung travels.

Image: Glasgow Life (Autumn, Loch Lomond, 1893)

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