Passion and intrigue of an Eastern love affair

Arthur Melville's watercolours reflect a mystic journey of discovery. Iain Gale reassesses the work of a man ahead of his time

He was the supreme watercolourist of his time - a master of the medium, specialising in the sort of anecdotal scenes of Oriental and Mediterranean life that delighted the prurient tastes of the Victorian middle classes. That there was much more, however, to the art of the Scottish painter Arthur Melville is revealed by a new exhibition in Edinburgh.

Certainly, Melville was an accomplished Orientalist painter in the mould of JF Lewis, Roberts and Wilkie. After training in Edinburgh and Paris during the 1870s, he travelled to Egypt in 1880 and spent the following two years journeying around the Middle East and Persia, returning home in 1882 by way of Constantinople.

It was a colourful journey - a melodrama of romance and intrigue recorded by Melville in a diary which contains descriptions of a tortured first love affair, armed robbery by desert bandits and his being held captive at the court of a Persian pasha. More importantly, though, the trip provided Melville with the rich fund of on-the-spot sketches which would form the basis for most of his works over the next 20 years.

At first sight it is easy to mistake Melville's loose style for a derivative of Impressionism - he is often dubbed a "Scottish impressionist". In truth, although his inspiration was in part French, it was drawn not from Monet, Sisley and their fellow rebels but from rather more prosaic French and Dutch Realist painters, such as Bastien-Lepage, Mauve, Israels and other Hague artists. His interest in their twilit, pastoral idylls was shared by the "Glasgow Boys" - that group of fellow Scots which included Guthrie, Crawhall, Lavery, Henry and Hornel. Although he is often grouped with the "Boys", Melville was never entirely at home with their prevalent brand of cosy rural realism.

With his distinctive technique of painting wet-in-wet and idiosyncratic subject matter, by the peak of his career as a watercolourist in the late 1880s he was working in a style entirely his own. It is difficult to think of another watercolour of the Victorian era that would rival the jewel- like qualities of Melville's Awaiting an Audience with the Pasha, or the simple proto-abstract power of his A Moorish Procession, Tangier, painted in 1893. In the latter work Melville shows himself a paragon of artistic brevity. In his finest watercolours he is able to convey the mood of an Eastern street market, a Highland autumn or a Spanish bull-ring with no more than a few strokes of subtle tonal wash. With Melville, less is definitely more.

But while this revelatory exhibition might encourage us to review his position as a watercolourist in the art history books, it also suggests that Melville's true importance lies elsewhere. In 1900, as he approached his 45th birthday, Melville began work on a gigantic rendition of The Return from the Cross. It was a curious subject for a man popularly identified with the life of the bazaar and the souk. Stranger still, it was painted in oils. The Return from the Cross was to be the centrepiece of a series of five paintings based on the stories of the Nativity and the Crucifixion. While by no means his first excursions in oil paint, they did represent a distinct change of direction, away from the everyday towards a more resonant, universal iconography.

The tendency had been hinted at in Melville's influential 1884 painting Audrey and Her Goats (now in the Tate) and in a painting made in 1892, The White Piano, a large, Whistlerian oil that on closer inspection reveals, in its form and composition, more than a passing interest in the work of those French painters of the late 1880s - principally Denis, Serusier, Valloton, Vuillard and Bonnard - who christened themselves the Nabis, or prophets. It is possible to detect in Melville's 1900 religious series a similar spiritual impetus to that evident in the work of the French artists - in particular that of Denis, himself a subject of an exhibition last year in Liverpool. It is tragic and frustrating that only four years after having begun these paintings, Melville should have died of typhoid caught on a trip to Spain.

Melville was a man ahead of his time - an unsuspected precursor of modernism, anticipating the achievement of Kandinsky and the German Expressionists. Although moderately successful during his lifetime, he has never been fully appreciated or understood. The reasons for his neglect are simple. Melville died on the verge of achieving his artistic prime. An essentially modest man, he lacked the flamboyance to ensure his own immortality. He did not take mistresses, run off to the South Seas or cut off his own ear. Similarly, while his work was imbued with the spirit of the coming age, it was not sufficiently blatant to attract the critical champion who would have been his passport to posterity. Consistently, the critics simply missed the point.

n 'Arthur Melville' is at Bourne Fine Art, 6 Dundas Street, Edinburgh (0131-557 4050) to 31 Aug, then at the Fine Art Society in London from 9 Sept to 11 Oct

n 'Arthur Melville' by Iain Gale, Atelier Books, pounds 20

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