A major exhibition devoted to the unique achievements of one of the most radical and exciting Scottish artists of the 19th century is to open at the Scottish National Gallery this autumn. Arthur Melville: Adventures in Colour will be the first museum survey of the artist’s work for more than 35 years, and will bring together over 70 watercolours and oil paintings, including works that have not been seen in public for more than a century.

Arthur Melville was one of the finest British watercolour painters of the Victorian – and indeed any – era. The audacity and drama of his compositions, his original, highly personal technique, and above all, his ability to evoke colour and light with the brilliance of stained-glass, mark him out as a painter of outstanding talent.

This comprehensive retrospective exhibition will encompass Melville’s extraordinarily rich and varied career, charting his (sometimes hair-raising) adventures in the Middle East, Spain and North Africa; his relationship with ‘Glasgow Boy’ painters such as James Guthrie, Joseph Crawhall and E A Walton; his re-interpretations of the Scottish landscape and his paintings of modern life; his daringly abstracted oil paintings; and the unmatched virtuosity and excitement of his crowd scenes.

Melville’s watercolour technique was so remarkable that critics were compelled to invent a new term for it; the word ‘blottesque’ was coined to describe the way he painted in ‘blots’ and ‘spots’, deploying colour in a manner that anticipated the work of early twentieth-century artists, such as the Fauves.

In person Melville was a vital presence – athletic, intrepid, gregarious and charismatic. His extended travels in 1881-2, which took him to Cairo, Karachi and Baghdad, and then overland to Constantinople, provided source material for his most spectacular watercolours and established his reputation as an artist-adventurer. Ever restless, his exploits in the Middle East were followed by later journeys to Orkney, Paris, Venice, Spain and North Africa, all of which inspired, in different ways, his highly individual art .

Melville was born in 1855 in Loanhead-of-Guthrie, Forfarshire (now Angus), the son of a coachman, and was raised in East Lothian. At the age of 13 he began commuting to Edinburgh for drawing lessons, while working as a grocer’s assistant, eventually studying at the Royal Scottish Academy Schools. A Cabbage Garden (1877), a striking piece of contemporary realism depicting a humble gardener and his daughter, will be an early highlight in the exhibition. In 1878 it was the first painting by Melville to be accepted for show at the Royal Academy in London, and that same summer he set off for Paris. He spent the next two years, mostly, in France, studying in Paris, painting on the Normandy coast and working at the burgeoning artists’ colony of Grez-sur-Loing, where he painted open air studies of fieldworkers such as Paysanne à Grez (1880).

In early 1881 Melville set out for Egypt, embarking on a journey that was to colour the rest of his career. He spent six months in Cairo, including a week with the famous Egyptologist Flinders Petrie painting the Pyramids at Giza. In Cairo he turned his attention to the narrow streets, bazaars, fruit stalls, carpet sellers and coffee houses, which entranced him. Early in 1882, however, a failed love affair prompted his departure for Karachi, travelling via Aden and Muscat, then on to Baghdad, where he spent two months. His return journey on horseback across Kurdistan was to prove perilous. He was detained as a spy by a local Pasha, and his party was twice attacked by bandits. He was robbed and left for dead, naked in the desert, before being rescued by villagers.

Melville finally returned to Britain in the summer of 1882, but the sketches he made on his travels informed his finest work for years to come, inspiring such spectacular watercolours as Awaiting an Audience with the Pasha (c.1883-87), Waiting for the Sultan (1891), and Arabs Returning from a Raid (1888).

At home in Scotland, Melville became friends with Guthrie, Crawhall and Walton. He worked and4 exhibited with the ‘Glasgow Boys’ for the next decade, including trips to Orkney with Guthrie in 1885 and to Paris with Walton and Guthrie for the Exposition Universelle in 1889, where Melville painted his astonishing colour studies of can-can dancers in motion. Like the Glasgow Boys, Melville also found inspiration in painting scenes of modern life. His watercolours reflect the lives of his Scottish patrons and his own passion for sport; he painted tennis matches, golf, and skating on Duddingston Loch. Yet Melville’s treatment of Scottish subjects was not confined to leisure pursuits. In 1893, working at Brig O’Turk in the Trossachs, he depicted the Highland landscape in works such as Autumn, Loch Lomond with a visionary and unprecedented freedom.

In 1890 Melville discovered Spain, a country that he returned to repeatedly over the next decade. His Spanish pictures, in particular, show the radical character of his work, ranging from his impressionistic treatment of massed humanity in The Little Bullfight, ‘Bravo Toro!’ and The Procession of the Corpus Christi, Toledo (1890) to the wondrously intense colour of The Sapphire Sea, which was painted at the tiny Basque port of Passages in 1892. Most remarkable is The Contrabandista, a strikingly abstracted landscape in which the bare contours of the sun-baked terrain are rendered as a series of rhythmic curving brushstrokes, which Melville considered too risky for immediate exhibition.

Melville also visited Venice in 1894, embracing the city by night in works such as The Blue Night, Venice (1897) and The Music Boat, and twice went to Tangier, where he painted the clamour and tumult of a marriage celebration in A Moorish Procession, Tangier (1893); and crowds of pilgrims embarking on a flotilla of small boats in An Eastern Harbour (1894).

Melville’s oils are less well known than his watercolours, but equally radical in character. From the slashing brushwork and glowing reds of his great still life, Scarlet Poppies (1885) to the brilliant decorative patterns of his celebrated portrait The White Piano – which created a sensation when first exhibited in London in 1893 – his output was diverse, his approach invariably innovative. Having single-handedly raised the profile of watercolour painting, Melville was, in the years before his sudden and early death from typhoid in 1904, typically looking for a new way of painting in oils. The complex pattern-making of the luminous The Chalk Cutting and the swirling gestural brushstrokes of Battle Scene, Omdurman may have been too close to abstraction for Melville’s contemporaries; yet to a modern audience they are clearly the work of a pioneer, a progressive and a master of his medium.

Speaking of the exhibition, Michael Clarke, Director of the Scottish National Gallery said, “We are delighted to be showcasing this outstanding Scottish artist whose wonderfully distinctive work demands to be seen by a much wider public.”

The Edinburgh exhibition has been generously sponsored by Aegon. Adrian Grace, Chief Executive Officer of Aegon UK, said, “We’re delighted to be supporting this stunning exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery. Melville was an outstanding artist and his bold and beautiful paintings will undoubtedly capture visitors’ attention. The sponsorship of this exhibition marks the second stage of our new relationship with the National Galleries of Scotland, which we were thrilled to learn had been successful in receiving additional support from Arts & Business Scotland through their New Arts Sponsorship Grant scheme.”

Arts & Business Scotland Chief Executive, David Watt said, “Arts & Business Scotland is delighted to be supporting this landmark exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery through our New Arts Sponsorship Grants scheme. This is the first exhibition devoted entirely to the extraordinary art of Arthur Melville in over 35 years and we’re thrilled to be a part of that.”

A major scholarly catalogue is being published by the National Galleries of Scotland to accompany the exhibition; it features contributions from Kenneth McKonkey, Emeritus Professor of Art History and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Design, the University of Northumbria at Newcastle; and Charlotte Topsfield, Senior Curator of British Drawing at the Scottish National Gallery. 120pp; £18.95 paperback.

Arthur Melville: Adventures in Colour brings together works from private and public collections across the UK, including Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums); Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Tate, London; National Museum Wales, Cardiff; the Fleming-Wyfold foundation, London; and The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham. A number of works from private collections have been lent courtesy of Patrick Bourne & Co and The Fine Art Society, London and Edinburgh.