John Melville Biography

John Melville (1902-1986)

John Melville was an English Colourist and Surrealist, possessed with an enormous passion for painting and he pursued a uniquely personal vision. He was a colourist of breadth and charm and painted the marvellous and the fantastic, breaking all stylistic categories, working with his imagination in overdrive.

Melville did not want to be constrained or pigeonholed in his work, and spent most of his life in Birmingham, where he could paint in freedom, away from the hothouse of the London scene. In the late thirties Melville formed a Surrealist Group in Birmingham with his brother, Robert Melville, and Conroy Maddox.

Melville’s work was shown in important surrealist exhibitions of the 1930s and 1940s and his work was represented by leading dealers. Surrealism in England in the 1930’s was art in an apocalyptic form – showing chaos, inhumanity and the terror of war which was hanging over and yet to come. The influence of Cubism is reflected in his work of the forties – Melville also loved the work of Soutine, a magnificent colourist, as well as admiring the German expressionists such as Grosz, Nolde and Beckmann.

Melville was a painter’s painter, a natural colourist of breadth, charm and distinction, and a genuine visionary who refused to compromise
with the art establishment.

He was a painter of figures, portraits, still-life and landscapes in oil and watercolour. He was a member of the Birmingham Group and joined the Surrealist Group in 1938. He was a contributor to the London Bulletin in 1939 and to Arson in 1942. He exhibited first in London at the Wertheim Gallery in 1932, and continued to exhibit in London and throughout the UK. His work is represented in a number of important private and public collections.


  • Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery
  • Leeds Museum and Art Gallery
  • Leicester Arts and Museum