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Robert Melville

Robert Melville was for many years art critic of the New Statesman. His books include Erotic Art of the West and American Naive Painting of the 18th and 19th Centuries.

The Other Half

Robert Melville, 4 July 1985

I knew Kenneth Clark by sight some time before he spoke to me. It was in the late Fifties, I think, at the press view of an exhibition of 20th-century English painting, that words were exchanged. We must have got there very early, because no one else was in the gallery. I was standing in front of a big Pasmore and Clark was coming to look at it. Suddenly I thought: ‘My God, he’s going to speak to me!’ ‘Am I right in thinking you’re Robert Melville?’ he said. ‘My name is Clark.’ ‘Indisputably, Sir Kenneth,’ I answered. I remember the word I used, because as soon as I said it I realised that it was ludicrously inappropriate. And I went on quickly: ‘It’s a fine Pasmore, isn’t it?’ He agreed. Nothing else was said, and we went our separate ways. I found it a pleasing example of his desire to get in touch with the people whilst looking down at us from a great height. We had three or four more meetings of a similar kind, at long intervals. I relied on news of him as a man, rather than as an art historian of unequalled readability, from Sidney and Cynthia Nolan, who went quite frequently to Saltwood Castle.

Edward and Tilly and George

Robert Melville, 15 March 1984

In 1935, Edward James, English and very rich, entered into an agreement to purchase from Salvador Dali his most important works. It was a funny sort of agreement, but it lasted until 1939 and during that period James acquired a large number of Dali’s Surrealist works, including the telephone with a lobster replacing the receiver, two of the sofas which represent Mae West’s lips, and the painting Autumn Cannibalism, depicting two ‘Iberian beings’ eating one another with the help of spoon and fork and, according to the painter, expressing the pathos of civil war. Almost every item James collected would have made an appropriate exhibit in what Dali called Surrealism’s ‘lawsuit against Reality’, but I particularly admired two very small paintings – certainly no bigger than nine by ten inches – which I think of as mirages: the loveliest is Phantom Chariot – a horse-drawn cart is crossing a desert and heading for a distant city; the driver of the cart is also the nearest of the city’s many towers. Some time after André Breton renamed Dali Avida Dollars, James had to sell a big chunk of his collection, to pay the army of peasants he employed to build architectural follies in the Mexican jungle.–

The Last Eleven

Robert Melville, 15 July 1982

When Adrian Stokes introduced Melanie Klein’s psychoanalytic researches into his appreciation of painting the results were sometimes so astonishing that I bought one of her books on child analysis. It was very, very clever, but I never got through it and stayed with Adrian’s extravagantly courageous application of her ideas. He made much use of her terminology in his last half-dozen books, and was particularly impressed by her belief that it is in the first year that the infant has to resolve its ambivalence towards the mother’s breast by discovering that the good breast, the one that feeds and envelops, is the same breast as the bad breast, which does neither. In other words, it seems to me, the child has to discover identity in difference. This is a phrase used with revelatory force in Colour and Form, when Adrian was discussing painters as far apart as Alfred Wallis and Picasso. It was published in 1937, several years before his insights became more difficult to follow under the influence of Kleinian psychoanalysis.

Wood Nymph

Robert Melville, 18 March 1982

It’s not clear why Susan Chitty called at a château in Alsace some time in the Sixties, but it’s evident from her account of the visit that she had not been there before, and that it had unexpected consequences. For one thing, it provoked the initial researches for the present biography, and for another, it led to a handsome windfall, not exactly deserved, for the Jacques Maritain Study Centre. The surprises began when the owner of the château asked her if she had ever heard of an artist named Gwen John. She had indeed, and, like many others, considered her work to be of a more consistently high quality than that of her famous brother. The man at the château had never heard of Augustus, but on hearing that Gwen was highly regarded in England he brought out a portfolio containing no less than a hundred drawings and watercolours which were unmistakably from her hand, some early, others among the very last. He said that they came into his possession through Jacques Maritain, who had spent the last years of his life at the château. They had belonged to his sister-in-law, Véra Oumançoff. They were presents from Gwen and she had accepted them without enthusiasm. It’s doubtful if she actually left them to Maritain. More likely he found them in the cupboard into which yet another would be slipped after a visit from Gwen. Out of sight, out of mind. Thus they mounted into an unheeded memorial to an unwanted love. Maritain was as unresponsive to their quiet intensity as Véra. His pride in having what he called ‘the habit of art’ was in his pocket when he glanced at Gwen’s work. Ms Chitty says that there is a chapter on her in his Carnet de Notes, ‘chiefly concerned to prove that she was never his friend.’

Eros and Hogarth

Robert Melville, 20 August 1981

David Bindman does not think that Hogarth was joking when he gave one of his contemporaries, John Nichols, a comic demonstration of minimalism: it took the form of a diagram composed of three lines and he claimed that it contained his memory of ‘a Sergeant with his pike going into an Ale House, and his Dog following’. It was supposed to be a method he had invented to save him spending time on drawing. Of the three lines, one is vertical and stands for the ale-house door. The other two branch off it, the higher one being the sergeant’s pike, ‘who is gone in’, and the lower one, short and curly, being the dog’s tail. The demonstration is so blatantly simplified by the sergeant and most of his dog having ‘gone in’ that one would want to see the shorthand reminder for an actual painting before finding such a means of recall believable. Bindman would surely have reproduced an example if one were to be found. All the same, he contends that since the few sketches found in Hogarth’s studio rarely connect with his paintings, some system of lines, possibly of the kind recorded by Nichols, must have emerged from his intensive cultivation of visual memory.

Bacon’s Furies

Robert Melville, 2 April 1981

In the preface to his new edition of montaged interviews with Francis Bacon, David Sylvester draws our attention to what has become the last section of the fifth interview. Altogether, there are seven interviews but Sylvester considers the end of the fifth to be the most illuminating passage in the book: ‘I always think of myself not so much as a painter but as a medium for accident and chance … I think perhaps I am unique in that way; and perhaps it’s a vanity to say such a thing. But I don’t think I’m gifted. I just think I’m receptive.’

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