John Melville was born in London but moved in childhood to Birmingham where he remained until his death. Largely self-taught, Melville towards the end of the 1920s became associated with the Modern Group in Birmingham but by the early-1930s he and his brother, the noted art critic Robert Melville, were also connected with the Surrealists in London. Melville exhibited from the early 1930s at St George’s Gallery, Wertheim Gallery, Royal Society of Birmingham Artists (RBSA) and elsewhere. The Melvilles, along with Conroy Maddox, refused to take part in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London accusing it of showing too many artists they did not consider to be Surrealists. Nevertheless, by the late 1930s and early 1940s John was regularly featured in international shows of Surrealist and Dada art and in 1938 his works were banned from an exhibition in Birmingham by local councillors as being “detrimental to public sensibility”.
Melville’s reputation suffered after the interruption of the war years and a solo exhibition at Hanover Gallery, London in 1951 was both a commercial and critical failure. Although he taught for a time at Birmingham University, Melville retreated into isolation artistically and developed along his own strange path. His son Theo has described his works as having a “frightening quality”, showing “infinite regression, a kind of annihilation” and there being “an apocalyptic element” in his later work. But despite a large retrospective at the R.B.S.A. Galleries in Birmingham in 1967 and a solo show of watercolours and drawings at the University of Birmingham in 1969, he remained a largely neglected painter until his reputation revived with the fiftieth anniversary of the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition. Mayor Gallery then included him in its major survey of British Surrealism, whilst Blond Fine Art had a solo retrospective show in 1986, Gothick Dream Fine Art a memorial exhibition in 1987 and the Westbourne Gallery another in 1996.
Even before this ‘revival’, Melville’s paintings had remained an important part of the Surrealist canon in Britain and had been shown in the Hayward Gallery’s 1978 exhibition ‘Dado and Surrealism Reviewed’ and Galleries 1900-2000 in Paris’s ‘Les Enfants d’Alice: La Peinture Surrealiste 1930-60 en Angleterre’ in 1982. Melville’s work is also held by the Ertegun and Filipacchi Surrealist collection (arguably the best Surrealist collection in the world) and was shown at the Guggenheim Museum in New York’s exhibition “Surrealism: Two Private Eyes” in 1999. His restoration to at least a certain level of prominence was confirmed when the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery held an exhibition in 2001 entitled “Surrealism in Birmingham” to celebrate Birmingham’s contribution to the avant-garde in the 20th Century, which concentrated on Melville, Conroy Maddox and Emmy Bridgewater. Later solo retrospectives include Millinery Gallery 2006.