John Melville was born in London but moved with his family 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. By the early-1930s he was connected with the Surrealists in London and had acquired a valuable patron in Birmingham in Enoch Lockett. His brother, the noted art critic Robert Melville, was part of the same Surrealist group. However, the Melvilles, along with Conroy Maddox, refused to exhibit at the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London accusing it of showing too many artists they did not consider to be Surrealists. In 1938 some of his works were banned from an exhibition in Birmingham by local councillors as being "detrimental to public sensibility". In 1939 Melville published a series of pieces in the Surrealist publication London Bulletin and from the 1950s taught for a time at Birmingham University.
John Melville had exhibited widely from the 1930s at St George's Gallery, Wertheim Gallery, Royal Birmingham Society of Artists and elsewhere and was featured in international shows of Surrealist and Dada art. For many years after the war, however, he remained a largely neglected painter until his reputation revived with the fiftieth anniversary of the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition. Blond Fine Art had a retrospective show in 1986 and Gothick Dream Fine Art a memorial exhibition in 1987. Melville's work is held by the Ertegun and Filipacchi Surrealist collection (arguably the best Surrealist collection in the world) and thus was shown at the Guggenheim Museum in New York's exhibition 'Surrealism: Two Private Eyes' in 1999. His restoration to 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. The most recent solo exhibition of his works was in February 2006 at London's Millinery Gallery.