By Brian Green
Very few people will have heard of the artist Melton Fisher, and those who have might be forgiven for thinking that some of his work was of the late Victorian ‘chocolate box’ variety. However, a closer look at his exceptionally long career will reveal a very wide range of styles. Fisher was a versatile artist, whose career encompassed contemporary genre, romantic subjects, portraits and examples of British Impressionism, he was a very successful artist commercially; many of his paintings were reproduced as prints.
Melton Fisher, he seldom used his first name, Samuel, grew up in a close-knit artistic Dulwich family, His father was an interior decorator, probably an associate of his neighbour John Crace of the famous interior design business that bore his name. Both lived in Half Moon Lane, Crace at his house named Springfield and the Fisher family, which included four boys and a girl, lived nearby at Union Villa. It was a talented family, three of the sons became artists, two of whom won gold medals and travelling scholarships at the Royal Academy Schools. All four brothers attended Dulwich College. The eldest, Melton Fisher left what was then called the Upper School in 1868 to go to the Lambeth School of Art, located near Vauxhall, and importantly, close to the Doulton pottery factory. In 1876 he was admitted as a student at the Royal Academy Schools. During his five years of study there he gained bonze and silver medals and was awarded a Gold Medal for historical painting and a travelling scholarship worth £200 in 1881.
During his short time at Dulwich College, he was a contemporary of several other later distinguished artists, Stanhope Forbes, Herbert La Thangue and Thomas Goodall. Quite an amazing array considering the role of the school at the time was only 130 boys. All went on to become students at Lambeth School of Art, the guiding light of which was John C L Sparkes (1833-1907) who was simultaneously the art teacher at Dulwich College and seems to have funneled off these talented boys towards a full time art education.
The same talented group of young artists continued their education at the Royal Academy Schools and although Stanhope Forbes and Herbert La Thangue would remain life-long friends, it seems that Melton Fisher remained closer to his artist brothers than his fellow art alumni.
John Sparkes’ contribution to the teaching of art was extraordinary. In addition to his Dulwich duties which he assumed soon after the school was reorganized under the headship of Alfred Carver in 1857 he also was principal of the Lambeth School of Art from 1858-1900 and principal of the Royal College of Art from 1881-1898. He also remained as art teacher at Dulwich until 1881. In 1876, at the request of the governors, Sparkes found time to compile his ‘Descriptive Catalogue of the pictures in the Dulwich College Picture Gallery with autobiographical notes on the painters’.
.It might have been the coincidence of Melton Fisher’s father’s profession as a specialist in interior decoration with Sparkes’ involvement of the Lambeth School of Art with its students designing for the tile and pottery manufacturers, Doulton and Company that initially led to the artist’s departure from Dulwich College to the Lambeth school in 1868 when Melton was only aged 12.
In 1882 the philanthropist and Dulwich resident Francis Peek, who had made his fortune from tea importing, commissioned Melton Fisher to paint the portrait of Alfred Carver, the Master of Dulwich College from 1857-82 which now hangs in the College’s boardroom. Melton Fisher’s connection with Dulwich would remain until the end of his life yet oddly enough he has completely fallen off Dulwich College’s own radar and no mention of him seems to exist on its extensive alumni sites.
When Melton Fisher began his artistic travels, he stayed in Paris and then toured Italy, spending time in Capri. He arrived in Venice in 1883, where he would spend the next ten years, paint everyday life and marry a local girl, Alba Stefani. They had a son, Stefani Fisher who also became an artist and tutor at the Royal Academy Schools. During his sojourn in Venice, Melton Fisher was able to enjoy the company of a colony of English and American expat artists, which included James McNeill Whistler. and John Singer Sargent. While living there he was joined by two of his brothers, Percy and Horace (who was also awarded a Gold Medal and Travelling scholarship at the RA). Both the brothers would later move to live and paint on Capri.
When Melton Fisher returned to England he continued to paint contemporary genre subjects (Clerkenwell Flower Market 1896) as well romantic studies such as Realms of Fancy (1898) which was exhibited at the Tate Gallery. He was invited to join Whistler to exhibit at the Exhibition of International Art in London in 1898. Gradually Melton Fisher extended his style to encompass more fanciful subjects, often including children which were popular subjects for prints.
Although portrait painting remained his main field of work he also turned towards British Impressionism with his flower paintings such as Hydrangeas (c1900). It was a popular style and he stayed with it, for example Pink and Red Roses exhibited at the Royal Academy.in 1929.
Melton Fisher was elected an ARA in 1917 and a RA in 1924. He was also elected Senior Academician in 1935 and represented the Royal Academy on Dulwich College Picture Gallery’s committee. He thus was involved in the decision made in 1937 to build a replica room on the north end of the Dulwich gallery, matching the room at the south end. The gallery shop occupies this room today. The enlargement was completed in the following year and he supervised a successful rehanging of the collection which attracted a 20% increase in visitors.
At the same time as this was taking place, the threat of war with Germany was growing and the advice of the National Gallery was sought on how to protect the collection should war be declared (see Dulwich Society Journal winter 2015 for the full story). The essence of the advice was that art collections should be dispersed around the country. As the Academy’s representative on the Gallery committee, Melton Fisher was asked to identify the most important pictures in the collection for special protection in case war should break out. Following the advice to disperse the pictures, the College’s clerk Mr W Connop had made enquiries and reached agreement that the National Library of Wales, located at Aberystwyth that it would accept the selected pictures
Melton Fisher listed 79 pictures which he considered the most important (and probably what a removal lorry might hold for the journey to Wales) Unfortunately his list does not seemed to have survived but the pictures were duly sent as soon as the government warned the nation’s galleries and museums to set in hand plans they had drawn up to protect their collections. Mr Connop had sensibly obtained permits from the Ministry of Transport for fuel and the specialist removal company, Evan Cook and Company, based in Peckham, drove the selected pictures to Wales.
Tragically Melton Fisher died a few days later, on 5th September 1939, his last duty to Dulwich carried out. He and two of his brothers and their families had moved to join their sister living in Camberley in Surrey towards the end of their lives, so the close-knit family was reunited once more.
In December 1940, at the height of the Blitz and following bomb damage to the gallery, a further 292 pictures were sent for safe keeping to the National Library of Wales.