painter, illustrator, etcher, art teacher and author, was born in Addlestone, Surrey, England, on 27 January 1851, the first child of Henrietta, née Rossi (born in Florence, married in Italy and said to have been of the Italian nobility), and Thomas Briggs Ashton (1808-1866), a painter, wood engraver and dealer in artists’ supplies from Philadelphia, USA. Soon after Julian’s birth the family moved to Gulval, Penzance, where his two sisters and two brothers (including George Rossi , born 1857) were born. J.R.A.'s earliest known surviving work, House and Garden Pengarye 1863 (National Gallery of Australia [NGA]), was painted in Cornwall. Soon afterwards (c.1864) the family moved to Totnes, Devonshire, where Julian attended the local grammar school. When his father died in 1866 the family moved to London. From c.1866-73 he worked for the Great Eastern Railway Company, Stratford, then for Hart Son Peard and Co., church fitters, London. From 1868/69 to 1871 he studied art according to the South Kensington system at the West London School of Art, then for a short period was at l’Académie Julian, Paris (1874). Six sketchbooks (NGA) include work of his student years: no.1 London c.1871-76; no.2, purchased in Paris, includes the address of an engraving shop in Paris and a drawing dated 5 September 1874, as well as a later sketch dated ’20 February 1875, Chiselhurst’; no.5 portrait notes with London addresses; no.4 begins with scene in Cape Town dated 1878; no.3 begins with Sydney scenes (Sturgess).
In London he worked as a freelance illustrator for various journals, including The British Workman (January 1877), Sunday at Home (1875-76) and Cassell’s Family Magazine (1874, 1877). He exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1873, 1876, 1877, 1878 and 1911, as well as at other London and Dublin venues: the Society of British Artists 1871-1879 (i.e. until after arriving in Melbourne), Royal Hibernian Academy of Art, Dublin 1876-78. Some works were drawings and others probably all watercolours. On 1 August 1876 he married Eliza Ann Pugh at Dalston English Presbyterian Church, Hackney; their son Julian Howard was born at Islington on 9 August 1877; a watercolour portrait of Howard done in England aged nine months (1878) is ill. in The Julian Ashton Book .
Ashton, Eliza and Howard arrived Melbourne on board the Cuzco in June 1878 after J.R.A accepted an offer by David Syme to go to Australia as b/w artist for the monthly Illustrated Australian News (IAN ), Melbourne. Their second son Percival George (Percy) was born in Melbourne in 1879; daughter Bertha (b.1882 at Fitzroy); son Rupert (b.1885), who died of meningitis aged nine (c.1895); and son Arthur Rossi (born 1886) killed in action in WWI. Ashton’s best-known sketches for the IAN depict the Kelly story (issue 273, February 1879), the final scenes of the Kelly Gang at Glenrowan and the trial of Kelly in Melbourne in 1880, published as special supplement on 30 July 1880. His view of Kelly in the dock appeared in IAN on 28 August 1880.
In 1879 Julian Ashton exhibited with the Victorian Academy of Artists (VAA), and again in 1880, 1882 (three paintings and five drawings in the first b/w section) and 1883 (although he had resigned as a member in 1880). He showed work at the 1879-80 Sydney International Exhibition in the Victoria Court and also in the 1880-81 Melbourne International Exhibition, Victorian section.
Ashton’s contract with the IAN ended in October 1880 and his last regular contribution appeared on 9 October, contributing only occasional illustrations thereafter [i.e. he worked only two years on the News ]. In December 1880 he began working on the Australasian Sketcher , a fortnightly also owned by the Melbourne Argus (i.e. Syme) and his first drawing appeared in issue 112, on 4 December. For two years he drew for the Australasian Sketcher , e.g. 'Accident to the Brighton Express’. 'A Sketch at the Ladies’ Gymnasium’ c.1880 (Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, engraved after Ashton, ill. Hansen cat.71) was reproduced in the Australasian Sketcher 16 July 1881, p.232, where he was then working with George. Other images reproduced in the paper include: 'Christmas-tide in England’ (18 December 1880, 344); 'Christmas-tide in Australia’ (18 December 1880, 345); 'Loading wheat for England’ (26 February 1881), frontispiece. He also contributed to the Town and Country Journal as 'J.R.A.’, e.g. 23 December 1882, p.1217 – 'Waiting for Papa coming home for Christmas’. Orara , a poem by Henry Kendall in an 11-page booklet featuring 13 engraved illustrations, each by a different artist and engraver, was published by the Art Union of Victoria in March 1881 and included one by Ashton.
On 4 September 1882 Ashton became a member of the NSW Art Society. Evening Merri Creek , painted October 1882 was, J.R.A. believed, 'the first [oil] landscape painted out of doors in Australia’ (Art Gallery of New South Wales [AGNSW], gift of Howard Ashton 1942). His last regular contribution to AS appeared on 16 December 1882, issue 161 though he continued to contribute on occasion. His mother visited the family in Melbourne in 1883, when Julian painted her portrait (AGNSW) and later that year he joined the staff of The Picturesque Atlas of Australasia and moved to Sydney, where he lived for the remainder of his long life. He soon began painting NSW views; a gouache of Sydney Harbour said to be dated 1882 was sold at Sotheby’s on 25 October 1985 (along with Broken Bay n.d.). He also did Neutral Bay (Fishing in the river) 1883 (Sydney City Council); Mosman’s Bay 1883 (Mitchell Library). Of Ashton’s watercolours executed in and around Sydney, the Sydney Morning Herald of 22 November 1882 noted: “That Mr Ashton has done his work entirely in the open air accounts in a great measure for the fact that nearly all his pictures seem full of light and atmosphere”.
In 1883 Ashton exhibited with the Royal Agricultural Society NSW and with the Art Society of NSW at Sydney Town Hall. In 1883 J.R. Ashton won both the J.P. Russell prize of £10.10s for the best black-and-white drawing of a head and a second prize of 10 guineas for a work exhibited in the Art Society’s Easter Black-and-White Exhibition. In 1884 Ashton was elected to the committee of the Society and that same year had work in the Society’s monochrome exhibition at Royal Arcade, Sydney.
Ashton had one work in the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London, in the Victoria Court: a water-colour drawing: On the Hawkesbury, NSW . He exhibited 10 paintings in the seventh annual exhibition of the Art Society of NSW in 1886 and contributed two sketches to a special presentation book for Lord Carrington, Governor of NSW, at the opening of the same exhibition. His Scene on the Hawkesbury (exhibited in the seventh annual exhibition of the Art Society) was reproduced in the Illustrated Sydney News , 15 May 1886, p.16, and in July that year he was elected President of the Art Society of NSW.
While visiting Townsville, North Queensland for the Picturesque Atlas, Ashton found an acquaintance who owned a stuffed crocodile about six metres long. Ashton had it taken to the bank of the Ross River, where he arranged it in 'a natural position’ and consequently sketched it. The sketch was pinned up on the wall of his bedroom at Queen’s Hotel where staff and guests saw it, leading a local lad to ask how far he had been from the crocodile when he drew it. When he replied, “ten feet” and asked if the animal bit, the enquirer exclaimed: 'My God, I wouldn’t do that for all the tea in China”. From then on, Ashton was pointed out 'as the man who sat and drew a crocodile not ten feet from him’ (Ashton, Now Came Still Evening On , p.42).
Ashton visited West Australia in 1887, landing at Albany where he made many drawings of the town and the wildflowers (again for The Picturesque Atlas ). By mid-August he was in Fremantle, which he described as 'a very picturesque town with its old buildings of stonework masonry built by the convicts’. The Western Mail of 3 September 1887 reported his visit in two separate articles (see Colonial Eye ).
Ashton was president of the New South Wales Society of Artists 1897-98 and 1907-21 and of the Art Society of New South Wales from 1887 to 1892. He then founded his own art school, the Académie Julian, in 1895 (later known as the Sydney Art School and still continuing). As a trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1889-99, he organised the first exhibition of Australian art to be sent overseas (the 1898 Grafton Gallery 'Exhibition of Australian Art in London’ sponsored by Dame Eadith Walker). It included some of his Picturesque Atlas drawings, i.e. Julian R. Ashton, The Society of Artists, Sydney, cat.251, 'Queensland Alligator’, cat.252. 'Carved Whare, King Country, N.Z.’, cat. 253, 'Bulli Pass, N.S.W.’; original drawings for 'The Picturesque Atlas’ of Australasia, lent by the Trustees of Sydney Gallery.
Eliza (Lizzie) Ashton, who had been founding secretary of the Womanhood Suffrage League in 1891, died of a stroke on 14 July 1900. (A journalist, her articles had included one on 'Our girls’ and their status in 'this age of compromise’ in the 1888 Centennial Magazine .) In 1902 J.R.A. married Constance Irene Morley, generally known as Renee (his portrait of her dated 1903 was formerly in the Trout collection). His eyesight began to fail in 1914, the year he visited Percy in the New Hebrides. In 1918 his work was included in the loan exhibition of Australian art at the AGNSW. The following year he painted The Wave while living at Bondi, apparently his final painting. In 1920 he was awarded a retrospective exhibition at the Education Department Gallery in Sydney that he had helped to set up, marking his retirement from the art world. The Julian Ashton Book was published by Art in Australia to accompany the exhibition. The following year he became vice-president of the Society of Artists, which lasted until 1940. He received the first NSW Society of Artists’ medal in 1924, for 'the advancement of Australian art’, and a CBE in 1930. In 1935 the Sydney Art School was renamed the Julian Ashton Art School. In 1938 he was awarded the Sydney sesqui-centenary prize for watercolour painting, the same year as an exhibition, 'Three Generations of Painters’, was held at Farmers Blaxland Gallery.
He celebrated his 90th birthday in 1940, published his autobiography in 1941 and died at Bondi on 27 April 1942.
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