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An introduction to the paintings and watercolours by Julian Rossi Ashton at the National Gallery of Victoria


The artist should preach the beautiful in our commonplace and everyday existence. 

– Julian Ashton, ‘An Aim for Australian Art’ (1888) 

 

The National Gallery of Victoria has in its collection a number of paintings by Julian Rossi Ashton. Born in England in 1851, and trained as an artist and illustrator, Ashton arrived in Melbourne in June 1878 to take up a position as a black-and-white artist for the prestigious journal Illustrated Australian News, bringing with him a number of paintings he had made in England.1See J. Ashton, Now came still evening on, Sydney, 1941, p. 22; for a biography of Julian Rossi Ashton, see N. Sturgess, timeline in Towards a Catalogue Raisonne: Julian Rossi Ashton, MA thesis, Monash University, Melbourne, 1997, p. 4. Some of these have since found their way into the Gallery collection. 

The watercolour Interior of a studio, 1873, although not the first work by Julian Ashton to enter the collection, is a signifier not only of his oeuvre in the early 1870s but also of his future as an important artist (fig. 1). The watercolour, signed JULIAN R ASHTON and dated April 1873, was probably made soon after the conclusion of Ashton’s studies at the West London School of Art and before he went to Paris in 1874.2See Sturgess, timeline, p. 3. A combination of traditional academic practices and a highly personal interpretation of his subject is obvious in this portrayal of an artist’s workroom. Lit realistically, from the right, the scene is painted with a warm, restricted palette enlivened by the glow from the fire and the cream and green of the majolica. 

The use of the watercolour medium, the balance of colour, the choice of subject matter and the attention to detail reflect the academic influences that helped to form Ashton’s career. However, in the past, the artist’s studio had been portrayed as an ‘inhabited’ workplace, as, for example, in Rembrandt’s studio with artists drawing from a model.3See P. Chapman, Rembrandt’s Self Portraits, Princeton, 1990, pl. 118. By the nineteenth century, depictions of the studio – works such as Henri Fantin-Latour’s A studio in the Batignolles quarter, 1870,4See N. Broude, World Impressionism 1860–1920, New York, 1990, fig. 21. and Frédéric Bazille’s The artist’s studio, 18705ibid., fig. 22. (both Musée d’Orsay, Paris) – had become documents not only of the contents of the studio but also of models, friends and colleagues. The studies seen on the wall of Ashton’s studio were specific to his painting interests and herald his future as a skilful portrait painter who was capable of great versatility in depicting the human form, as a genre artist, and as a lover of the landscape. In Interior of a studio, Ashton has not only broken with past practices but also differs from contemporary approaches. His studio, in its realist depiction, reveals the solitariness involved in the development of artistic talent, and the dedication necessary to the process. 

Interior of a studio is an important watercolour in Ashton’s oeuvre, displaying considerable empathy for the medium in which the artist’s most evocative images would later be created – and which is well represented in the Gallery’s collection. Ashton’s talent as a watercolourist was quickly recognised by James Smith, the art critic for the Argus, who, in 1879, on the occasion of Ashton’s first showing with the Victorian Academy of Arts in Melbourne, forecast a brilliant future for the young artist – in watercolour rather than in oil.6J. Smith, Argus, 12 April 1879, p. 9: ‘That it is as a painter in watercolours that he [Ashton] is most likely to excel for the quality of each is much superior to that of the pretentious but unsatisfactory oil painting entitled A chip off the old block‘. Ashton exhibited both oils and watercolours in the Victorian Academy of Arts exhibition. 

On the reverse of Interior of a studio is a line drawing depicting a young woman seated at a window. Until now there has not seemed to be any direct relationship between this drawing and other aspects of the artist’s oeuvre. However, upon investigation, we find that the line drawing is a première pensée for an engraved illustration, signed by Ashton, that appeared in Orara, a narrative poem by Henry Kendall published by the Art Union of Victoria in 1881. This book consisted of eleven pages of verse, with thirteen illustrations, each by a different artist and engraver. Ashton illustrated the following lines: 

saw at a leafy window, one who sat 

in all the glory of her golden hair 

with sweet blue eyes that strained towards the wave 

to watch for him whose step in northern zones 

on northern lawns was never heard again.7Other illustrators involved in the production of Orara were J. W. Curtis, Henry Rutly, T. W. Curtis, John Gully, W. Ford, T. W. Roberts, C. D. Richardson, Malcolm Campbell, Eliza Parsons and Chester Earles; the images were engraved by F. A. Appleton, S. Calvert, E. Morgan, R. Bruce, C. Chambers and W. W. Pett. 

Our identification of Ashton’s drawing as the basis for the 1881 engraving means that the watercolour was then still in his possession. 

The Gallery collection also includes two small oils, dated 1876 and possibly part of a genre series painted in England in that year. Acquired in 1941 and 1947 respectively, The swing (fig. 2) and A quiet cup of tea (fig. 3) are outdoor scenes, painted contre-jour with a similar tonal palette, and both display Ashton’s response to changing artistic practices. The paintings are intimate studies of young women at leisure and are indicative of their position in society. Each work reflects the contemporary practice initiated by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who had painted young women in contemplative mood from the 1860s.8See Sturgess, p. 45. 

   

The swing shows a change in sensibilities from earlier, more sensuous, portrayals in which a young woman is the centre of attention as she is swung high by attendant males. A celebrated example of a depiction of this kind is Jean Honoré Fragonard’s The swing, 1767, in the Wallace Collection, London. Ashton, by contrast, has portrayed a young woman in a contemplative mood, ignoring the presence of the artist.9It is possible that Eliza Pugh, whom Ashton married on 1 August 1876, was his model. Ashton’s competent use of academic techniques, such as glazes for the flesh and the realistic description of the costume fabric, also points towards the later development of his skill in portrait painting. However, the background is an impression only, being thinly painted to give the idea of distant landscape. This treatment was in the manner of the French juste milieu painter Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884), who altered the consistency of his paint, and its application, in order to achieve not only perspective but also the effect of plein air painting.10See Sturgess, p. 44; for Bastien-Lepage’s landscape picture Seasonal October: the potato gatherers, 1878, at the National Gallery of Victoria, see S. Dean, European paintings of the 19th and early 20th centuries in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1995, pp. 21–2, repr. In 1874, while a student at the Académie Julian in Paris, Ashton would have had the opportunity to see Bastien-Lepage’s work. 

The leafy bower in which Ashton’s two young women are enjoying their quiet cup of tea has also been treated informally. The women are surrounded by unidentifiable bushes. The subject matter in this painting was not one that was removed from the artist’s experience, and this is therefore a truthful representation, belonging, like The swing, primarily within the realist tradition. 

Both The swing and A quiet cup of tea were used in Melbourne as the bases for engravings for the illustrated press. A quiet cup of tea served as Ashton’s formal introduction to the readers of the Illustrated Australian News, on 3 October 1878.11Illustrated Australian News, no. 268, 3 October 1878, pp. 1 (repr.), 170 (text). However, in the engraving the vegetation seen in the oil had been altered from English type to identifiable exotic trees and shrubs that Ashton would have seen in the Botanic Gardens in Melbourne.12The Botanic Gardens had been developed in 1857 by Ferdinand von Mueller, then in c.1873 reworked into the present gardenesque style (see R. Pescott, The Royal Botanic Gardens: A History from 1845–1976, Melbourne, 1982). The plants depicted by Ashton are Jubea chilensis, Cortaderia sellonana, Araucaria heterophylla and an Australian eucalypt (see E. Lord, Shrubs and Trees for Australian Gardens, Melbourne, 1967). The rustic-type furniture depicted in the engraving replaced the elegant English-style polished furniture in the painting, reinforcing the idea of the subject’s being set in the ‘Antipodes’. The swing was used later by Ashton as a theme in the illustration Boxing Day – a sketch in the survey paddock, which appeared in the Australasian Sketcher in January 1881 and which shows a series of young women on swings being attended by their partners in the Australian bush.13Australasian Sketcher, vol. IX, 8 January 1881, p. 1. Ashton worked on the Illustrated Australian News from October 1878 to October 1880 and on the Australasian Sketcher from December 1880 to December 1882 (see Sturgess, timeline, pp. 5–7). 

Ashton moved to Sydney in 1883, to take up a position as one of five principal artists on the staff of the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia.14A. Garran, Picturesque Atlas of Australasia, Melbourne, 1886. The Atlas was published to celebrate the centenary of the European occupation of Australia (see Sturgess, pp. 28–33). Soon after settling in Sydney, the artist began painting in the Hawkesbury River area, and was able to fully develop the plein air style that he had begun in Melbourne with the oil Evening, Merri Creek (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney) in 1882.15Evening, Merri Creek was described by Ashton himself as being the first painting to be completed out of doors in Australia (Julian Ashton, letter to Baldwin Spencer, 1917, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria, MS 1367/1; Ashton, p. 28). Situated relatively close to Sydney, and accessible by both rail and water, the Hawkesbury River had attracted artists from as early as 1840, when Conrad Martens painted The Macdonald River, Wiseman’s Road (Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney). The quiet beauty of the river as it made its way through the rugged Blue Mountains to the sea appealed to Ashton, and he would often camp on the Hawkesbury in the company of other artists such as A. J. Daplyn and Charles Conder,16Daplyn painted at the Hawkesbury in 1884, Conder in 1886 (see Sturgess, timeline, pp. 8–9). later taking students from his art school there. 

The three Hawkesbury River watercolours in the Gallery’s collection depict the evolution of the landscape from a wilderness to the site of safe, domestic enterprises. The afterglow, Foul Weather Reach, Hawkesbury River, New South Wales, signed and dated 1884, epitomises Ashton’s love of the natural world and of the act of painting (fig. 4).17According to the Sydney Morning Herald, this ‘sunset scene on the Hawkesbury River at Foul Weather Reach’ was ‘a real poem in colour’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 27 October 1884, cited in C. Clemente, Australian Watercolours 1802–1926 in the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, The Robert Raynor Publications in Prints and Drawings, no. 4, Melbourne, 1991, no. 27). The corner of the paddock, painted in June 1888, celebrates farming pursuits and the delight of a child in the taming of the land (fig. 5).18See Clemente, no. 28. In 1907 The selector’s daughter, posed as a happy youngster with a bucket under her arm, was portrayed in close focus (fig. 6).19The obvious pencil outline in this watercolour was perhaps due to the artist’s slowly failing eyesight, which caused him to retire from active painting around 1920. 

From 1886 onwards, Ashton was very involved in one of the artists’ camps on Sydney Harbour, at Edwards Beach (Balmoral), a site that was reached by taking the ferry to Mosman and then making one’s way on foot over the peninsula. At Edwards Beach, artists were able to carry on a more informal, bohemian style of living than was possible in the city.20In 1991 this period was re-created in the exhibition Bohemians in the Bush (see Bohemians in the Bush: The Artists’ Camps of Mosman (exh. cat.), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1991). However, no particular school of painting emerged from these camps as it had in Melbourne with the Heidelberg School; the Sydney artists worked en plein air, each painter developing his own style in response to the scene before him, without recourse to a definitive group statement. In June 1895 an important sale was held in Sydney. In this sale, plein air painting was shown by ‘half a dozen of the most progressive artists’, of whom Ashton was one.21The sale was conducted by J. R. Lawson (Jane Clark, discussion with the author, 1993). 

The watercolours Mosman ferry and North Head from Balmoral Beach are both signed and dated 1888 (figs 7 & 8). Both works record and celebrate the artistic life of Sydney at the time, and both reveal Ashton’s superior skill in the watercolour medium. In Mosman ferry he has depicted the departure of the ferry. Five years earlier, he had painted another picture at Mosman, and a comparison between the two works shows the development of a rural area into one of pleasure for the leisured class. In North Head from Balmoral Beach, we see in the distance North Head, marking the entrance to Sydney Harbour, with the Manly ferry puffing its way across the water. The foreground depicts typical foreshore grasses and at the edge of the water are two figures admiring the view. Although the bush is never far from Ashton’s oils and watercolours, he was interested not in the indigenous flora or fauna or the original inhabitants, but in the joys of the natural world and the growth of civilisation – that is, in the contemporary scene. 

Signed and dated J. R. ASHTON / ’95, the oil A Sydney wharf portrays the wharf at Balmoral (fig. 9).22In 1981, this picture was shown in the exhibition Julian Ashton at S. H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney, as ‘(Hot Wind, Sydney Harbour)’. The wharf at Balmoral now forms one side of the Balmoral Baths. A Sydney wharf may have been one of the panels of local scenery that Ashton included in the sale at Lawson’s in June 1895 (see J. Clark, in J. Clark & B. Whitelaw, Golden Summers: Heidelberg and Beyond (exh. cat.), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1985, p. 160). In this painting, Ashton has divided the composition into three horizontal bands and has varied his brushwork. A square-headed brush has been used for the cliffs, sky and land, while the gently breaking waves have been finely textured, the paint applied thinly to show the shallows inshore, and the colour convincingly deepened to represent the change in depth of the water. Also included are people strolling in leisurely fashion along a pier, and a variety of shipping – a sailing vessel, a barge and a yacht – set against the backdrop of a distant bushy headland. The picture contains all the elements to be found in Ashton’s other harbour paintings and therefore is quite representative of his treatment of seascape subjects. 

The first Julian Ashton painting to enter the Melbourne collection was Mist on the creek, an Australian oil acquired through the Felton Bequest in 1925 (fig. 10). Although signed lower right JULIAN ASHTON / N.S.W. AUSTRALIA, the painting is undated. It was executed most probably about 1910, and may have been painted after November 1909, when a watercolour with the same title was exhibited at the Society of Artists exhibition in Sydney. The watercolour was again shown in the Society of Artists exhibition in 1911 and then again in 1920, in the exhibition held at the Education Department, Sydney, on the occasion of Ashton’s retirement from an active painting life. At this time the lender was Ernest Blackwell, and the watercolour was described in the exhibition catalogue as ‘Study for Mist on the Creek’.23Julian Ashton (exh. cat.), Education Department, Sydney, 1920, cat. no. 184, as ‘Study for Mist on the Creek’. 

 

Mist on the creek was a painting of which the artist was particularly proud. In it he has captured most successfully in oil the evocative mood usually found in his watercolours depicting the natural world.24‘A photograph of the artist, taken in situ and showing him painting en plain air, is held at the Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney. The painting was exhibited in 1911 at the Royal Academy, London.25Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy, London, 1911, no. 159. It is possible that the signature was added when the decision to send the oil to England was made, as this appears to be the only painting to include the state of origin in its signature. Ashton often noted the site of a landscape painting in his inscription, but was never as general as ‘N.S.W. Australia’ – information that would appear to indicate an expectation of overseas exposure. 

After stringent training in London, Julian Ashton had developed expertise in oils, watercolour and graphics, and in Australia he set a high standard for local artists to aspire to. Ashton has played a seminal role in the development of Australian art. He studied at a time when traditional art practices were being challenged by realism, naturalism, pleinairism, impressionism and aestheticism, and his oeuvre reflects these concerns. However, his main preoccupation – and one that is clearly evident in the works by him at the National Gallery of Victoria – was to portray the beauty of the contemporary world. 

Nancy Sturgess 

 

Notes

1     See J. Ashton, Now came still evening on, Sydney, 1941, p. 22; for a biography of Julian Rossi Ashton, see N. Sturgess, timeline in Towards a Catalogue Raisonne: Julian Rossi Ashton, MA thesis, Monash University, Melbourne, 1997, p. 4. 

2     See Sturgess, timeline, p. 3. 

3     See P. Chapman, Rembrandt’s Self Portraits, Princeton, 1990, pl. 118. 

4     See N. Broude, World Impressionism 1860–1920, New York, 1990, fig. 21. 

5     ibid., fig. 22. 

6     J. Smith, Argus, 12 April 1879, p. 9: ‘That it is as a painter in watercolours that he [Ashton] is most likely to excel for the quality of each is much superior to that of the pretentious but unsatisfactory oil painting entitled A chip off the old block‘. Ashton exhibited both oils and watercolours in the Victorian Academy of Arts exhibition. 

7     Other illustrators involved in the production of Orara were J. W. Curtis, Henry Rutly, T. W. Curtis, John Gully, W. Ford, T. W. Roberts, C. D. Richardson, Malcolm Campbell, Eliza Parsons and Chester Earles; the images were engraved by F. A. Appleton, S. Calvert, E. Morgan, R. Bruce, C. Chambers and W. W. Pett. 

8     See Sturgess, p. 45. 

9     It is possible that Eliza Pugh, whom Ashton married on 1 August 1876, was his model. 

10     See Sturgess, p. 44; for Bastien-Lepage’s landscape picture Seasonal October: the potato gatherers, 1878, at the National Gallery of Victoria, see S. Dean, European paintings of the 19th and early 20th centuries in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1995, pp. 21–2, repr. 

11     Illustrated Australian News, no. 268, 3 October 1878, pp. 1 (repr.), 170 (text). 

12     The Botanic Gardens had been developed in 1857 by Ferdinand von Mueller, then in c.1873 reworked into the present gardenesque style (see R. Pescott, The Royal Botanic Gardens: A History from 1845–1976, Melbourne, 1982). The plants depicted by Ashton are Jubea chilensis, Cortaderia sellonana, Araucaria heterophylla and an Australian eucalypt (see E. Lord, Shrubs and Trees for Australian Gardens, Melbourne, 1967). 

13     Australasian Sketcher, vol. IX, 8 January 1881, p. 1. Ashton worked on the Illustrated Australian News from October 1878 to October 1880 and on the Australasian Sketcher from December 1880 to December 1882 (see Sturgess, timeline, pp. 5–7). 

14     A. Garran, Picturesque Atlas of Australasia, Melbourne, 1886. The Atlas was published to celebrate the centenary of the European occupation of Australia (see Sturgess, pp. 28–33). 

15     Evening, Merri Creek was described by Ashton himself as being the first painting to be completed out of doors in Australia (Julian Ashton, letter to Baldwin Spencer, 1917, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria, MS 1367/1; Ashton, p. 28). 

16     Daplyn painted at the Hawkesbury in 1884, Conder in 1886 (see Sturgess, timeline, pp. 8–9). 

17     According to the Sydney Morning Herald, this ‘sunset scene on the Hawkesbury River at Foul Weather Reach’ was ‘a real poem in colour’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 27 October 1884, cited in C. Clemente, Australian Watercolours 1802–1926 in the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, The Robert Raynor Publications in Prints and Drawings, no. 4, Melbourne, 1991, no. 27). 

18     See Clemente, no. 28. 

19     The obvious pencil outline in this watercolour was perhaps due to the artist’s slowly failing eyesight, which caused him to retire from active painting around 1920. 

20     In 1991 this period was re-created in the exhibition Bohemians in the Bush (see Bohemians in the Bush: The Artists’ Camps of Mosman (exh. cat.), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1991). 

21     The sale was conducted by J. R. Lawson (Jane Clark, discussion with the author, 1993). 

22     In 1981, this picture was shown in the exhibition Julian Ashton at S. H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney, as ‘(Hot Wind, Sydney Harbour)’. The wharf at Balmoral now forms one side of the Balmoral Baths. A Sydney wharf may have been one of the panels of local scenery that Ashton included in the sale at Lawson’s in June 1895 (see J. Clark, in J. Clark & B. Whitelaw, Golden Summers: Heidelberg and Beyond (exh. cat.), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1985, p. 160). 

23     Julian Ashton (exh. cat.), Education Department, Sydney, 1920, cat. no. 184, as ‘Study for Mist on the Creek’. 

24     ‘A photograph of the artist, taken in situ and showing him painting en plain air, is held at the Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney. 

25     Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy, London, 1911, no. 159. 

[North Head from Balmoral Beach since renamed: View of the North Head, Sydney Harbour.]