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Ashby, Alison Marjorie (1901–1987)

by Enid Robertson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Alison Marjorie Ashby (1901-1987), botanical artist and plant collector, was born on 7 February 1901 in North Adelaide, youngest of four children of Edwin Ashby, a land agent from England, and his South Australian-born wife Esther Maria, née Coleman. In 1902 the family moved to Blackwood in the Adelaide foothills and, amid largely uncleared scrub, Edwin Ashby established Wittunga farm. Constrained by shyness and a severe stutter, Alison received most of her education at home. She shared her father’s passion for native plants, and as a child vowed to paint every Australian wildflower. Gaining brief but valuable tuition from the artist Rosa Fiveash, she painted specimens from the surrounding bush in watercolours and on china. Later her activities were restricted by family responsibilities, including caring for her bedridden mother.

From about 1944, after both her parents had died, Ashby began to seek plants further afield. Besides painting, she collected cuttings and seeds for propagation at Wittunga or by fellow members of the South Australian Society for Growing Australian Plants, referring to plants which had never been cultivated before as her grandchildren. She also pressed thousands of specimens for the State herbaria in Perth and Adelaide. Her meticulous annotations demonstrated her powers of observation and knowledge of the flora. Two species--Acacia ashbyae and Solanum ashbyae--were named after her.

In 1957 Ashby transferred her portion of Wittunga to the National Trust of South Australia, of which she had been elected (1956) a founding council member. She wanted the 80-acre (32 ha) reserve, which was named Watiparinga, `re-clothed in Australian trees and shrubs’ for the enjoyment of the public. Assisted by friends from SGAP and other organisations, she made it one of several planting projects. She had progressively lodged her completed watercolours with the South Australian Museum, and in 1958 nine paintings were reproduced as postcards, the beginning of a series that eventually included 240 of her 1500 paintings and led to widespread appreciation of her skills as a botanical artist. She was appointed MBE in 1960, and was awarded the Australian natural history medallion by the Field Naturalists’ Club of Victoria in 1975.

Although suffering from hypothyroidism Miss Ashby travelled widely: every spring from 1963 to 1977 she drove alone to Western Australia, dividing her time between the Geraldton and Albany areas; each summer she went to the Australian Alps. She moved in 1972 from Wittunga to a home unit at Victor Harbor, a short drive from her nephew’s farm, Mount Alma, near Inman Valley. In her eighties and walking with the aid of two sticks, she would work on `Sandy Reserve’, an area of partially cleared scrub on Mount Alma set aside for her plantings, and enjoy the `bush air’, which she believed had special therapeutic powers. She died on 12 August 1987 at Victor Harbor. A lifelong member of the Society of Friends, she was buried with a simple Quaker ceremony in the Inman Valley cemetery. The paintings which she had given to the museum are now held by the State Herbarium, South Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • E. L. Robertson, Alison Ashby’s Wildflowers of Southern Australia (1981)
  • E. L. Robertson, Restoration of Grassy Woodland (1999)
  • Friends of the Botanic Gardens Gazette, Aug-Sept 1991, p 85, Oct-Dec 1991, p 113
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Enid Robertson, 'Ashby, Alison Marjorie (1901–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ashby-alison-marjorie-12151/text21771, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 28 August 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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