Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir John William (Will) Ashton (1881–1963)

by Katherine Harper

This article was published:

Sir John William (Will) Ashton (1881-1963), artist, was born on 20 September 1881 at Clifton, York, England, son of James Ashton, artist, and his wife Mary Elizabeth Rawlings, née Turnbull. He migrated to Adelaide with his parents and was educated at Prince Alfred College in 1889-97, then did odd jobs in his father's studio and studied drawing part time. He met Hans Heysen, who became a lifelong friend. In 1900 Will left for England to work under the seascapist Julian Olsson at St Ives, Cornwall. He spent the winter of 1902-03 at the Académie Julian, Paris, with E. Phillips Fox, David Davies and Heysen.

In 1904 Ashton had work accepted by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français, Paris, but next year he returned to Adelaide. The sale of 'Boulevard Montparnasse, Paris' for 150 guineas to the National Gallery of South Australia enabled him to marry May Millman (d.1958), one of his students, on 31 January 1906 at Christ Church, North Adelaide. After holding successful exhibitions in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide, in 1908 he won the Wynne prize for landscape. In 1912-14 he painted in Britain, Europe and Egypt. Back in Australia for a year, he felt his prospects were better overseas, and took his family to London in 1915. Prevented by an arthritic condition from joining the Australian Imperial Force, he became a voluntary driver. He advised the South Australian gallery and private collectors, and supported his family by examining for the Royal Drawing Society of which he was a member.

Ashton returned to Sydney in 1917 and next year was commissioned by the Commonwealth government to depict the La Pérouse monument at Botany Bay as a gift to France. He made frequent overseas trips, sometimes with such artists as Lionel Lindsay and Charles Bryant; he returned again and again to Paris. He won the Wynne prize in 1930 and in 1939. Will Ashton had worked mainly in oils from about 1910. He was fascinated by the effects of changing light on white, such as snow, cloud and foam, and his most characteristic works are impressionist seascapes and landscapes. He used a free and vigorous treatment in impasto, while not departing from design and good draftsmanship. Lindsay wrote that Ashton had caught the changing Paris landscape 'with such a fine truth and vision, that you will go far in Europe today to find so able a painter'.

In 1937, hoping that he 'could be of value to the artists here', Ashton became director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and almost immediately had to organize the sesquicentennial exhibition of Australian art. Aware of the gallery's inadequacies, he managed to improve the lighting, but other plans were postponed because of World War II. In 1941 he accompanied an Australian exhibition to the United States of America and inspected galleries there and in Canada. In 1944-47 he was director of David Jones' Art Gallery. A member of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board from 1918, Ashton was chairman in 1953-62. He was a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, London, a vice-president of the Australian Painter-Etchers' Society, and a member of the Society of Artists, Sydney, being awarded its medal in 1944. He was appointed O.B.E. in 1941 and knighted in 1960.

Ashton died of cancer at his home at Mosman on 1 September 1963 and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by three sons of his first marriage and by his second wife Winfreda Isabel Hoggard, née Luxmoore, a widow whom he had married on 6 February 1961. His estate was valued for probate at £25,195. William Dargie's portrait of Ashton was bought by the Commonwealth government.

Select Bibliography

  • The Life and Work of Artist Sir William Ashton (Syd, 1961)
  • Art in Australia, June 1929
  • B.P. Magazine, June 1937
  • R. H. Croll papers (State Library of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Katherine Harper, 'Ashton, Sir John William (Will) (1881–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 15 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


20 September, 1881
York, Yorkshire, England


1 September, 1963 (aged 81)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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