Julian Ashton was an influential portrait and landscape artist, and teacher known for his vigorous support of the Australian Impressionist Heidelberg School to which his authority has been both powerful and extensive.
Well-educated in artistic practices and theory Ashton attended the West London School of Art and the Academie Julian in Paris. It was at these renowned institutions that he became particularly familiar with the contemporary French Realism of the Barbizon School which emphasized and encouraged ‘plein air’ painting; that being direct from nature, as opposed to painting based within a studio. This style of painting contributed greatly to paving the way for the distinctive styles of the Impressionist Movement.
Julian Ashton arrived in Australia in 1878 when he was invited to Melbourne by newspaper owner David Syme to work as an illustrator for the Illustrated Australian News. During his time at this publication he sketched Ned Kelly from life in what has been described to have captured the notorious bushranger’s “air of confidence” later being named the most famous artist to have done so. However, due to creative differences with the editorial staff of this publication Ashton was forced to resign and transfer to the Australasian Sketcher. When Edmund Smith of the Howard Shipping Line offered Ashton a free trip to Sydney in 1883 he began working as an illustrator for The Picturesque Atlas of Australia, and regularly contributed to the Sydney Bulletin Magazine.
Working with both oil paints and watercolours Ashton used landscapes, portraits and figure composition as subjects in his works which were effectively complemented by the artist’s poignant style of precise draughtsmanship and delicate atmospheric effects. His artistic skills proved to help him greatly when teaching at the Art Society of New South Wales from 1892 to 1896 when as a teacher he stressed the importance of accuracy in drawing and was an active campaigner of ‘plein air’ art practices.
The artist’s influence over the Australian art world saw Julian Ashton attracting a wide circle of followers including Charles Conder, Alfred James Daplyn and Albert Henry Fullwood who would often accompany him to work in the picturesque Hawkesbury River Region in New South Wales.
Upon completion of one of his most well-known works, Evening, Merri Creek (1882;Sydney, A.G. NSW) Ashton claimed to have accomplished the first ‘plein air’ landscape in Australia. His work acted as a prime example of an effective display of the unique and sometimes desolate majesty of the Australian landscape.
In 1887 Julian Ashton became President of the Art Society of New South Wales to which he used his position to vigorously campaign for the cause of Australian art. Later, as a trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales he actively defended emerging Australian artists of the Impressionist or Heidelberg School and the Gallery’s decision to keep a collection of these works owes much to Ashton’s influence. The first painting to be purchased by the gallery under his command was Arthur Streeton’s, Still Glides the Stream.
As a trustee he declared that ‘not less than 500 pounds be spent annually on the purchase of Australian Art’. He encouraged Government purchases which eventually made possible the NSW Society of Artists’ Travelling Scholarship and the foundation of the Education Department Gallery in Sydney in 1913. As a result of his influenced ideas of national benefaction Ashton organized the first exhibition of Australian art to be shown overseas helping the artists of the Heidelberg School to be recognized as significant contributors to the international art world.
Ashton established The Sydney Art School in 1896. Later having been renamed as the Julian Ashton Art School. Since its beginning days the prestigious institution has been considered as the centre of activity for many aspiring young artists. With such prominent artists as William Dobell, John Passmore, John Olsen and Brett Whiteley among those who attended, the art school became famous to several generations of students and continues it’s rich heritage in educating art students today.
A highly regarded gentleman of Australian art until his death in 1964 Ashton continued to push for the cause of Australian Art in which his influence is still strongly felt today.