Artist's Biography

Julian Howard Ashton, often referred to as Howard Ashton, was a journalist, writer, and artist. Born in Islington, London on 9 August 1877, Ashton was later to carve out a considerable career in Australia.

Ashton was the eldest child of the artist Julian Rossi Ashton and Eliza Ann, née Pugh. In 1878, the Ashton family moved from London to Melbourne, and then five years later in 1883 they moved to Sydney, where Howard’s father, Julian Rossi Ashton, founded his famous art school, the Julian Ashton Art School, one of Australia’s most important and influential art schools.

Howard Ashton attended the Bondi Public School and Sydney Boys’ High School. He was brought up in a Bohemian home environment, and his interests were music, art and literature.

From 1896 to 1903, Howard attended his father’s art school and while there he met his future wife Mary Ethel Roberts, whom he married in January 1908. Together, they had three sons and one daughter. Their third son, (Julian) Richard Ashton, and his wife Edith Wondreda “Wenda” Ashton, née Smith, were later to take over the running of their grandfather’s art school from 1960.

In 1904, Howard’s first short story was published in the Bulletin, for which he received success and thus began his career as a writer and journalist, for which he became well regarded. Ashton continued to write for “The Bulletin” using the pen name ‘Hassan’. He also drew portraits for the “Sydney Daily Telegraph” in his late teenage years and into early adulthood, as well as contributing to British magazines such as the “Pall Mall Gazette” and “Chambers’s Journal”.

In 1906 Howard Ashton joined the “Sydney Morning Herald” as a junior shipping reporter. In 1908 he moved to Melbourne and became a general reporter for “The Argus” and from about 1910, also wrote for them as a music critic.

In June 1916 Howard returned to Sydney and joined “The Sun”, and by 1922 he was writing seven leaders a week as well as literary, music and art reviews. In 1924 he became editor of “The Sun” and in 1926, after being made an associate editor, he resumed criticism of music, and other arts, and leader-writing, covering everything from sport to politics. He also wrote ‘Nature notes’ for the “Sunday Sun” and “The Guardian” and contributed frequently to “Art in Australia”.

A talented part-time artist, Howard Ashton was unable to paint full-time because of his need to support his family. He was known for his earlier works in pastel and oil that were fresh and poetic interpretations of sea and countryside, and also for his later pieces done in a more formal realistic style.

The paintings that Howard created during his spare time, were occasionally sold through the NSW’s Society of Artists exhibitions where he was a member until 1934.

An aggressive opponent of modernism, which he regarded as “artistic Bolshevism”, he dismissed the 1919 exhibition of experiments in Post-Impressionism by his artist contemporaries Roland Wakelin (1887-1971) and Roy de Maistre (1894-1968) as ‘elaborate and pretentious bosh’. And, later in 1934 he resigned his membership of the Society of Artists, over the election of Roland Wakelin.

In 1938 he won the Sydney sesquicentenary prize for landscape drawings.

After his departure from the Society of Artists, he joined the more conservative Royal Art Society of New South Wales in 1939 and was its president from 1942 to 1945, following in his father’s footsteps, who has also acted as President from 1897 to 1898, and from 1907 to 1921.

Although he strongly disagreed with the award of the 1943 Archibald Prize to William Dobell he kept out of the ensuing court case because he believed “no court of law could bring down judgement on a matter of artistic opinion”.

As well as his interest in art, Ashton was also a musician and was known to entertain many visiting musicians at his Mosman home, and it was from this that in about 1930 it was suggested that the first Sydney String Quartet be formed.

Howard was also a keen amateur entomologist, specializing in cicadas, and later gifted his cicada collection to the Australian Museum.

Ashton’s wife Mary died in December 1945, and shortly after in March 1946, he resigned from “The Sun” in order to devote more time to painting and reading, and to be closer to his family.

Ashton died on 30 April, 1964 aged 86 in NSW. He was cremated, and his ashes placed in a rock near his home. He was survived by a daughter and three sons of whom Cedric Howard is a noted cellist, and Julian Richard an artist and teacher.

Ashton’ art is represented in the State Art Galleries of New South Wales and Victoria, and his portrait by Paul Delprat is held by his family.