The painter, illustrator and art teacher Julian Ashton (1851–1942) came from London to Melbourne in 1878 to work for the Illustrated Australian News . In 1883 he moved to Sydney to work on the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia , for which he travelled around Australia depicting points of interest. He taught at the Art Society of New South Wales school from 1892 to 1895, and then founded the Sydney Art School, which became the Julian Ashton School in 1935. His students included Ralph Balson, Grace Crowley, William Dobell, Elioth Gruner, J.J. Hilder and Thea Proctor. As a trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1889–99), he proposed that not less than £500 be spent annually on the purchase of Australian works of art. He was also responsible for gaining the government grant that made possible the New South Wales Society of Artists Travelling Scholarship, of which Lambert was the first recipient. Ashton dominated artistic circles in Sydney for over fifty years (ADB).
About 1914 Ashton’s sight began to deteriorate, first with colour blindness and later with a condition which limited his peripheral vision. To entertain him while Lambert painted this portrait, Amy Lambert read aloud from a travel book, while Ashton’s second wife, Constance, knitted. Amy left Sydney before the portrait was completed and Lambert wrote to her on 11 November 1928 that he had spent a good afternoon’s work on Ashton’s clothes. ‘He is very sympathetic and encouraging. Mrs Ashton found tea & such and when the Old Man was tired of talking she read the [H.M.] Tomlinson book at high speed’ (ML MSS 97/10, p.654).
When Lambert painted this portrait Ashton was seventy-seven. Lambert showed him with his white hair and military-type moustache, dressed in a grey suit and a dapper bow-tie, cigar in hand, sitting beside a table with a mass of objects. The cigar and wine suggest ‘good living’, and the flowers and fruit may have referred to Ashton’s role as a gardener. Behind him there is a deep red curtain draped over a gold picture frame, behind which there is a blue curtain, creating an abstract arrangement of bold colours, with the frame suggesting Ashton’s role as an artist, teacher and patron.
It may not be coincidence that Lambert portrayed Ashton in a pose that resembles that of Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X c.1650 (Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome), with an opulent, papal red curtain behind him. Was he making a quiet joke about the role of his old teacher in the art world of Sydney?
The portrait was not a commission but a showpiece painted for the Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It was considered by the Gallery trustees to transcend portraiture because it included so much still life. However, on the recommendation of trustees B.J. Waterhouse and Lister Lister, they bought Lambert’s Julian Ashton for 500 guineas.