Damien Parer, official photographer, and Julian R. Ashton, official war artist, Port Moresby, 30 July 1942, Reference number: 012933 Damien Parer, official photographer, and Julian R.
Ashton, official war artist, Port Moresby, 30 July 1942

Date of birth: 7 December 1913
Place of birth: St Kilda, Victoria
Date of death: 30 April 2001
Place of death: Sydney, NSW

Julian Richard Ashton was a member of the renowned family who founded the Sydney Art School in 1890 (later the Julian Ashton Art School). During the early 1930s, he studied at the school under his grandfather, Julian Rossi Ashton, and by the outbreak of the Second World War had established himself as an artist with a solid classical art training.

After unsuccessfully applying to the Commonwealth Art Committee for appointment as an official war artist, Ashton enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in December 1941. Early the following year, while a corporal on active service with the Signals Corps in New Guinea, he wrote to the deputy director of National War Memorials: ”I have made full use of my spare time here and have made numerous drawings, watercolours and oils of both the air activity, which is considerable, and the life and surroundings...I would hail with delight the chance of giving my whole time and talents to a job which would be of benefit to future generations.” Soon after, confirmation of Ashton’s appointment as an official war artist was sent via signal to H.Q. New Guinea Force on 25 May 1942 for a period of three months.
It was an ill-fated appointment as Ashton required surgery for appendicitis, received inadequate art supplies and was sent back to Australia to recuperate after contracting Dengue Fever. Furthermore the hasty nature of his appointment resulted in ongoing confusion as to Ashton’s status as a war artist. Ashton and the army had assumed that he was being appointed by the Australian War Memorial as an official war artist. While the Memorial believed he had been appointed as an AIF artist under the Military History Section (MHS). As a result he remained a corporal in the AIF and was not given an honorary commission as an officer, in line with other official war artist appointments.

Richard Ashton, ‘2/3rd Australian Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Sydney’, Reference number: ART23671 Richard Ashton, 2/3rd Australian Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Sydney ART23671

Seconded to the MHS in late 1942 Ashton worked on New Guinea paintings in his Sydney studio. He also proofed illustrations for army annuals, recorded civil defence installations and army anti-air craft crews in and around Sydney while continuing to express a desire to return to New Guinea. The delays in resolving his status and refusal by the MHS to commission him as an officer eventually led to personal antagonism between the artist and John Treloar, then head of the MHS. In April 1943 Ashton withdrew for personal reasons from a MHS group selected to go to New Guinea.

After recording the work of the Water Transport Unit in Sydney, Ashton enrolled in an AIF camouflage and deception course in August 1943. He was reverted to the rank of sapper (draughtsman) at his own request and went on to serve in northern Australia and New Guinea. He continued to work in a private capacity, making a rich visual record of servicemen and locals, especially during the Wewak and Aitape campaigns. In 1975 the Memorial purchased over 160 drawings and oil sketches from Ashton, enhancing his representation within the collection.

Discharged in 1945, Ashton continued to work as an artist. He was employed by the NSW Department of Tourist Activities and Immigration for over 20 years before taking over the directorship of the Julian Ashton Art School in 1961.

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