Ashton's Academy of Arts: a typographic bookplate of the fin de siecle PDF Print E-mail

Another great bookplate find in the Alice and Gertrude Cafe Bookshop, Oxford St, Paddington (Sydney)! On my wife's and my visit to this happy hunting ground on 14 July, my eye was drawn to a couple of small, leather-bound octavos from a larger series by John Ruskin. In this case, Munera Pulvis, SIX ESSAYS ON THE ELEMENTS OF POLITICAL ECONOMY, George Allen, Sunnyside, Orpington, Kent, 1886 [new edition, first published c. 1871]; its foliate front endpaper was almost completely occupied by the prize plate from Ashton's Academy of Arts, Adelaide, presented to one Miss Lunn on 19 October 1900 (see illustration).


The typography of the bookplate is typical of the display work seen in almost every book title page of the late Victorian period, when printers seemingly competed to fit as many different and unrelated type faces onto a page. A brief inspection of the example shown here will reveal that each line of type is of a different family, including sans serif, a bold serifed font, a floral (or perhaps florid) decorative style, a line in slab serifs and a large shadowed display face for the word PRIZE.

The Academy was founded in 1896 in Victoria Square, Adelaide, by James Ashton (1859-1935) who was born on the Isle of Man, studied art in York before he gained a scholarship to the National Art Training School, South Kensington, London, married in 1880 and arrived, alone, in Adelaide in 1884. Eventually employed the following year he was able to bring his wife and son, William, to join him. He then established the Norwood Art School in 1886 which marked the first milestone of a long career of teaching and involvement in promotion and administration of art, locally, in Australia and internationally (see portrait). After ten years, he returned to England for further art study, but not before setting up the Academy of Arts; whilst in London he arranged for the Academy to be affiliated with the Royal Drawing Society, thus allowing his students access to the highly saleable London qualification.


Ashton's and the Academy's most famous pupils include his son Sir William Ashton, whose granddaughter somewhat coincidentally lived across the road from us till recently; Sir Hans Heysen; and Ivor Hele. He favoured seascapes, a liking seemingly passed onto his son, whilst his contemporaries commented on his prolific output as well as his adherence to his own style irrespective of the upheavals which had occurred in the art world (W.J. Sowden, 1927, in Francis, 1979):

He has never been tainted with the lunacy of cubism, or allured by extremism in impressionism, but while painting the thing he sees as an artist sees it, he has always broadmindedly recognised merit in other schools of art-interpretation than his own.

Ashton was president of the South Australian Society of Arts in the period 1914-17; he won their prize for seascapes in 1926 and 1929. He is represented in the Art Gallery of South Australia and those of Broken Hill, Bendigo and Port Adelaide. However, he is remembered more as an enthusiastic and effective teacher than as an artist. He retired from his Academy of Arts in 1927, over 30 years after he had founded it.


Allan Sierp, 'James Ashton (1859-1935),' Australian Dictionary of Biography, Online edition

Ivor Francis, 'James Ashton, R.S.A., R.D.S. – was this your life?', Kalori (Royal S.A. Society of Arts), June 1979, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 4-10

Portrait of James Ashton, photograph courtesy of the State Library of South Australia.

Mark J Ferson, Riverview, 19 November 2006