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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Ernest Ashton

Other: E.R. Ashton 
Other: Ernest R. Ashton 
Other: Ernest Russell Ashton 
Pen: Orientalist 
Dates:  1860 - 1951, 11 November
Born:  UK, Middlesex, St Pancras
Died:  UK, Tunbridge Wells
Active:  Global
Member of the Linked Ring Brotherhood. Ashton's Linked Ring pseudonym was the "Orientalist" because he traveled and photographed extensively in the Middle East and India.

Biography of Ernest Russell Ashton
Written by Edward James Gilbert, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada
March 8, 2012
Ernest Russell Ashton was a distinguished art photographer who travelled the world in search of interesting subjects, a campaign he succeeded in, for he left a large portfolio of work that demonstrates his superior artistic and technical abilities in a career that spanned from the last half of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century.
Ernest was born in the first quarter of 1860 at St Pancras, Camden Town, Middlesex. His father was Alfred Ashton, born 1822 at Huntingdonshire, St Ives Cambridgeshire, and worked his entire career as a stockbroker. Ernest's mother was Mary Russell Hyatt, born 1833 at Northampton, Northamptonshire, daughter of Ann S. Hyatt (nee Russell). The 1861 census taken at St Pancras, Middlesex records the family unit consisting of father Alfred, mother Mary and four of their children namely Ernest (b 1860) Agnes M (b 1854) Gertrude A (b 1855) and Jesse M, born 1858. All of the children were born at St Pancras. Also in the household were three domestic servants.
By 1871 the Ashton family had moved to Streatham, Surrey and at that place is recorded in the census of 1871 the family unit consisting of his parents and his sister Jessie. Ernest was away from the family at this time attending school. In 1875 Ernest’s mother passed away.
In the 1881 census taken at #5 Palace Road, Streatham, Ernest had returned to live with his father and three siblings Gertrude, Jessie and Percy. Percy was born at St Pancras, Camden Town in 1864. Gertrude was at this time an art student and both Ernest and Percy were working as tea merchants.
When or under what circumstances Ernest developed an interest in photography is not known to the writer but two things are certain, firstly that he had a skill for the craft he made his career of and secondly that he was a self-taught photographer. Coming from a well-to-do family Ernest did not have a pressing need to earn a living and all of the records pertaining to him indicate he was a man of independent means and "living on own account". His father had made his fortune as a stockbroker and the household always had a complement of servants to take care of the domestic work. This left Ernest free to pursue his interests and devote himself to learning and then perfecting his photographic skills.
By 1891 the Ashton family had relocated to the area of Tunbridge Wells in Kent and the census for that year, taken at Rusthall, New Town, Speldurst finds Alfred Ashton as head of the household, now a retired stock broker, with his children Gertrude Annie, age 36; Jessie Marian, age 33; Ernest Russell, age 31. Also in the household is Alfred’s married daughter, now Agnes Mary Peach , with her husband Edmund Peach, age 38 and their two daughters Mary Russell, age 8, and Muriel Hargrove Peach, age 7. Ernest is not recorded as a photographer but as "living on own means". It was around this time that he came to know and be friends with the well known photographic artist Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901) who had a photographic studio in Tunbridge Wells at the Great Hall Studio and for a time with his partner Nelson K. Cherrill (1813-1886).
By 1890, if not earlier Ernest Ashton began to travel and it is known that he was in the middle east by the existence of a photograph by him entitled 'An Arab Household'. This photograph was entered into a photographic competition by Ernest and was a prize winning photograph in the 'Portraiture and Figure Studies' category of the 'Amateur Photographer Monthly Competition No. 40 dated October 1892. For this photograph Ernest Ashton was awarded the bronze medal and he was also awarded a silver medal in the 'Holiday Tour Competition' for another of his works. In 'The Amateur Photographer Album of Prize Photographers 1893' was given the following "We congratulate him on his double success. He has a penchant for rough-surfaced papers, and has successfully overcome the difficulties which many workers experience in getting good tones, for all his prints are pleasing, warm, sepia colour, which has been not badly reproduced in our collotype illustration".
Ernest Ashton, although not a member of the Royal Photographic Society was a frequent exhibitor at their exhibitions. In 1895 he submitted his largest body of work, consisting of 12 photographs with the following titles; 'In the Slipper Bazaar, Cairo; A Koran School; In Nubia; A Matter of Business; A Cobbler, Upper Egypt; A Public Letter Writer; Consulting the Sheik; A Portico, Cairo; At Keronan; The Guardian of the Mosque; An Eastern Mosque, An Arab Household'. In the 1896 exhibition he submitted one photograph entitled 'The Hour of Prayer'. In 1897 he submitted the photograph 'A Portico, Cairo' which was perhaps the same photograph bearing the same title he exhibited in 1895. At the 1898 exhibition he submitted 'Above the Nile Flood' and at the last exhibition he entered in 1908 'Picturesque India'. The address given by Ernest Ashton for all of the photographs from 1895 to 1908 was Camden Park, Tunbridge Wells.
In 1896 Ernest submitted photographs to the Edinburgh Photographic Society Open Exhibition. The March 1896 edition of the 'Transactions of the Edinburgh Photographic Society' records that Ernest received a bronze medal under the 'Section 1 Open to all' category.
In 1897 the Eastman Kodak of America in conjunction with the Eastman Photographic Materials company in England organized a photographic competition. The event was well advertised and submissions of photographs to it had to be done on Kodak film. The prize money of $3,000 was a great incentive and the event resulted in 25,000 entries. One of those to enter was Ernest Ashton. The judges for the event were the acclaimed British photographers Henry Peach Robinson and Andrew Pringle as well as the British painter George Adolphus Storey. This amateur competition was a great success and the prize winning photographs were exhibited in 1897 at the New Gallery in Regent Street, London. After this exhibition the photographs became part of a travelling exhibition and in 1898 the exhibition was given in New York. Ernest Ashton was one of the winners of this competition and all of the winners photographs were published in a book later.
In 1897 Ernest Ashton was living at Camden Park in Tunbridge Wells and by that time had become a member of the Linked Ring Brotherhood. and around that time made a trip to Australia and lived in the bush taking photographs. With the Linked Ring Ernest was categorized as an "Orientalist" because of his extensive travels in the Middle East and India which formed the bulk of his photographic subjects at that time. The Linked Ring Brotherhood had been formed to assert the primary of the art over technical innovation in photography's professional organizations. Members of this organization considered themselves serious amateurs motivated by artistic forces rather than by financial gain. George Davison (1854-1930) was a British photographer and later a managing director of Kodak and was one of the co-founders of the "Brotherhood". The "Brotherhood" opened their first salon on November 7, 1893 at the Dudley Gallery in London and this organization was comprised of most of the elite photographers of the time including Henry Peach Robinson.
Ernest Ashton was also published in Camera Notes-a photographic journal published by the Camera Club of New York from 1897 to 1903. Ernest's photography may have been influenced by another well known and accomplished photographer Thomas Sims (1825-1910) who lived and worked in Tunbridge Wells for most of his life and died there. It is known at least that Ernest Ashton was greatly impressed by the work of Sims for he wrote an article about him entitled "Memoirs of a photographic pioneer" which was published in BJP June 13, 1930.
In 1901 he was visiting Sussex and is found in the census staying at the Albany Hotel at Holy Trinity where he is recorded as "living on own means". In 1902 Ernest returned to England from one of his many trips to India on board the steamship Massilia which departed from Calcutta and arrived at London on April 2 of that year.
The Evening Post of 1908 published an announcement about Ernest Ashton which talked about a lecture that he had given at the Royal Photographic Society Exhibition. They said "Mr E. R. Ashton said that the idea of the camera as the "evil eye" is widely prevalent in India. The natives, he said, believe that should any accident befall the negative which bears their portrait, a disaster will overtake them shortly afterwards".
Local directories and phone book listings record that Ernest was residing in Tunbridge Wells from 1913 to 1951 at Broadlands #3 Camden Park but he travelled extensively during that time. The best indication of where he travelled is best given by his photographic works a list of which follows;
1911A smoker, Jubbulpore, India
1929Burgos, Spain and also Palma, Majorca
1930Jayce, Yugoslavia and Mostar, Yugoslavia
1932In the Jasmine tower, Agra Fort, India and also The Great Mosque, Damascus
1933Rabat, Morocco
1934Lake of Geneva and Reids Hotel, Madeira as well as A Tropical Sunset, Trinidad, British West Indies, The Market Place, Grenada, West Indies and Cartagena, Columbia
1937Amunsen's airship hanger, Spitzbergen, Norway
1938The Italian Riviera and Young, Norway
1939Trisdan da Cunha
1939Sierre Leone and Simonstown, South Africa

Other countries for which he produced images but for which an exact date is not known by the writer are Portugal, Majorca, Venice, Greece, Cyprus, Poland, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Senegal, Brazil and St. Helena.
In 1935, as reported in the Kilmore Free Press May 23, there was an announcement that Mr E. R. Ashton had donated the sum of 2 pounds to the Kilmore Free Press shilling fund which had been established to provide a memorial photo of King George V for the Kilmore State School. In the same year Ernest was the president of the Tunbridge Wells Photographic Society.
Ernest Russell Ashton passed away in Tunbridge Wells on November 11, 1951. He was living at the time of his death at Broadlands, Camden Park and was 91 years of age. His funeral was held on November 16 and on that day he was buried in the Tunbridge Wells, Cemetery. The will of Ernest stipulated that 31 Victorian oil paintings, formerly owned by his father, were to be donated to the Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery. The gallery was of course delighted to receive the paintings and now form an important part of the galleries exhibits. From January 13 to March 4, 2006 the Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery put on a special exhibit of the Ashton bequest. In announcing the event November 10, 2005 the museum said "The Ashton Bequest was left to the Museum in 1952 by the photographer Ernest Ashton and features the work of a variety of popular artists from the 1850's and 1860's. The collection was put together by his father, who bought the paintings from the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy and other London shows... “. With respect to the photographic works of Ernest Ashton himself the Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery also hold a collection of over 59 photographs with images covering the period of 1930 to 1951 and offer a good selection of views from all the places he visited during that time period. Also in their collection is The E.R. Ashton Cup from the Royal Tunbridge Wells Photographic Society and a transcript article on Thomas Sims and his photographic work.
Both Ernest Ashton and his father left a lasting impression upon the people of Tunbridge Wells and the photographic community at large. His work and generosity are fondly remembered by many and he rightly holds a place of honour in photographic circles.

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Ernest Ashton
(Courtesy of Christian Peterson)

Ernest R. Ashton took up photography in 1887, while living in the Australian bush, and became an adventuresome cameraman. He made most of his images in India and Middle Eastern countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, taking on the pseudonym "Orientalist." Based in Tunbridge Wells, a town southeast of London, he was a neighbor, friend, and protégé of Henry Peach Robinson, the great early artistic photographer.
Ashton was admired for his masterful handling of the harsh, high-contrast lighting conditions where he photographed. He produced landscapes, figure studies, and architectural images (both interior and exterior). His most revered picture was Evening near the Pyramids, an atmospheric image shot at Giza, with an expanse of water in the foreground providing effective reflections. This image appeared in the October 1898 issue of Camera Notes as a rich photogravure and in Antony Guest’s 1907 book Art and the Camera.
Stieglitz probably became aware of Ashton in 1895, when he won an award for his architectural lantern slides in a competition sponsored by the magazine American Amateur Photographer. It seems that few of Ashton’s pictures were exhibited in the United States, but some were included in the Eastman Kodak exhibition in New York in 1898 and the photography section of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. In January 1896, he was elected to membership in the Linked Ring Brotherhood, England’s most artistic group of photographers. Photograms of the Year reproduced his images in 1896-99, 1901, 1905, and 1907, as did the American Annual of Photography in 1901. Ashton exhibited his work from about 1895 through the 1910s, at shows in Amsterdam, Brussels, Florence, Leeds, Paris, and Vienna. He was a regular contributor to the London salon and in 1899 presented a one-person exhibition of his work at the Camera Club of London. His last known photographic activity was as president of the Tunbridge Wells Amateur Photographic Association in 1913. 
Christian A. Peterson Pictorial Photography at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Christian A. Peterson: Privately printed, 2012) 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of Christian Peterson and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 1 June 2013. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
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