Sydney Morning Herald (13)
Mr Julian Ashton's Recollections
It is a far cry from a snug rustic cottage home surrounded by flowering shrubs and gardens, and standing on the brink of a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean , to the noisome days of the wildest Australian bushrangers who for two years or more terrorised the country-side and committed the most violent crimes. Yet the 53 intervening years have dealt lightly with Mr Julian Ashton, who saw Ned Kelly brought in to Benalla lockup after his historic revolver duel with Sergeant Steele, manacled and broken, sketched the pale lifeless features of Byrne, Kelly's confederate, a few hours after the historic battle between the outlaws and the police and military, and rushed back to Melbourne with his "copy."
Next week Mr Ashton will celebrate his 83rd birthday, still in possession of a glow of youth about his personality, his keen alert brain, and a remarkably philosophic outlook on life, though tinctured with cynicism.
Mr Ashton is happiest when he is among his cabbage plots, his fruit trees, and with his dogs on the beach sands of Bondi. Over a cup of coffee, in the making of which he confided he had a great pride, he told a "Herald" representative yesterday a first-hand story of the capture of the Kelly gang, and then in his garden conversed on the culture of leeks, salsify, tomatoes, and pumpkins, with the authority of an expert, interspersing a quotation or two from Dryden.
"You get a greater perspective with age." he remarked, "and the longer one lives the more one wonders why. When you are young the horizon is bounded by the nearest hill. As you get older you see hills beyond, and later and later you realise there is no end to them."
It was a fortunate day for Australian art when the late David Syme, one of the hardy pioneers of Australian journalism, invited young Julian Ashton to leave his London studio and join the staff of the Melbourne "Illustrated Australian News." Still in his late twenties he had already exhibited at the Royal Academy , and had done commendable work for the "London Illustrated News," Cassell's, and other leading publications. Soon after landing in Australia his bushranging experiences began. The Kelly gang had ambushed and shot down three policemen, and the colony, as it was then, had been shocked.
"One day I received an urgent call from David Syme to go to Benalla," said Mr Ashton. "It was a cold, grisly, winter's day. Captain Standish, the head of the police, invited me to accompany him, but all he talked about throughout the journey was whist. A platoon of artillery, besides police, had been sent to Glenrowan, and when we reached the little wayside station we heard the popping of guns, and in the semi-darkness could see the forms of the besiegers lurking round the hotel. Then the sky was lit up, and the building became a mass of flames. One of the besiegers had set fire to it, but it seems that three of the fugitives had already paid the penalty. It was early morning, cold and dreary, and was an appropriate setting to the last episode in the great man-hunt. Dan Kelly's remains had been badly burnt, and his features were indistinguishable. Byrne apparently had been dead about eight or nine hours.
The bodies were brought to Benalla, and it was my job to sketch Byrne, in the candle-light, as the body lay in the cell. It was the most miserable assignment I have ever had. In those days, of course, the Press artist did not draw his subject on art paper, and hand it in to the process department. He drew it on a wooden block, and then it had to be sent to the engraver. In the interval, numerous photographers had reached the scene, and they persuaded the police to rest the body against the door of the lock-up. My friend, Lindt, one of the best photographers in Australia, was there, but I was unaware that I was in the picture which he took. Then, 33 years later in 1913- I received the photograph from Lindt, and could hardly recognise myself. Lindt, who was a very clever German, had a deep sense of humour. Accompanying the photograph was a postcard, on which he wrote, 'It was about June 1,1880 , when we met at the Benalla lockup. Sounds well, does it not? And I haven't been in gaol since.' When I returned to Melbourne, Mr Syme told me that it was the first week the 'Illustrated Australian News' had shown a profit!
"I saw Ned Kelly brought in by the police after he had been shot down in his armour by Sergeant Steele. He had a terrible hunted expression on his face. I will remember his shock of red hair and his warm auburn beard. He was tied to the rails of the carriage van, and a policeman guarded him.
"I was sent to sketch him during his trial. After a little while, I noticed his eyes fixed on me. It was a cold day, and he was wearing an overcoat. He took it off, and put it over his head. His action caused a stir in court, and counsel for the defence spoke to him. Turning to the judge counsel complained that somebody in court was sketching the prisoner, and he objected to it. The Judge addressed the reporters and asked that the person who was sketching Kelly should desist. I had got a good outline of him, and I left the court."
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