I’m ready to shed the layers of toasty clothes I’ve been lugging around every day for some new spring duds. Scanning the environment for possibilities, I recalled a striking collection of textile designs I came across a few years ago. If only my warm-weather wardrobe could feature the artistic talents of William Ashton!
Riffling through the handwritten notebooks that topped my work area at Miami University’s Walter Havighurst Special Collections in October 2008, I deduced that the subject of my manuscript processing project, William Adolphus Ashton, aspired to be a physician. As I organized the notes he took while studying medicine at the Cincinnati Eclectic Medical College from 1851 to 1854, I read the latest ways to treat venereal diseases and how to make expectorants, ointments and linaments. Little did I know that my Mr. Ashton was a prolific designer of textile and wallpaper prints who had traded his paintbrush for a scalpel just a few years before.
I made that discovery when I came across “William Ashton and His Collection of Early American Textiles,” an article from the Spring 1960 issue of American Fabrics written by Edgar A. King, Miami’s librarian from 1922 to 1956 and the namesake of the university’s main library. King imparted that he found these and other items relating to Ashton in a southern Indiana chicken coop.
As I imagined what that henhouse must have been like, I read on. Ashton (1803-1870) was born to a textile-designing family in Ashton-under-Lyne in Lancashire, England, an area known for cotton manufacturing. In 1834, he and six other families left Manchester for Franklin County, Indiana. Two years later, he began working as a traveling salesman for a Cincinnati-based maker of oilcloth and table covers. From 1848 to 1857, Ashton sold made-to-order window shades that often featured painted landscapes for the Great Western Oil Cloth and Window Shade Manufactory in Cincinnati. When Ashton retired from practicing medicine in 1862, he returned to his Butler County, Ohio farm and pursued his interest in horticulture until his death.
The most amazing revelation came on the next page of the article. Ashton had over 2,000 different textile designs to his credit! During a stint working for a Pennsylvania textile factory in the 1840s, Ashton applied the skills he honed as an apprentice to a Lancashire calico printer to create textile designs. His delicate drawings and fabrics created from them had been locked away in a large trunk since his death and stored in that chicken coop.
After King unearthed these items, he housed Ashton’s manuscripts at Miami’s library and transferred the art-related objects to the Miami University Art Museum. So, one day that autumn, I walked over to the museum to see them. What I found there was spectacular!
Ten looseleaf notebooks included mounted drawings and color sketches for fabrics, window shades and wallpapers. Three scrapbooks bound in marbleized paper featured hundreds of samples, some of which were accompanied by Ashton’s marginal notes. As I peeked underneath protective interleaving archival tissue paper, the pages were teeming with stunning paisley motifs, feathery plumes, iconic Greek Revival designs, stylized coral borders, abstract motifs, delicate sprigged floral patterns, striking sunbursts and vibrant plaids. Several were reminiscent of examples of wallpapers from the Biedermeier period I’ve seen, with their rich hues and stylized geometric ornaments. Some were grouped by color, like sumptuous yellows on brown and rich reds on black. Others displayed random representations of Ashton’s talent, executed in deep indigos, vivid greens and brilliant blues. Watercolors of butterflies, flowers and even an angel holding a crown were also tucked inside. You can imagine how I reacted when I turned each page.
Several other items attest to Ashton’s artistic talents. His mahogany drawing box contains his brushes, drawing tools, original water colors and porcelain palette. There are also some of his circa-1829 unused folio sheets of Whatman paper, similar to what was used for the original John James Audubon prints.
In addition to framed portrait photographs of Ashton and his wife, Sarah Heap, the museum also has some of Ashton’s books that he must have relied on in his textile- and wallpaper-designing days. These include The Painter’s and Varnisher’s Pocket Manual: Containing Rules and Instructions in Everything Relating to the Arts of Painting and Varnishing, with Full Instructions for the Processes…To Which Is Added, a Statement of the Diseases and Accidents to which Painters and Varnishers are Peculiarly Liable, with the Simplest and Best Methods of Prevention and Remedy (Knight & Lacey, 1825) and A Practical Treatise on Dyeing and Calico-Printing: Including the Latest Inventions and Improvements; Also a Description of the Origin, Manufacture, Uses and Chemical Properties of the Various Animal, Vegetable and Mineral Substances Employed in These Arts, by Clinton G. Gilroy (Harper & Bros., 1846).
And then there is Ashton’s scriptory. Dated February 13, 1818, the half leather copybook covered with marbleized paper includes decorative flourishes and embellished sayings that 13-year-old Ashton executed to practice his penmanship. The pages are filled not only with “The Beauties of Writing Exemplified in a Variety of Plain and Ornamental Penmanship,” but also with moral reminders on modesty, criticism and the fact that “encouragement is the promoter of ingenious performances.” It truly is a collection of “Select Specimens Calculated to Inspire a True Taste for Penmanship.”
Wasn’t William Ashton something? Thanks to Laura Stewart, collections manager/registrar at the Miami University Art Museum, for sharing these images of his work with me.