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Ashton, Leigh, Sir

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    Full Name: Ashton, Leigh, Sir

    Other Names:

    • Sir Arthur Leigh Bollard Ashton

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1897

    Date Died: 1983

    Place Born: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Place Died: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): Chinese (culture or style), Indian (South Asian), and Pakistani

    Career(s): curators


    Scholar of Chinese art; Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (1945-1955). Ashton was the son of A. J. Ashton, KC, a court recorder in Manchester, England. He graduated from Winchester and Balliol Colleges, Oxford. He served as a lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery in World War I between 1916-1919. Ashton joined the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1922 in the department of Architecture and Sculpture as an assistant Keeper (curator). In 1925 he transferred to the Department of Textiles and again in 1931 to the Department of Ceramics. He was instrumental in the important 1935 Chinese exhibition at the Burlington House. He was promoted to Keeper of Special Collections and Assistant to the Director in 1937. During World War II, Ashton served in the Ministry of Information and later in the British embassy in Ankara, Turkey. He returned to the Victoria and Albert in in 1945 to succeed his director, Eric Maclagan. He and his assistant, Terrence Hodgkin worked to returned the objects to the museum from wartime storage in Wales. The men used the opportunity to organize new displays according to historic periods and styles rather than by material as it had been. His critics accused him of “excessive tastefulness”, but Ashton organized V&A installations around the modern technique of historical time period and style rather than medium, as they had been before the war. The result was a great increase in attendance and interest; so much so that other institutions felt the need to follow suit. Ashton created the Primary Galleries (breaking up curatorial fiefdoms), and mounted the 1946 “Britain Can Make It” exhibition which later became the 1951 “Festival of Britain.” Ashton’s alcoholism continued to debilitate him and by the early 1950s Hodgkinson was for all intents and purpose running the museum. A homosexual, Ashton married the divorcee and Vogue Fashion Editor Madge McHarg Garland (1898-1990) in 1952 in marriage of convenience. Ashton retired at age 58 in 1955 and was succeeded by Trenchard Cox. He divorced in 1962. Ashton’s reputation is that of a promoter of museums for the public, not as a scholar. The Burlington Magazine summarized his career by writing that he “had the good sense to know that his finest talents did not lay in scholarship,” and the London Times stating more bluntly that “he was temperamentally unsympathetic to academic scholarship.

    Selected Bibliography

    and Gray, Basil. Chinese Art. London: Faber and Faber, 1935; An Introduction to the Study of Chinese Sculpture. New York: Scribner’s, 1924; and Codrington, K. de B. and Irwin, John, and Gray, Basil. The Art of India and Pakistan: a Commemorative Catalogue of the Exhibition held at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1947-8. New York: Coward-McCann, 1949.


    “Sir Leigh Ashton.” Burlington Magazine 97, no. 632 (Nov., 1955): 335; Bayley, Stephen. “Vitrol & Ambition: It’s One of the World’s Great Museums [etc.].” The Independent (London), July 28, 2000, p. 1; [obituary:] “Sir Leigh Ashton Postwar Reorganization at the Victoria and Albert Museum.” The Times (London) March 17, 1983, p. 14; Cameron, Julia. “Leigh Ashton.” The Guardian (London), January 6, 2001, p. 22.

    Contributors: Lee Sorensen


    Lee Sorensen. "Ashton, Leigh, Sir." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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