Early Influences

Photograph from C.R. Ashbee’s journal of R[oger] E[liot] F[ry], E[dward] J[enks], MacEwan and C[harles] R[obert] A[shbee] on a 4 day long trip along the Thames from Abington to Windsor, in June 1886. [CRA/1/2, f.208]
Photograph from C.R. Ashbee’s journal of R[oger] E[liot] F[ry], E[dward] J[enks], MacEwan and C[harles] R[obert] A[shbee] on a 4 day long trip along the Thames from Abington to Windsor, in June 1886. [CRA/1/2, f.208]

Charles Robert Ashbee was born on 17 March 1863 at Spring Grove, in Isleworth. He was the eldest of four children of Henry Spencer Ashbee and Elizabeth Josephine Ashbee (née Lavy). H.S. Ashbee was a successful merchant but is perhaps better known as a collector and cataloguer of erotic books. C.R. Ashbee was born into a relatively wealthy family and in 1865 they moved to 46 Upper Bedford Place, in the increasingly affluent Bloomsbury district of London.

Through friends Ashbee made at King’s College, such as those with Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and Roger Fry, he learnt to accept his own homosexuality, which was still illegal at that time and those who were comfortable discussing it would have been somewhat before their time. Ashbee enjoyed intellectual conversations with Dickinson, while his friendship with Fry enabled him to explore a shared antiquarian interest in church architecture, with regular visits to Cathedrals during which they would both produce sketches.

In May 1885, Dickinson went to work on a co-operative farm called Craig Farm, in Tilford, Surrey, which was run by Harold Cox. This farming experiment failed and Dickinson seems to have found it rather dull but the ideology still seemed to appeal to him. It was through Cox that Dickinson and his friends were introduced to Edward Carpenter, a socialist author and advocate of the simple life. Carpenter had a farm at Millthorpe, near Sheffield, and split his time between market gardening, writing and socialist campaigning. He believed that love between men could break down class barriers. Ashbee met him for the first time on 14 May 1885. Over time the group got to know each other better, attended socialist lectures and discussed such topics as Plato and Walt Whitman. These discussions influenced Ashbee a great deal, as shall be seen throughout this exhibition.

In 1886, having graduated, Ashbee moved to Toynbee Hall in Tower Hamlets, in the East of London. Here, graduates from Oxford and Cambridge lived and worked among the poor, with the intention of bringing about social change and improvement.

Ashbee maintained his friendships, or ‘comradeships’, with his Cambridge friends and Carpenter. He went on sketching trips with Fry, as well as travelling Europe alone and sending him letters and sketches. Ashbee continued reading Ruskin and started to lecture on his writings.