ASHTON, Sir Frederick (1904-1988)
Plaque erected in 2016 by English Heritage at 8 Marlborough Street, Chelsea, London SW3 3PS, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
Music and Dance
Sir FREDERICK ASHTON 1904-1988 Choreographer lived here 1959-1984
Sir Frederick Ashton was Britain’s greatest choreographer of ballet. He collaborated extensively with the dancer Dame Margot Fonteyn and was pivotal to the founding of both the Ballet Rambert and the Royal Ballet. He is commemorated with a blue plaque at his former home at 8 Marlborough Street in Chelsea, where he lived from 1959 until 1984.
BRIGHT YOUNG THING
Frederick William Mallandaine Ashton was born in Ecuador to English parents and grew up in Lima, Peru, where he saw a production featuring the ballet dancer Anna Pavlova in 1917. Her performance inspired him to make dancing his life – ‘She injected me with her poison’, as he later put it.
At the age of 20 – now living and working in London – he started taking lessons with the renowned Russian dancer and choreographer Léonide Massine. Massine subsequently recommended Ashton to Marie Rambert, who encouraged him to focus on choreography. At this time in the 1920s, Ashton belonged to the set of ‘bright young things’ that included the photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer and the artist Edward Burra.
In 1926 Ashton choreographed his first short ballet, A Tragedy of Fashion. This was Ashton’s first collaboration with the painter and stage designer Sophie Fedorovitch, who became a close friend and collaborator until her death in 1953. A sojourn in Paris during 1928 saw him join Ida Rubinstein’s company with Massine, dancing under the direction of Bronislava Nijinska, whose choreography became an important influence. On returning to London the following summer Ashton became a founder member of Rambert’s Ballet Club, later the Rambert Dance Company.
In 1935 Ashton joined Ninette de Valois’s company – known as Sadler's Wells Ballet from 1939 – as dancer and principal choreographer. It was in the years that followed that Ashton formed his most significant collaborative partnership – with the dancer Dame Margot Fonteyn.
Ashton served in the RAF during the Second World War but returned to the Sadler’s Wells Ballet after demobilisation. His first complete work staged at the company’s new base at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, was Symphonic Variations (1946) – widely regarded as his masterpiece. Notable works in following years included La Fille Mal Gardée (1960), and Marguerite and Armand (1963), which set the seal on the partnership of Rudolf Nureyev and Fonteyn.
MARLBOROUGH STREET YEARS
In 1959 Ashton’s sister Edith persuaded him to buy 8 Marlborough Street, where the parade of nearby small shops lent the district the ‘London village’ atmosphere that he favoured. Inside, the house was described by a visiting biographer as
very tiny, rather cold … crammed with furniture, pictures and ornaments. The mantelpiece holds invitations and a portrait by Cecil Beaton. It is all both characteristic and "comme il faut".
According to Ashton’s sometime partner Martyn Thomas - who was an interior decorator – the house veered from ‘shabby and cluttered (which is excusable)’ to ‘dirty and squalid’ (which isn’t)’.
While living at number 8, Ashton succeeded de Valois as Director of the Royal Ballet. Continuing in his role as principal choreographer, his later works included The Dream (1964), Sinfonietta (1967) and Enigma Variations (1968). In 1970 Ashton reluctantly retired from the Royal Ballet directorship but kept working. Most notably, he choreographed the film The Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971) and performed in it as Mrs Tiggywinkle.
On Ashton’s death in 1988, Fonteyn paid tribute to ‘his extraordinary understanding of the human heart and mind’. He had the ability, she said, ‘to illuminate them through his own art form.’