The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
Home > On-line Edition > Biography

Acton Smee Ayrton, 1816-1886

Nationality: English
Date of Birth: 1816
Place of Birth: Kew
Date of Death: 1886.11.30
Place of Death: Mont Dore Hotel, Bournemouth


Acton Smee Ayrton was a solicitor, politician and Chief Commissioner of Works and Public Buildings. He was the son of Frederick Ayrton, a barrister-at-law, and Julia Nugent, the only daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Nugent.


Acton Ayrton practised as a solicitor in Bombay, India, before returning to Britain around 1850. He was called to the bar of the Middle Temple in April 1853. From 1857 to 1874 he sat in the House of Commons as a radical Liberal M.P. for Tower Hamlets. In 1868 he was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury by Gladstone's government, in 1869 Privy Councillor and in 1873 Chief Commissioner of Works and Public Buildings and Judge-Advocate-General. He was an efficient and economic but not popular man. He treated Alfred Stevens, the sculptor of the Wellington monument at St. Paul's Cathedral, very badly, attempting to force him to hand over his models for other sculptors to complete the work. He was reviled by John Ruskin in Fors Clavigera (#12076) and caricatured in March 1873 at the Court Theatre in London in the burlesque The Happy Land by W. S. Gilbert and Gilbert à Beckett.


Kensington [...] Directory for 1883, London, 1883, et seq. (-1887); The Annual Register., London, 1886, pp.168-169; Street, Arthur Edmund, Memoir of George Edmund Street, R.A., 1824-1881, London, 1888, pp. 168-70; Vizetelly, Henry, Glancing back through seventy years, vol. 1, 1893; Dictionary of National Biography Online, Oxford, 1997 (accessed 2003).