Born in York, the son of James Ashton, drawing master, Ashton grew up in Australia then settled in St Ives in 1902 (Address c/o Jas Garnham) to study under Julius OLSSON and Algernon Mayow TALMAGE.

Active and well-liked in his new home in St Ives, Will (as he was known) was a cricket organiser along with Richard Hayley LEVER in their matches with the artists of Newlyn. He continued his studies at Juliens' Atelier in Paris under Professors Baschet and Schommer.

Ashton established a name as a painter of impressionist seascapes. Having worked around the Cornish coast, he returned to Australia in 1905.  In 1913, he was elected ROI, and continued to exhibit in Britain using Olsson's London studio and the Connaught Club as his exhibiting addresses.  In 1926 he lived and worked in Egypt.

Appointed Director of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales 1937, and knighted in 1960.