Edwin Austin Abbey 1979 Hall of Fame Inductee Edwin Austin Abbey was that rare union of “fun and purpose.” He was cherished by the many organizations that called him “fellow.” Those who called him “friend” included the most renowned artists, sculptors and authors of his day. But his artwork was his purpose. He illustrated with crisp pen lines, painted with shadowy, mysterious tones and he designed decorative and architecturally sound murals. Every endeavor of his career was totally absorbing of his energy but was executed with grace and humor. Howard Pyle described his contemporary as a “chipper, jocund little fellow, with a merry twinkle in his eyes and a laugh that meant business.”
“Ned” Abbey was born in Philadelphia on April 1, 1852. His poor but cultured parents encouraged his artistic talents as he apprenticed to landscape artist Isaac Williams and engravers Van Ingen and Snyder. At the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1868–1871) he studied what he called “the science of constructive drawing.” Throughout his career he was a believer in drawing from life and spent hours at his sketchbooks. He wrote to a young art student: “You should be sketching always. Draw the dishes on the table while you are waiting for breakfast. Draw the people on the station while you are waiting for the train. It is all part of your world. You are going to be one of a profession to which everything on earth means something.”
He had been submitting drawings to Harper & Brothers for two years before the first was published (12/3/1870). Charles Parsons, Art Editor, had established Harper’s Weekly and The Monthly Magazine as America’s top illustrated journals. In 1871, Abbey joined their staff in New York, which included Charles Reinhart, the Waud brothers and others who quickly became his close friends. Will Low, his boyhood pen pal, soon joined the staff.
From 1871–1874, Abbey concentrated on English scenes for Herrick’s poems and works by Shakespeare. These pen and ink drawings echoed Abbey’s faithfulness to detail and drawing from life (even if it was a fellow staff artist who modeled). He moved into Winslow Homer’s former studio on Washington Square and freelanced his work to Harper’s. Many lucrative offers came his way but he remained faithful to the man who gave him “an opportunity,” Charles Parsons.
In 1878, two years after the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia which included many English works which Abbey termed “eye-openers,” Harper’s sponsored his move to England. He settled in the Cotswold region by the Avon River. He soon befriended many of England’s top talents. George Boughton, Frank Millet and Alfred Parsons are but a few who traveled and sketched with Abbey throughout Europe. “Sketching Rambles in Holland” was the product of one such trip.
During the 1880’s, Harper’s was bursting with Abbey drawings for Herrick’s poems, Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, and two collections of anecdotes and songs illustrated by Abbey, Old Songs and The Quiet Life. These projects were time-consuming and with Abbey’s penchant for costumes, models and settings his income suffered.
Harper’s, minus the now retired Parsons, launched their Comedies of Shakespeare series in 1889 and Abbey received the commission. He began to paint in oils and those who viewed the Royal Academy’s Exhibition for 1890 saw his first exhibited oil. There was instant acclaim. In August of that year he married Mary Gertrude Mead, a well-educated New York socialite and they returned to England. Abbey wrote of her in 1910: “A painter’s finished work is given to the world, and the public generally may see it, but very few can know whence his greatest inspirations and his highest aspirations have been drawn. In saying this I am doing scant justice to one who has been my daily and hourly companion and counselor and friend these twenty years.”
Their home in Gloucestershire, Morgan Hall, became a summer spa for such notables as Charles Dana Gibson, Augustus St. Gaudens, Stanford White, Henry James, James McNeill Whistler, Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle. Music, The Artists Cricket Club and sketching parties were their favorite pastimes. Abbey’s London studio, Chelsea Lodge, was also a popular spot and was frequently used by his close friend, John Singer Sargent.
During the 1890’s, Abbey was busy on several commissions, the most extensive being the murals for the Boston Public Library. In 1895, the first finished work King Arthur and the Holy Grail was exhibited to overflow crowds in New York. He was acclaimed a superior muralist. Scribner’s obtained the reproduction rights and many of Abbey’s debts were settled. As Mrs. Abbey put it, “We’re now penniless and free.”
In the summer of 1901, The Tragedies of Shakespeare were commissioned and they appeared in Harper’s through 1909. This decade also saw his painting of the coronation of Queen Victoria’s successor, Edward VII, at the new King’s request. This was a major honor for an American artist.
While on holiday in Pennsylvania in 1902, Abbey visited the architect for the new Capitol buildings in Harrisburg. He came away with his last and most ambitious mural assignment. The decorations for this complex included several murals and lunettes. Abbey completed the large Capitol mural before he died and the sketches for the unfinished sections were faithfully completed by John Singer Sargent and others at Mrs. Abbey’s request.
The ever-strong and energetic Ned spent but a few weeks in sick bed before he died in England of a liver ailment on August 1, 1911. He was 59.
© 2011 Society of Illustrators