Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Abbey, Edwin Austin
ABBEY, EDWIN AUSTIN (1852–1911), painter and black-and-white and decorative artist, born on 1 April 1852 at 315 Race Street, Philadelphia, was eldest child in the family of two sons and a daughter of William Maxwell Abbey (1827–1897), a merchant of Philadelphia. His mother, Margery Ann (1825–1880), was daughter of Jacob Kipel, second son of Jacob Kypel (d. 1797), a farmer who emigrated to America from Freiburg, Baden, in 1760.
Abbey received his education in Philadelphia at the Randolph school (1862–4) and Dr. Gregory's school (1864–8), where he had drawing lessons from Isaac L. Williams of the Pennsylvania Academy, a landscape painter of local repute; for three months in 1868 he studied penmanship at Richard S. Dickson's writing-school. While there he contributed picture puzzles to Oliver Optic's ‘Our Boys and Girls’ under the pseudonym of ‘Yorick.’ In 1869 he entered the employ of Van Ingen and Snyder, wood-engravers of Philadelphia, who sent him to work in the antique and life classes at the Academy of Fine Arts. He was employed mainly on commercial and news illustrations. Soon afterwards he studied under Professor Christian Schuessèle at the Pennsylvania Academy and worked on historical compositions. The experience developed his power of imagination and faculty for design, while he applied himself to research in history and costume. In 1870 he sent drawings to the New York publishing house of Harper & Brothers for production in their ‘Weekly.’ In 1871 he went to New York, and after a month's probation in that firm's art department received a permanent position on the staff. He worked for Harpers continuously for twenty years.
In 1878 he came to England with a commission from Harpers to illustrate Herrick's poems. After two years he returned to New York for three months, and then settled permanently in England. He lived much in London, with country residences, first at Broadway, and then at Morgan Hall, Fairford, where he had a private cricket-ground. Latterly he purchased Woodcote Manor, previously occupied by Sir Francis Seymour Haden at Alresford, but did not live to occupy it. In London he acquired Chelsea Lodge, where he also worked much.
It was with his pen-and-ink illustrations that Abbey first conquered the English and American public. These appeared in editions of (among other works) Dickens's ‘Christmas Stories’ (1876); Herrick's poems (‘Hesperides’ and ‘Noble Numbers’) (1882); ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ (1887); ‘The Good-Natured Man; Old Songs’ (1889); ‘The Comedies of Shakespeare’ (1896)—132 illustrations which, by invitation, were exhibited at the Salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1896—and ‘The Tragedies of Shakespeare.’ In 1885 a sketching tour in Holland with his friend George Henry Boughton [q. v. Suppl. II] was commemorated in ‘Sketches and Rambles in Holland,’ to which both artists contributed drawings. His first contribution to the Royal Academy was 'A Milkmaid ' (1885), in black and white.
Meanwhile Abbey's power matured in water-colour, pastel, and oil. Although his delicate fancy lent itself admirably to water-colour painting, he executed not much more than a score of works in that medium ; but they stand high in the list of his achievements. His first water-colour was 'Rustics Dancing in a Barn,' which was shown at the exhibition of the American Water-Colour Society of New York before 1876, and a few others followed in that and succeeding years. To the Royal Institute of Painters in Water-Colours he contributed 'The Widower' (1883); 'The Bible Reading' (1884) ; 'The Old Song' (1885) ; and 'The March Past ' (1887) ; and to the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours, 'An Attention' (1893-4-5); and 'Quiet Conscience' (1896). On occasion Abbey would use pastel with brilliant effect, as in 'Good Friday Morning' (1884); his pastel sketches from Goldsmith's plays, exhibited in 1896, are masterly; but the examples of his work in this method are relatively few.
In 1890 he sent to the Royal Academy his first oil picture, 'A May-Day Morning,' which attracted wide attention for its originality, humour, truth, and joyousness. This was retouched and somewhat modified in 1904. He now embarked on a great commission for Boston, and not until 1894 did he send again to the Royal Academy. His second work seen there in oils, 'Fiammetta's Song,' created so deep an impression that he was immediately elected A.R.A. Many important historical and poetic compositions were now shown at the Academy : 'Richard, Duke of Gloucester and the Lady Anne' (1896), and ' King Lear, Act 1, Scene 1' (both in the McCulloch-Coutts Michie collection) and 'Hamlet' (1897). 'The Bridge' was shown in 1898, when Abbey was elected full member of the R.A. Subsequently came 'Who is Sylvia, what is she . . . ?' and 'O Mistress mine, where are you roaming ? ' (1899) (now in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) ; 'A Lute Player' (diploma work), 'The Trial of Queen Katherine' (Senator W. A. Clarke's collection), and 'The Penance of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, &c.' (1900) ; 'Crusaders sighting Jerusalem' (1901); 'Pot-Pourri' (1903 signed * 1899 ') ; 'A Measure,' and a decoration, a triple panel reredos for the Holy Trinity Church, Paris (1904); 'Columbus in the New World' (1906), which startled the Abbey public by its decorative scheme; and in 1910, the last year of his career, an historical picture, 'The Camp of the Army at Valley Forge, Feb. 1778,' as well as a great upright decoration, 'Penn's Treaty with the Indians,' both for the state capitol of Pennsylvania. Meanwhile Abbey painted a few other pictures : 'The Poet,' his only contribution to the New Gallery (afterwards much altered and almost wholly re-painted) ; 'A Pavane' (1897) for Mr. Whitelaw Reid ; 'Fair is my Love' (1906), in the gallery of the corporation of Preston ; and the official picture of 'The Coronation of H.M. King Edward VII,' at Buckingham Palace, a work fifteen feet by nine feet, containing 120 excellent portraits and occupying the artist during 1903-4.
Abbey's mural decorations comprise the most ambitious part of his work. The great frieze for the delivery room of the public library of Boston, U.S.A., on which he was engaged between 1890 and 1901, is lofty in conception and original in plan and one of the most elaborate decorations produced by either American or British artist. Five of the paintings 90 feet in aggregate length were shown at the Conduit Street Galleries, London, in January 1895, and the completed series at the Guildhall, October to November 1901 fifteen paintings in all. The dramatic presentation and artistic power of this great effort were recognised at once. For the Royal Exchange, London, he executed in 1904 a mural panel representing the ancient reconciliation of the two City companies, the Skinners and the Merchant Taylors, 1484. There followed a vast commission to decorate the state capitol of Pennsylvania at Harrisburg. In April 1908 eight large allegorical paintings, forming a portion for the dome, were exhibited in London at the Imperial Institute. At his death he had completed the immense composition 'The Apotheosis of Pennsylvania,' in which the whole history of the state is summarised, and the dome-ceiling 'The 24 Hours.' Other decorative work had occupied Abbey, especially the designs for Sir Henry Irving's contemplated but abandoned production of 'Richard II' (1898). At the request of the office of works Abbey superintended the decoration of the peers' corridor in the Houses of Parliament with historical pictures, approximating in sentiment to the Tudor style of the architecture, by a group of young artists working on an harmonious plan. These were completed in 1910.
Abbey died on 1 Aug. 1911 at Chelsea Lodge of an affection of the liver. After cremation he was buried at the old churchyard of Kingsbury, Neasden. On 22 April 1890 he had married Mary Gertrude (daughter of Frederick Mead, merchant, New York). She survived him without issue.
Abbey's artistic and intellectual merits, which his personal charm and sympathetic and generous temperament enhanced, were widely acknowledged. He rapidly became a leading force in the English and American art of the day and founder of a school. Steeped in mediæval and seventeenth and eighteenth-century art and literature, he captivated the public by the charm, dignity, and dramatic ability which he brought to the rendering of his subjects. At the same tune his artistic qualities, alike as to colour, draughtsmanship, composition, and invention, appealed on technical grounds to his fellow-artists, whether his medium were oil, water-colour, pen-and-ink, or pastel.
He was chosen member of many artistic societies in England and other countries, including the American Water-Colour Society of New York (elected 1876) and the Royal Institute of Painters in Water-Colours (London) (elected 1883 and resigned in 1893). In 1895, when he became one of the original incorporators of the American Academy at Rome, he was elected associate of the Royal Water-Colour Society. In 1901 he was made an associate and in 1902 a member of the (American) Academy of Design; and he was an original member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was an hon. member of the American Institute of Architects (1895); hon. member of the Royal Bavarian Academy and of the Madrid Society of Artists; hon. associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. After exhibiting his work in Paris in 1896 he was made chevalier of the legion of honour and corresponding member of the Institut de France, as well as of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Paris (1896). Yale University made him an hon. M.A. and the University of Pennsylvania an hon. LL.D. Among the awards won by Abbey were a second-class gold medal, Munich International Exhibition in 1883; a first-class gold medal, Exposition Universelle, Paris, in 1889; two gold medals, Chicago Exhibition, 1893; a gold medal of honour, Pennsylvania, 1897; and a first-class gold medal, Vienna Exhibition, 1898. In Jan-March 1912 a memorial exhibition of Abbey's works, comprising 322 items, was included in the 'Old Masters' exhibition of the Royal Academy at Burlington House.
Abbey remained to the end an American citizen; but he deeply appreciated his reception in England, and he had a full faith in the beneficial influence and equitable organisation of the Royal Academy.
Among portraits of Abbey are a crayon drawing by J. S. Sargent, R.A.; an oil portrait by Sir W. Q. Orchardson, R.A. (1910, Orchardson's last work); a bronze bust by E. Onslow Ford, R.A. (1902); a sketch portrait by John H. Bacon, A.R.A.; drawings by Griyayédoff and Napoleon Sarony respectively, and a caricature and portrait by Leslie Ward ('Spy') in 'Vanity Fair' (1898).
[Private information and documents in the possession of Mrs. E. A. Abbey; Royal Academy Catalogues.]