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Abbey, Edwin Austin (1852–1911), illustrator and painter, was born at 315 Race Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 1 April 1852, the eldest of the three children of William Maxwell Abbey (1827–1897), a merchant of French and English descent, and Margery Ann Kiple (1825–1880), who was descended from German and Irish immigrants. He was educated in Philadelphia at Mrs Elizabeth Hall's school (1859–62), the Jefferson and Randolph schools (1862–4), and Henry Gregory's academy (1864–8). From the age of fourteen he took drawing lessons from the landscape painter Isaac L. Williams. A year later, under the pen-name Yorick, he began sending humorous letters, riddles, and rebuses to Oliver Optic's Magazine: Our Boys and Girls. In 1868 he went to work for W. H. Van Ingen and H. M. Snyder, wood-engravers, and enrolled in evening classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, then in 1871 he took a job as staff illustrator for the publishers Harper & Brothers and moved to New York. There he made drawings for Harper's Weekly and Harper's Monthly, as well as for books, including Charles Dickens's Christmas Stories (1876). Among his colleagues at Harper's were Winslow Homer, Arthur B. Frost, and Howard Pyle.

Inspired by the English illustrators of the 1860s as well as Adolf Menzel and Daniel Vierge, Abbey developed a lively pen-and-ink style characterized by architectonic compositions, dazzling light effects, close attention to detail, and keen insight into human emotions. Like his illustrations, Abbey's watercolours of the 1870s were modelled on British examples. One of them, Rustics Dancing in a Barn (exh. American Water Color Society, 1876), was sold to a collector who reportedly mistook it for the work of an English artist. Another, A Rose in October (exh. American Water Color Society, 1878), depicted the kind of subject then popular in England: a woman in 1820s costume standing by a gate and surrounded by autumn foliage. Unfortunately the present locations of these watercolours are unknown. Abbey first encountered a significant number of British oil paintings in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where he preferred the English pictures to the French. Attracted to the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, he was especially devoted to the poetry and art of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In 1877 he joined the Tile Club in New York. Inspired by the English arts and crafts movement, the club met weekly to socialize and paint decorative ceramic tiles; members included Winslow Homer and William Merritt Chase, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and the architect Stanford White. In 1878 Harper's Monthly began the serial publication of Abbey's illustrations to the poetry of Robert Herrick; these were issued in book form in 1882. Meanwhile, in December 1878, Harper's sent Abbey to England to absorb its ambience at first hand. He left behind his family and friends, planning to stay abroad for a year. Instead he remained in England for most of the rest of his life, except for occasional trips to New York, which included an extended stay in 1881–2.

During his first decade in England, Abbey's life and work revolved around the nostalgic ideal of a quiet old-fashioned existence in the country. His independent watercolours of the 1880s—representing genteel figures in period dress, set in simple but refined rural interiors—were exhibited in London and New York. Prominent among these were The Sisters (exh. American Water Color Society, 1882), which is set in The Swan inn in Lechlade; The Widower (exh. Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, 1883), set in nearby Buscot rectory; and An Old Song (exh. Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, 1885), all three of which are now in the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut. Abbey's illustrations—for travel features, contemporary fiction, and English literature—were serialized in Harper's Monthly and often published in book form: Sketching Rambles in Holland (written and co-illustrated by George H. Boughton, 1885); Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer (1886); two collections of old English ballads and poems, Old Songs (1889) and The Quiet Life (1890); and Goldsmith's The Deserted Village (1902). For research on these projects the artist spent time in various small towns in the midlands. In 1885 he joined the artists' colony in Broadway, Worcestershire, where his friends included the American painters Francis D. Millet and John Singer Sargent, the English illustrator Alfred Parsons, the writers Austin Dobson, Edmund Gosse, and Henry James, and the American actress Mary Anderson.

In 1888 Abbey began the first of four major Shakespearian projects: illustrations for the comedies, which were serialized in Harper's Monthly, then published in book form in 1896. This was followed by seven large Shakespearian oil paintings, notably Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the Lady Anne (exh. RA, 1896), Hamlet (exh. RA, 1897; both Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut), King Lear (exh. RA, 1898; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and The Penance of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester (exh. RA, 1900; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh). In 1898 Abbey designed Henry Irving's abortive production of Richard II. His illustrations for Shakespeare's tragedies and histories were published in Harper's Monthly between 1902 and 1909 but never appeared in book form.

On 22 April 1890, in New York, Abbey married (Mary) Gertrude Mead (1851–1931), the daughter of a wealthy New York merchant, whom he had met in Broadway in spring 1888. Both were nearly forty years of age at the time of their marriage, and they remained childless. Ambitious and well educated, Gertrude Abbey encouraged her new husband to take on more challenging projects and secured for him a commission to paint murals on the theme The Quest and Achievement of the Holy Grail for the Delivery Room of the new Boston Public Library, designed by the architects McKim, Mead, and White. Abbey leased Morgan Hall, near Fairford, Gloucestershire, to accommodate work on the fifteen monumental canvases, which he completed in 1901. In the murals, as in Abbey's contemporaneous Shakespearian paintings, space is flattened and decorative and moods are high-keyed. Teeming crowds heighten the works' theatricality and project them as spectacles or public events. During the 1890s Abbey travelled to Italy, France, and Germany for research on the murals and other projects. In that period he also executed dozens of pastels, mostly showing single figures in medieval or eighteenth-century costume; these were sold to help finance work on the murals. In 1902 he received a more lucrative commission, for a series of enormous murals to decorate the new state capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, his native state. Its centrepiece is The Apotheosis of Pennsylvania, an omnium gatherum of figures drawn from the entire history of the state, which dominates the vast ornate chamber of the capitol's house of representatives. For Harrisburg, Abbey developed a more classicizing approach, one that not only embodied his own increasing academicism but also reflected a more general turn away from flat, decorative, two-dimensional art towards a more physically conceived, three-dimensional style.

Recognized as one of the leading artists of his time, Abbey was showered with honours and awards. In the United States he belonged to the American Water Color Society in New York (member, 1876), the American Academy in Rome (member, 1895), the National Academy of Design (associate, 1901; member, 1902), and the American Academy of Arts and Letters (member, 1904); he also received honorary degrees from Yale University (MA, 1897), and the University of Pennsylvania (LLD, 1902). In England he was elected to the Royal Academy (associate, 1896; member, 1898), the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours (member, 1883; resigned 1893), and the Royal Watercolour Society (member, 1895). In addition he won gold medals in numerous international expositions in Europe and the United States and was an honorary member of artists' academies in Paris, Munich, and Madrid. In 1903–4 he executed the official painting of the coronation of Edward VII (Royal Collection), a huge canvas involving more than a hundred individual portraits. The king recommended Abbey for a knighthood in 1907, but he declined the honour in order to retain his American citizenship.

Abbey died of cancer at his London residence, Chelsea Lodge, 42 Tite Street, Chelsea, on 1 August 1911; following cremation his ashes were buried on 3 August at Kingsbury Old Church, near Willesden. His widow oversaw his memorial exhibition at the Royal Academy early in 1912 and commissioned the two-volume biography by E. V. Lucas (1921) that remains the standard work on the artist. After her death in 1931, her executors donated the more than 4000 works of art in her estate to the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, which is now the foremost repository of Abbey's work.

Lucy Oakley


E. V. Lucas, Edwin Austin Abbey, royal academician, 2 vols. (1921) · M. H. Spielmann, ‘Edwin Austin Abbey’, Magazine of Art, 23 (1898–9), 145–51, 193–8, 247–52, facing pp. 168, 199 · K. A. Foster and M. Quick, Edwin Austin Abbey (1973) · L. Oakley, Unfaded pageant: Edwin Austin Abbey's Shakespearean subjects (1994) · K. A. Foster, ‘Edwin Austin Abbey’, American Art Review, 1 (1974), 83–95 · M. Simpson, ‘Windows on the past: Edwin Austin Abbey and Francis Davis Millet in Broadway’, American Art Journal, 22 (1990), 65–89 · d. cert.


Bodl. Oxf., letters to Lewis Harcourt · JRL, letters to M. H. Spielmann · LUL, letters to A. Dobson


W. R. O'Donovan, bas-relief, 1876–9 (Ye Tyle Manne), Yale U. Art Gallery · J. S. Sargent, charcoal drawing, c.1889, Yale U. Art Gallery · G. F. Watts, charcoal drawing, 1893, Yale U. Art Gallery · E. O. Ford, bronze bust, exh. RA 1902 · W. Q. Orchardson, oils, 1909 · F. O. Salisbury, decorative panel, before 1916, Chelsea town hall; repro. in F. O. Salisbury, The great artists of Chelsea · T. Brock, bust, exh. RA 1917, British School in Rome · J. Bacon, sketch, Yale U. Art Gallery · Bassano, photograph · Elliott & Fry, photograph · Gribáyedoff, photograph · Gutekunst, photograph · F. Holler, photograph · J. E. Purdy, photograph · N. Sarony, photograph · Spy [L. Ward], chromolithograph caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (29 Dec 1898) · G. H. Swinsted, photograph · E. Walker, photograph · Window & Grove, photograph, NPG

Wealth at death  

£4868 4s. 9d.: probate, 3 April 1912, CGPLA Eng. & Wales