As an illustrator, Abbey combined daintiness with a fair measure
of dramatic feeling for the pose. A modicum of old Benjamin West's
tendency to the grandiose would have done Abbey no harm; but if his
imagination balked at the higher flights often attained by Gustave
Dore, and sometimes by Elihu Vedder, yet there is a charm in his
sobriety, there is something which compels our respect in the
workmanlike method, in the evidences of thoroughness which appeared
in all he wrought. Some of his Shakespeare figures linger in the
memory like that of Iago as played by Edwin Booth, or that of
Rosalind as played by Modjeska.
--Charles de Kay
Edwin A. Abbey was born in Philadelphia (not of his own choosing) in
the year Eighteen Hundred Fifty-two. His parents were blessed in
that they had neither poverty nor riches. Their ambition for Edwin
was that he should enter one of the so-called Learned Professions;
but this was not to the boy's taste. I fear me he was a heretic
through prenatal influences, for they do say that he was a child of
his mother. This mother's mind was tinted with her Quaker
associations until she doubted the five points of Calvinism and had
small faith in the Thirty-nine Articles. She was able to think for
herself and act for herself; and as she perceived that the preachers
were making a guess, so she discovered that doctors with bushy
eyebrows, who wore dogskin gloves in Summer and who coughed when you
asked them a question--gaining time to formulate a reply--didn't
know much more about measles, mumps, chicken-pox and whooping-cough
than she did herself. Philadelphia has always had a plethora of
Medical Journals and dogmatic doctors. Living in Philadelphia and
having had a little experience with doctors, Mrs. Abbey let them
severely alone and prescribed the pediluvium, hop-tea, sulphur and
molasses and a roll-up in warm blankets for everything--and with
great success. Beyond this she filled the day with work and kept
everybody else at work. The moral of Old Deacon Buffum, "Blessed is
the man who has found some one to do his work," had no place in her
creed. To her, every one had his work that no other could do, and
every day had its work which could not be done any other day, and
success and health and happiness lay in doing well whatever you
Having eliminated two of the Learned Professions from her ambitions
for her boy, the Law was left as the only choice.
To be a Philadelphia lawyer is a proud and vaulting ambition.
Philadelphia lawyers are exceedingly astute, and are able to confuse
the simplest propositions, thus hopelessly befogging judge and jury.
On the banks of the Schuylkill all jurors are provided with dice so
as to decide the cases with perfect justice--small dice for little
cases and large dice for big ones. Philadelphia lawyers carry green
bags full of briefs, remarkable for everything but brevity; also
statutes, recognizances, tenures, double-vouchers, fines,
recoveries, indentures, not to mention quiddities, quillets, quirks
and quips. Philadelphia lawyers have high foreheads and many
clients. Lawyers are educated men, looked up to and respected by
all--this was the Abbey idea. Of course, it will be observed that it
was an idea that could be held by people only who had viewed lawyers
from a safe distance.
Fortunately for the Abbeys, they had really no more use for the
lawyers than they had for the two other Learned Professions. Their
idea of a lawyer was gained from seeing one pass their house every
morning at nine forty-five, for ten years. He wore a high hat, and
carried a gold-headed cane in one hand and a green bag in the other.
He lived on Walnut Street, below Ninth in a three-story house with
white marble steps and white shutters, tied with black strips of
bombazine in token of the death of a brother who passed out in
Edwin should be a lawyer, and be an honor to the family name.
But alas! Edwin was small and had a low forehead and squint eyes. He
didn't care for books--all he would do was draw pictures. Now, all
children make pictures--before they can read, they draw. And before
they can draw they get the family shears and cut the pictures out of
"Harper's Weekly." This boy cut pictures out of "Harper's Weekly"
when he wore dresses, and when George William Curtis first filled
the Easy Chair. Edwin cut out the pictures, not because they were
especially bad, but because he, like all other children, was an
artist in the germ; and the artist instinct is to detach the thing,
lift it out, set it apart, and then give it away.
All children draw pictures, I said, and this is true, but most
children can be cured of the habit by patience and an occasional box
on the ear, judiciously administered. All children are sculptors,
too; that is to say, they want to make things out of mud or dough or
wax or putty; but no mother who sets her heart on clean guimpes and
pinafores can afford for a moment to indulge in such inclinations.
To give children dough, putty and the shears would keep your house
in a pretty litter--lawksadaisy!
Mrs. Abbey hid the shears, put the "Harper's" on a high shelf and
took the boy's pencils away, and threw the putty out into Fourth
Street, below Vine. Then the boy had tantrums, and as a compromise
got all his playthings back.
Yes, this squat, beetle-browed, and bow-legged boy had his way.
Beetle-browed, bow-legged folks usually do. Caesar and Cromwell had
bow-legs, so had Napoleon, and so have Pierpont Morgan and James J.
Hill. Charles the First was knock-kneed. Knock-knees are a
deformity; bow-legs an accident. Bulldogs have bow-legs; hounds are
knock-kneed. Bow-legs mean will plus--a determination to do--the
child insists on walking before the cartilage has turned to bone.
Spirit is stronger than matter--hence the Greek curve.
Little Edwin Abbey ran the Abbey household and drew because he
wanted to--on sidewalks, white steps, kitchen-wall, or the fly-
leaves in books.
Rumor has it that Edwin Abbey did not get along very well at school
--instead of getting his lessons he drew pictures, and thirty years
ago such conduct was proof of total depravity. Like the amateur
blacksmith who started to make a horseshoe and finally contented
himself with a fizzle, the Abbeys gave up theology and law, and
decided that if Edwin became a good printer it would be enough. And
then, how often printers became writers--then editors and finally
proprietors! Edwin might yet own the "Ledger" and have a collection
of four hundred seventy-two clocks.
Through a mutual friend, Mr. Childs was interviewed and Edwin was
set to work in the Typesetting Department of the "Ledger." Evenings
and an hour three times a week he sketched in the free class at the
Academy of Art.
How long he remained in the newspaper work, I do not know, but there
came a day when Mr. Childs and his minions, having no use for Edwin,
gave him a letter of recommendation to the Art Department of
That George W. Childs had a really firm friendship for young Abbey,
there is no doubt. He followed his career with fatherly interest,
and was the first man, so far as I know, who had the prophetic
vision to see that he would become a great artist. George W. Childs
was a many-sided man. He had a clear head for business, was a judge
of human nature, a patron of the arts, a collector of rare and
curious things, and wrote with clearness, force and elegance. Men of
such strong personality have decided likings, and they also have
decided aversions. The pet aversion of Childs was tobacco. All
through the "Ledger" office were startling signs, "No smoking!" It
was never, "Please do not smoke," or "Smoking interferes with
Insurance!" Not these--the order was imperative. And the mutability
of human affairs, as well as life's little ironies, is now shown in
the fact that the name and fame of George W. Childs is deathless
through a wonderful five-cent cigar.
Whether the use of tobacco had anything to do with young Abbey's
breaking with his "Ledger" friends, is a question. Tradition has it
that Childs extracted from the youth a promise, on his going away,
that he would never use the weed. The Union Square records fail us
at times, but it is believed that Abbey kept his promise for fully
"Edwin Abbey learned to swim by jumping into deep water," says Henry
James. A young man in the Art Department of an absurdly punctual
periodical, before the Era of the Halftone, just had to draw, and
that was all there was about it.
Things were happening uptown, downtown, over in Boston, and out as
far as Buffalo--and the young men in the Art Department were sent to
make pictures. The experience of a reporter develops facility--you
have to do the assignment. To write well and rapidly on any subject,
the position of reporter on an old-time daily approached the ideal.
Even the drone became animated, when the copy must be in inside of
two hours. The way to learn to write is to write. But young men will
not write of their own free will; the literary first-mate in way of
a Managing Editor with a loaded club of expletives is necessary. Or,
stay! there is another way to stimulate the ganglionic cells and
become dexterous in the cosmic potentiality--the Daily Theme sent to
a woman who thinks and feels. That is the way that Goethe acquired
his style. There were love-letters that crossed each other daily,
and after years of this practise--the sparks a-flying--Goethe found
himself the greatest stylist of his day. Love taught him.
To write for a daily paper is a great drill, only you must not keep
at it too long or you will find yourself bound to the wheel, a part
of the roaring machinery.
Combine the daily paper with the daily love-letter and you have the
ideal condition for forming a literary style; and should you drop
out one, why, cleave to the second, would be the advice of a
To draw pictures is simply one way of telling a story. Abbey told
the story, and there was soon evidence in better work that he was
telling it for Some One. Get a complete file of "Harper's Weekly,"
say from Eighteen Hundred Seventy-two to Eighteen Hundred Ninety,
and you can trace the Evolution of the Art of Edwin Abbey. If any of
the Abbey pictures have been removed, the books are chiefly valuable
as junk; but if the set can be advertised, as I saw one yesterday,
"with all of Abbey's drawings, warranted intact," the set of books
commands a price. People are now wisely collecting "Harper's" simply
because Abbey was once a part of the Art Department. And the value
of the books will increase with the years, for they trace the
gradual but sure evolution of a great and lofty soul.
Edwin Abbey was nineteen years old when he accepted a position--more
properly, secured a job--in the Art Department of Harper's. The
records of the office show his salary was seven dollars a week--but
it did not stay at that figure always. The young man did not get
along well at school, and he was not a success as a printer; but he
could focus his force at the end of a pencil, and he did.
Transplantation often turns a weed into a flower. It seems a hard
saying and a grievous one, but the salvation of many a soul turns on
getting away from one's own family. They are wise parents that do
not prove a handicap to their children. The good old-fashioned idea
was that parents were wholly responsible for their children's coming
into the world, and that, therefore, they owned them body and soul
until they reached their majority--and even then the restraint was
little removed. "Well, and what are you going to make of William?"
and "To whom are you going to marry Fanny?" were once common
questions. And all the while the fact remains that the child is not
God's gift to parents. Children are only God-given tenants. Use them
well if you would have them remain with you as the joy of love and
life and light. Give the child love and then more love and then love
and freedom to live his God-given life. Then all the precepts you
would give him for his own good, he will absorb from you and you
need not say a word. Trying to teach a child by telling him is
worthless and puts you in a bad light. A child has not lost his
heavenly vision and sees you as you are, not minding what you say.
At Harper's Abbey came into competition with strong men. In the
office was a young fellow by the name of Reinhart and another by the
name of Alexander--they used to call him Alexander the Great, and he
has nearly proved his title.
A little later came Howard Pyle, Joseph Fennel and Alfred Parsons.
Young Abbey did his work with much good-cheer, and sought to place
himself with the best. For a time he drew just like Alexander, then
like Reinhart; next, Parsons was his mentor. Finally he drifted out
on a sea of his own, and this seems to have been in the year of the
Centennial Exhibition. Harper's sent the young man over to
Philadelphia, or perhaps he went of his own accord; anyway, he
haunted the art-rooms at the Exhibition, and got a lesson there that
spurred his genius as it had never been spurred before.
He was then twenty-four years old. His salary had been increased to
ten dollars a week, fifteen, twenty-five: if he wanted money for
"expenses" he applied to the cashier. There is more good honest
velvet in an Expense-Account than in the Stock Exchange, which true
saying has nothing to do with Abbey. At the "Centennial" Abbey
discovered the Arthurian Legend--fell over it, just as William
Morris fell over the Icelandic Sagas when past fifty. Abbey had been
called the "Stage-Coachman" at Harper's, because he had developed a
faculty for picturing old taverns at that exciting moment when
horses were being changed and the driver, in a bell-crowned white
hat and wonderful waistcoat, tosses his lines to a fellow in tight
hair-cut and still tighter breeches, and a woman in big hoops gets
out of the stage with many bandboxes and a birdcage. The way Abbey
breathed into the scene the breath of life was wonderful--just a
touch of comedy, without caricature! "If it is in Seventeen Hundred
Seventy-six, give it to Abbey," said the Managing Editor, with a
growl--for Managing Editors, being beasts, always growl.
Abbey and Parsons had walked to Philadelphia and back, taking two
weeks for the trip, sketching on the way stagecoaches, taverns, tall
houses and old wooden bridges, all pinned together--just these and
nothing else, save Independence Hall. Later, they went to Boston and
did Faneuil Hall, inside and out, King's Chapel and the State House,
and a house or two out Quincyway, including the Adams cottage, where
lived two Presidents, and where now resides one William Spear, the
only honorary male member of the Daughters of the Revolution. Mr.
Spear dominates the artistic bailiwick and performs antique antics
for Art's sake: it was Mr. Spear who posed as Tony Lumpkin for Mr.
Abbey had done Washington Irving's Knickerbocker tales and the
various "Washington's Headquarters." He worked exclusively in black
and white--crayon, pencil or pen and ink. His hand had taken on a
style--powdered wigs, spit-curls, hoops, flaring sunbonnets, cocked
hats and the tallyho! These were his properties. He worked from
model plus imagination. He had exhausted the antique in America--he
thirsted to refresh his imagination in England. The Centennial
Exhibition had done its deadly work--Abbey and Parsons were
dissatisfied--they wanted to see more. Back of the stagecoach times
lay the days of the castle. Back of the musket was the blunderbuss,
and back of these were the portcullis, the moat, the spear and coats
A deluxe edition of "Herrick" was proposed by the Publishing
Department: some say the Art Department made the suggestion. Anyway,
there was a consultation in the manager's office, and young Abbey
was to go to England to look up the scene and with his pencil bring
the past up to the present.
Abbey was going to England, that is just all there was about it, and
Harper and Brothers did not propose to lose their hold upon him.
Salary was waived, but expenses were advanced, and the understanding
was that Abbey was Harper's man. This was in Eighteen Hundred
Seventy-eight, with Abbey's twenty-sixth birthday yet to come. Abbey
had gone around and bidden everybody good-by, including his old-time
chum, Alfred Parsons. Parsons was going to the dock to see him off.
"I wish you were going, too," said Edwin, huskily. "I believe I
will," said Alfred, swallowing hard. And he did.
The Managing Editor growled furiously, but to no avail, for the
Cunarder that bore the boys was then well out toward the Banks.
It was an American that discovered Stratford; and it is the Peter's
pence of American tourists that now largely support the town. At
Stratford, Washington Irving jostles the Master for the first place,
and when we drink at the George W. Childs fountain we piously pour a
libation to all three.
Like all bookish and artistic Americans, when Abbey and Parsons
thought of England they thought of Shakespeare's England--the
England that Washington Irving had made plain.
Washington Irving seemed very close to our young men--London held
them only a few days and then they started for Stratford. They went
afoot, as became men who carried crayons that scorned the steam-
horse. They took the road for Oxford and stopped at the tavern where
the gossips aver that the author of "Love's Labor's Lost" made love
to the landlord's wife--a thing I never would believe, e'en though I
knew 't were true. From Oxford the young men made their way to
storied Warwick, where the portcullis is raised--or lowered, I do
not remember which--every evening at sundown to tap of drum. It is
the same old Warwick Castle that Shakespeare knew; the same cedars
of Lebanon that he saw; the same screaming peacocks; the same
circling rooks and daws, and down across the lazy Avon over the
meadows the same skylark vibrates the happy air.
Young Abbey saw these things, just as Washington Irving saw them,
and he saw them just as the boy William Shakespeare saw them.
Nine miles from Warwick lies Stratford. But at Stratford the tourist
is loosed; the picnicker is abroad; the voice of the pedant is heard
in the land, and the Baconian is upon us. Abbey and Parsons stopped
at the Red Horse Inn and slept in the room that Washington Irving
occupied, and they do say now that Irving occupied every room in the
house. Stratford was not to the liking of our friends. They wanted
to be in the Shakespeare country for six months, that was what the
Managing Editor said--six months, mind you. But they did not want to
study the tourist. They wanted to be just a little off the beaten
track of travel, away from the screech of the locomotive, where they
could listen and hear the echoes of a tallyho horn, the crack of the
driver's whip, and the clatter of the coming stagecoach.
The village of Broadway is twelve miles from Stratford, and five
miles from the nearest railway-station. The worst thing about the
place for a New-Yorker is the incongruity of the name.
In Broadway not a new house has been built for a century, and
several of the buildings date back four hundred years. Abbey and
Parsons found a house they were told was built in Fifteen Hundred
Sixty-three. The place was furnished complete, done by those who had
been dust a hundred years. The rafters overhead were studded with
handmade nails, where used to hang the flitches of bacon and bunches
of dried herbs; the cooking would have to be performed in the
fireplace or in the Dutch oven; funny little cupboards were in the
corners; and out behind the cottage stretched a God's half-acre of
the prettiest flower-garden ever seen, save the one at Bordentown
where lived Abbey's ladylove.
The rent was ten pounds a year. They jumped at it--and would have
taken it just the same had it been twice as much.
An old woman who lived across the street was hired as housekeeper,
and straightway our artists threw down their kits and said, like
Lincoln, "We have moved." The beauty and serene peace of middle
England is passing words. No wonder the young artists could not
paint for several weeks--they just drank it in.
Finally they settled down to work--Seventeenth-Century models were
all around, and a look up the single street would do for a picture.
Parsons painted what he saw; Abbey painted what he saw plus what he
Six months went by, and the growls of the Managing Editor back in
New York were quieted with a few sketches. Parsons had tried water-
color with good results; and Abbey followed with an Arthurian
sketch--a local swain as model.
Several pictures had been sent down to London--which is up--and
London approved. Abbey was elected a member of "The Aquarellists,"
just as a little later the Royal Academy was to open its doors,
unsolicited, for him.
Two years had gone, and new arrangements must be made with Harper's.
Abbey returned to America with a trunkful of sketches--enough good
stuff to illustrate several "Herricks." He remained in New York
eight months, long enough to see the book safely launched, and to
close up his business affairs in Philadelphia.
And the Shakespeare country has been his home ever since.
An artist's work is his life--where he can work best is his home.
Patriotism isn't quite so bad as old Ursa Major said, but the word
is not to be found in the bright lexicon of Art. The artist knows no
country. His home is the world, and those who love the beautiful are
Abbey has remained in England, not that he loves America less, nor
England more, but because the Shakespeare country has a flavor of
antiquity about it that fits his artistic mood--it is a good place
to work. An artist's work is his life.
At "Morgan Hall," Fairford, only a few miles from where Abbey first
made his home in England, he now lives and works. Near by lives Mary
Anderson, excellent and gentle woman, wife and mother, who used to
storm the one-night stands most successfully. The place is old,
vine-clad, built in sections running over a space of three hundred
years. So lost is it amid the great spreading beeches that you have
to look twice before you see the house from the road.
Happily married to a most worthy woman whose only thought is to
minister to her household, the days pass. That Mrs. Abbey never
doubts her liege is not only the greatest artist, but the greatest
man in all England, is a most pleasing fact. She believes in him,
and she gives him peace. The Kansas Contingent may question whether
a woman's career is complete who thus lives within her home, and for
her household, but to me the old-fashioned virtues seem very hard to
improve upon. Industry, truth, trust and abiding loyalty--what a
bulwark of defense for a man who has a message for the world!
There is a goodly brood of little Abbeys--I dare not say how many. I
believe it was nine a year ago, with an addition since. They run
wild and free along the hedgerows and under the beeches, and if it
rains there are the stables, kennels and the finest attic that ever
Back of the house and attached to it Mr. Abbey has built a studio
forty feet wide by seventy-five long, and twenty feet high. It is
more than a studio--it is a royal workshop such as Michelangelo
might have used for equestrian statues, or cartoons to decorate a
palace for the Pope. Dozens of pictures, large and small, are upon
the easels. Arms, armor, furniture, are all about, while on the
shelves are vases and old china enough to fill the heart of a
collector to surfeit. In chests and wardrobes are velvets, brocades
and antique stuffs and costumes, all labeled, numbered and
catalogued, so as to be had when wanted.
This studio was built especially to accommodate the paintings for
the Boston Public Library. The commission was given in Eighteen
Hundred Ninety, and the last of the decorations has just been put in
place, in this year of grace, Nineteen Hundred One. Abbey's
paintings in the Boston Public Library cover in all something over a
thousand square feet of space, and form quite the noblest specimen
of mural decoration in America.
Orders were given to John S. Sargent and Puvis de Chavannes at the
same time that contracts were closed with Abbey. Chavannes was the
first man to get his staging up and the first to get it down. He
died two years ago, so it is hardly meet to draw a moral about the
excellence of doing things with neatness and dispatch. Sargent's
"Prophets" cover scarcely one-tenth of the space assigned him, and
the rest is bare white walls, patiently awaiting his brush. Recently
he was asked when he would complete the task, and he replied,
"Never, unless I learn to paint better than I do now--Abbey has
I need not attempt to describe Abbey's work in the Boston Library--a
full account of it can be found in the first magazine you pick up.
But it is a significant fact that Abbey himself is not wholly
pleased with it. "Give me a little time," he says, "and I'll do
something worth while."
These words were spoken half in jest, but there is no doubt that the
artist, now in the fulness of his powers, in perfect health, in love
with life, sees before him work to do of such vast worth that all
that lies behind seems but a preparation for that which is yet to
The question is sometimes asked, "What becomes of all the
Valedictorians and Class-Day Poets?" I can give information as to
two parties for whom inquiry is made: the Valedictorian of my Class
is now a worthy Floorwalker in Siegel, Cooper and Company's; and I
was the Class-Day Poet. Both of us had our eyes on the Goal. We
stood on the threshold and looked out upon the World preparatory to
going forth, seizing it by the tail and snapping its head off for
our own delectation.
We had our eyes fixed on the Goal--it might better have been the
It was a very absurd thing for us to fix our eyes on the Goal. It
strained our vision and took our attention from our work.
To think of the Goal is to travel the distance over and over in your
mind and dwell on how awfully far off it is. We have so little mind
--doing business on such a small capital of intellect--that to wear
it threadbare looking for a far-off thing is to get hopelessly
stranded in Siegel, Cooper and Company's.
Siegel, Cooper and Company's is all right, too, but the point is
this--it wasn't the Goal!
A goodly dash of indifference is a requisite in the formula for
doing a great work.
Nobody knows what the Goal is--we are sailing under sealed orders.
Do your work today, doing it the best you can, and live one day at a
time. The man that does this is conserving his God-given energy, and
not spinning it out into tenuous spider-threads that Fate will
probably brush away.
To do your work well today is the surest preparation for something
better tomorrow--the past is gone, the future we can not reach, the
present only is ours. Each day's work is a preparation for the next.
Live in the present--the Day is here, the time is Now.
Edwin A. Abbey seems to be the perfect type of man, who by doing all
his work well, with no vaulting ambitions, has placed himself right
in the line of evolution. He is evolving into something better,
stronger and nobler all the time. That is the only thing worth
praying for--to be in the line of evolution.