Story type: Essay
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 attempted.
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 infancy.
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 “Harper’s Weekly.”
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 three weeks.
“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 theorist.
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.
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 of mail.
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 imagined.
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 his brethren.
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 was.
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 discouraged me!”
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 come.
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 Gaol.
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.
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