Monday, August 1, 2011

Edwin Austin Abbey Died 100 Years Ago Today

“He is a comical little fellow, but quite the gentleman; he wears glasses, and being troubled with dyspepsia, has a habit of grinning in rather a ferocious manner.”

So wrote Howard Pyle about Edwin Austin Abbey in 1878. Pyle and Abbey became friends around that time and although Abbey moved more or less permanently to England the following December, they stayed in touch over the years. Pyle later said that the news of Abbey’s death on August 1, 1911, “came to me with a great shock of surprise, for I had not even known that he was sick.”

An article titled “Harper in Other Days,” which appeared in the New-York Tribune of December 3, 1899, included this anecdote-rich passage - which may not be entirely accurate - about the two illustrators when they first got to know each other:

Edwin Abbey, by all accounts, must have been the “Little Billee" of the lot [of staff artists at Harper & Brothers]; tradition says that the others used to gaze at his work, seeking hints from it in return for their admiration. Long after he removed his bodily presence to other scenes - his artistic presence is still in Franklin Square - those he left behind could point to the table where he had worked, and a great find among the lumber of the office was a portfolio full of clippings of Charles Keene’s work in “Punch” which Abbey had left there. But success and admiration never spoiled him, as witness the tradition of the enlistment of Howard Pyle. A tradition may not exactly reproduce facts, but it must be consistent with the character of its subject, if it lives. This one says that Howard Pyle used to bring sketches and ideas to the office, but for some time no particular notice was taken of him or of them. Some of the ideas were used, but the sketches always had to be redrawn. In those days Mr. Pyle could not draw. At last he was surprised to see one of his things engraved just as he had sent it in. While he was waiting with a properly dignified show of indifference for the check in payment to be mailed to his address, Mr. Pyle’s attention was one evening attracted by strange rhythmical hammerings on the lid of a coal box that stood on the landing outside the door of his address. In going out to see what these sounds might mean, he found another young man drawing. “Is this Mr. Pyle?" said the visitor. "My name is Abbey. I came to ask you to come up to the office and make one of us."

All these "great boys," as they may properly be called, since they have developed into great men, were among the objects of interest which were shown to country visitors in Franklin Square. They worked in separate boxes with the light, which was not a north light, by the way, coming in from the Pearl-st. windows, long before the days of Roebling's bridge or the elevated road, and, no doubt, they in their humble degree impressed the visitors even as the great editors impressed them. But they did not like this kind of glory; and that was how the system of "personally conducted tours" through the Harpers' building was brought to an end. The illustrators, instigated, instructed and led - so the story goes - by Mr. Abbey, made a plot by which, whenever they should ascertain from their scouts that tourists were approaching, each illustrator should simulate some specified wild beast. It would have been interesting to know what beast each played, whether Abbey took the lion’s part himself and made a monkey of A. B. Frost, and whether Thulstrup or Pyle acted like a bear, but these details could not be gathered in time for the present article. The effect, however, was that as soon as the regular show boy brought his party to that part of the building, saying, "There are the rooms where our artists work," the air was rent with growls, squeaks, grunts and roarings, and the visitors, peeping in, saw men on all fours. The visitors thought that the artists at Harper’s “acted very strangely,” and the report that those periodicals were Illustrated by a corps of lunatics might have spread and wrought harm had not Mr. Parsons interfered and induced the powers to put a stop to the institution of "showing around."


James Gurney said...

Thanks for these wonderful insights to the friendship of Pyle and Abbey. Have you blogged about the letter Abbey was said to have sent to Pyle imploring him to come to England and see the costumes and architecture with his own eyes?

Ian Schoenherr said...

I haven’t (yet!). Lucas, who quoted the Pyle-Abbey letters, noted that Abbey may never have sent that reply. I don't yet know if that’s true or not.