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Edwin A. Abbey


Centurion, 1897–1911

Full Name Edwin Austin Abbey

Born 1 April 1852 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Died 1 August 1911 in Gloucester, England

Buried St. Andrew’s Church, Kingsbury, Greater London, England

Proposed by Edmund C. Stedman and Rufus F. Zogbaum

Elected 2 October 1897 at age forty-five

Century Memorials

The Century has likewise to deplore the death of famous artists, suddenly fallen in the mellow prime of life with minds creative and hands still apt to carry out the thought. Although Edwin Austin Abbey rarely visited our shores, the passing of that generous personality touches us with a sense of loss hardly second to the loss which illustration and painting have suffered from his death. It would be unbecoming in a layman to add a word to the many recent criticisms and appreciations of his work as an illustrator and a mural painter. The praise accorded to his pen drawings is hearty and unanimous, and hearty also, if somewhat divergent and uttered in many different notes, is the praise given to his mural paintings, the Holy Grail series in the Boston Public Library and those for the Pennsylvania Capitol. Praise also has been generously given to his Coronation of Edward VII, a subject of almost insuperable difficulty in itself, and in the execution attended with such harrowing annoyances that Abbey refused to undertake a similar commission for the recent Coronation of George V. All critics emphasize the painstaking conscientiousness which kept him as an artist always at his truest and his best. From the time—it was in 1878—when Abbey went to England to seek out the setting for illustrations of Herrick’s poems, his heart was won by that land where scenes beheld for the first time by us Americans come to us like sweet memories. As an illustrator of Herrick, of Shakespeare, it was natural that henceforth Abbey should stay in that England which still presented to his imaginative eye the Elizabethan past. There his life was happy and successful. With sufficient retirement in his charming home in Fairford, Gloucestershire, he also enjoyed wide popularity and the friendship of the great as well as of the interesting whenever he lent himself to society.

Henry Osborn Taylor
1912 Century Association Yearbook

Abbey was born in Philadelphia in 1852, studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and then began as a magazine illustrator before he was 20. He moved to England in 1878 where he was made a full member of the Royal Academy in 1898. In 1902 he was chosen to paint the coronation of King Edward VII, and in 1907 he declined an offer of knighthood in order to retain his U.S. citizenship. Abbey was close friends with other expatriate American artists, and in the summers he painted with John Singer Sargent at the home of Francis Davis Millet, who died on the sinking of the Titanic. Millet wrote a last letter, which he posted in Queenstown, in which he complained about his fellow passengers:

“Queer lot of people on the ship. There are a number of obnoxious, ostentatious American women, the scourge of any place they infest and worse on shipboard than anywhere. Many of them carry tiny dogs, and lead husbands around like pet lambs.”

Abbey worked on a series of murals for the Boston Public Library in the 1890s, a project that took him 11 years to complete in his England studio. In 1908, Abbey began painting murals and other artwork for the rotunda of the new Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. Unfortunately, Abbey became so ill with cancer in 1911 that his studio assistant, Ernest Board, along with Sargent, his friend and neighbor, completed the work with little supervision from Abbey. He died August 1, 1911.

He was elected to the National Academy of Design and The American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1937, Yale University became the home for a sizable collection of Abbey’s works, the result of a bequest from his widow.

James Charlton
“Centurions on Stamps,” Part I (Exhibition, 2010)