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The Tinker's Song

Edwin Austin Abbey (American, 1852–1911)


Medium pen and ink on cardboard Measurements H: 11 1/4 x W: 7 3/8 in. (28.57 x 18.73 cm) Credit Purchase Accession Number 14.4 Location Not on View


The introduction of photomechanical reproduction in the late 1870s had much to do with Abbey's rise to fame. During his early years at Harper's, wood-engravers with widely varying skills had determined thefinal appearance of his work, but by 1880 his drawing could be exactly transcribed, which gave him full control over the finished image. The new technology allowed him to exploit a brisk, versatile pen technique that would have daunted the most expert wood-engraver, in which a loosely executed web of crosshatching vibrantly conveys nuances of light and texture. Through photo-engraving Abbey's work could appear at its best in inexpensive formats available to a wide audience. Abbey drew The Tinker's Song for Selections from the Poetry of Robert Herrick, published by Harper and Brothers in 1882. This commission was in many respects a crucial event in his career: it sent him to England in 1878 in search of background material, and it established him as an illustrator of fine literature instead of just periodical ephemera. Joseph Pennell praised "the charming Herrick" as one of the artist's finest efforts, a work that "every pen draughtsman should own." Abbey's illustrations to Herrick also marked the full emergence of his great passion for the meticulous reconstruction of the past. One can be quite certain that the setting for The Tinker's Song is an authentic seventeenth-century country inn and that all the details, from aprons to beer mugs, are correct for the period. The composition as a whole recalls seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish tavern scenes, the visual counterparts to Herrick's carousing lyrics. "I feel it is my duty as well as my pleasure," Abbey wrote in 1902, "to be guilty of as few historical inaccuracies as this antiquarian age permits." Today Abbey's elaborate concern for archaeological authenticity may seem excessive; and some of Abbey's contemporaries, notably the followers of Whistler and the "art for art's sake" movement, attacked it as irrelevant to true aesthetic merit. Most, however, found it a legitimate source of pleasure. Even Pennell, a close friend of Whistler, was susceptible: While the superficial qualities of Abbey's work can be imitated by anyone, his renderings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which he has reconstructed so wonderfully, will never be approached on the lines he followed. . . . No illustrator has realized more beautiful women or finer swaggering gallants, and no one has placed them in more appropriate surroundings. He made the figures real for us because all the backgrounds and accessories are real - drawn from nature. By the 1890s Abbey's studio, fondly described by Henry James as "the most romantic place in this prosaic age," had become a veritable museum of costumes, artifacts, and architectural casts; and Abbey himself had become the last major exponent of the already moribund British tradition of impeccably researched historical and literary painting.

Artist Bio

Sadakichi Hartmann called Edwin Austin Abbey "a virtuoso of penmanship, one of the greatest pen-and-ink artists that ever lived." Joseph Pennell thought him "the greatest American illustrator." Indeed, Abbey was an extraordinarily popular artist and a key figure in the flowering of American illustration that took place in the 1870s.

After working as an apprentice wood-engraver for a publisher in his native Philadelphia, Abbey joined the staff of Harper and Brothers in 1870 and soon became the firm's leading illustrator. He settled in England after 1878, where he joined a circle of brilliant expatriates that included Frank D. Millet, John Singer Sargent, and Henry James. Despite his success as a painter (he became a Royal Academician in 1898 and in 1902 was appointed court artist for the coronation of Edward VII), Abbey remained a regular contributor to Harper's Weekly almost until his death.