Abbey was born in Philadelphia and studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy but he settled permanently in England in 1880. He excelled at history painting and was commissioned to do a number of large murals both in the United States and Europe. He was an accomplished illustrator, especially known for his work on Robert Herrick, Oliver Goldsmith and Shakespeare. But despite his popularity with the Victorian public and the large sums his paintings earned then, "Abbey's works are too large and rhetorical for modern taste, and find little favour" (Wood, Dictionary 1).
This assessment of Abbey's work is perhaps due for revision, thanks to a recent exhibit of his works in 1994-5 at the Folger Shakespeare Library and several universities in the United States. In evaluating Abbey's pictures on Shakespearian subjects, Lucy Oakley, in her catalog of the Folger exhibit, urges us "to employ them as windows onto Victorian culture and appreciate them as fascinating aesthetic objects in their own right" (80).