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Sunday, April 14, 2019

Joseph Abbey

Robert J. Kirkpatrick

Joseph Abbey, the younger brother of the illustrator Salomon Van Abbe (perhaps best-known today for his dustjackets and frontispieces for several of Anthony Buckeridge’s “Jennings” books in the early 1950s), was a minor illustrator of children’s books, perhaps best-known for his dustwrappers and illustrations for six of Enid Blyton’s stories in the 1940s. He was also, for a while, in demand as a dustwrapper artist for adult fiction.

He was born on 8 December 1888 in Amsterdam, the third son of Maurice [also known as Morris, but born Mozes] Van Abbe (1859-1919), a diamond cutter, and his French-born wife Rachel, née Rose (1859-1952). They had married in Amsterdam on 23 June 1881, and went on to have four children: Isaac (born on 11 August 1882), Salomon (born on 31 July 1883), Marianne (born on 27 August 1887), and Joseph.  The family came to England in early 1890, and settled at 51 St. Peter Street, Mile End Old Town, east London, with Maurice having changed profession and now working as a cigar maker. (Isaac was not recorded, suggesting that he had died.)

On 23 June 1896 Joseph and his sister Marianne were enrolled in Senrab Street School, Stepney, Tower Hamlets, with his address given as 147 Stepney Green Buildings. A year later, on 21 May 1897, his mother was admitted to the Mile End Workhouse in Tower Hamlets, and, having been declared insane, was transferred to the lunatic asylum at Colney Hatch, Friern Barnet three days later. She appears to have remained there until her death in 1952.

Joseph was subsequently transferred to the District Jews Hospital and Orphan Asylum in Norwood, Lambeth, where he was recorded in the 1901 census. (There appears to be no trace of his family elsewhere in that year’s census.) In November 1902 he was recorded as having won a gramophone in a drawing competition in Pearson’s Weekly, for completing a picture of a clown.

It is not known when he left the school, or where he received his artistic training (if, indeed, he received any – he may have received some tuition from his brother). However, by the time of the 1911 census he was, alongside his brother, working as an artist, and living with his father, brother and sister at 18 Marjorie Grove, Clapham Common. Marianne was recorded as an artist’s agent.  The family name was recorded as “Abbey” – whether or not this was a mistake by the census enumerator, or a conscious decision by the family, is not known, although Joseph used the name “Abbey” thereafter.

On 14 June 1911 he joined the Amalgamated Society of Lithographic Artists, Engravers and Process-Workers, although he was excluded, for a reason not recorded, in 1915. (His brother had been a member of the same trade union between 1903 and 1909.)

His earliest-known work as an illustrator appeared in 1915, when he contributed to the magazine Yes or No, published by Harry Shurey. In 1921, he produced a cover for Charles Shurey’s boys’ pocket library series The Cogwheel Library, and over the following few years he contributed to the Amalgamated Press’s Detective Magazine, Yellow Magazine and Red Magazine, and George Newnes’s Crusoe Mag. In 1927 he began a long association with the boys’ story paper Chums, and served as its Art Editor during the 1930s.

At the same time, he had begun a career as an illustrator of children’s books, beginning with Archibald Hurd’s Ordeal by Sea, published by Jarrold & Sons in 1918. He went on to illustrate several more adventures stories, including Biggles In Spain (1939) alongside Howard Leigh, and two of J.W. Kenyon’s “Peter Trant” stories. However, he was best-known as the illustrator of the first six of Enid Blyton’s stories about the “The Five Find-Outers” – about five children, aged between 9 and 14 (and a dog) who stumble across mysteries and beat the village policeman to the solution.

In 1949 he provided the dustwrapper and internal black and white illustrations for the first “Tom Merry” annual, published by Mandeville Publications. He also provided the internal illustrations for the second annual, while it appears the dustwrapper was designed by his brother. He had previously contributed to a handful of children’s other annuals and story collections. He was also credited with writing and illustrating Birds and Their Eggs, published by Ward, Lock & Co. in 1949, and which contained 25 colour plates.

His work, in particular the dustwrappers he designed, seem to be occasionally confused with those produced by his brother Salomon. There are numerous dustwrappers from between the 1920s to the 1940s that are signed “Abbey,” with a range of stylistic flourishes. While it has been suggested that some of these were the work of Joseph, it appears more likely that they were done by Salomon – they all have a rounded capital “A,” which Salomon used when he signed his work “S Van Abbe,” whereas when Joseph signed his work “J. Abbey” he used an angular “A.”

One of the dustwrappers that carries the name “J. Abbey” was that for the first edition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, published by John Murray in 1927 (with his brother having apparently designed the dustwrapper for the earlier His Last Bow: Some Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1917). 

He occasionally did other commercial work, such as the cover of a recording of "The Gondoliers” for H.M.V. Records in 1919.

It must be said that the quality of Joseph Abbey’s work varied enormously. His portraits of Sherlock Holmes, for example, are exemplary, and many of his other adult characters were skillfully done. But he was not always very good at drawing young children. Some of his Enid Blyton illustrations had children who were nothing like their written characters, and were often ugly or with mis-shapen heads, and others were simply slapdash. His colour frontispiece for Harold Avery’s A Close Finish must be one of the worst illustrations ever to appear in a boys’ school story.

In the late 1920s he moved to Streatham, in South London, where he became a member of the Streatham Art Society. In 1933, he was recorded as living at 19 Thornton Avenue, Streatham, and in the 1939 Register he was recorded, under the name Joseph Van Abbé, at 33 Leigham Court Road, Wandsworth.

He died on 11 August 1954 (after choking on a fishbone) at 28 Congress Road, Streatham, leaving a small estate of just £305 (around £7,600 in today’s terms), with probate granted to his brother Salomon.


Books written and illustrated by J. Abbey
Birds and Their Eggs, Ward, Lock & Co., 1949

Books illustrated by J. Abbey
Ordeal by Sea by Archibald Hurd, Jarrold & Sons, 1918
Brother and Sister: A Story of Japanese Life by M.J. Oxlad, S.P.C.K., 1923 (re-issue)
The Wife’s Trials and Triumphs by Emma Jane Worboise, Hutchinson & Co., 1924 (re-issue)
The Hunter: A Story of Bushman Life by Ernest Glanville, Jonathan Cape, 1926
Birds of the Seashore by H.J. Massingham, T. Werner Laurie, 1931 (with E.E. Clarke & Eric Daglish)
Out and About by G. Gibbard Jackson, Dean & Son, 1932
A Close Finish and Other School Stories by Harold Avery, S.W. Partridge & Co., 1934
Bred in the “Blue”, or Ways of the African Wildfolk by W.S. Chadwick, Andrew Melrose, 1936 (with Dorothy Kay)
Major Exploits: Further Adventures of The Major by Louis Patrick Greene, John Hamilton, 1936 (re-issue)
Biggles in Spain by W.E. Johns, Oxford University Press, 1939 (with Howard Leigh)
The Great Tabu: Adventures of Tabu Dick by Louis Patrick Greene, George G. Harrap & Co., 1940
Treasure Valley: A Tale for Boys by Louis Patrick Greene, George G. Harrap & Co., 1940
Flak: The Story of a Canine Hero of the War by Shirley Goulden, W.H. Allen & Co., 1943
The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage by Enid Blyton, Methuen & Co., 1943
Peter Trant: Cricketer-Detective by James William Kenyon, Methuen & Co., 1944
The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat by Enid Blyton, Methuen & Co., 1944
The Mystery of the Secret Room by Enid Blyton, Methuen & Co., 1945
Alan of the Athletic by James W. Kenyon, Methuen & Co., 1945
Peter Trant: Heavyweight Champion by James William Kenyon, Methuen & Co., 1946
The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters by Enid Blyton, Methuen & Co., 1946
The Mystery of the Missing Necklace by Enid Blyton, Methuen & Co., 1947
Young Mohamed: A Tale by E. Gordon Savage, Noel Carrington, 1947
The Mystery of the Hidden House by Enid Blyton, Methuen & Co., 1948
Dark Champion by Arthur Waterhouse, Brockhampton Press, 1948
The Mystery of the Pantomime Cat by Enid Blyton, Methuen & Co., 1949
Kestrels Over the Beacon by Stanley Weston Mason, Brockhampton Press, 1949
Tom Merry’s Annual, Mandeville Publications, 1949
Rallying Round Gussy by Martin Clifford, Mandeville Publications, 1950
Tom Merry’s Own, Mandeville Publications, 1950
Adventures Among Books by J.J. Sullivan, University of London Press, 1950
The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, abridged by J.B. Marshall, E.J. Arnold, (?)

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