John Colby Abbott, Jr. (1863-1910) was a designer, writer, and public speaker from Boston. He was a key creative force behind the Boston Art Students Association (BASA) and their legendary festivals that energized Boston’s art scene in the early 1890s. He also gave popular lectures on 18th century French fashion that earned him invitations to New York, Paris, London, and the White House.
Abbott was born in Brookline, Massachusetts. His father, John Colby Abbott, Sr., was president of an insurance company, and his mother, Elizabeth Lincoln Abbott, was a counselor and board-member at The New England Hospital for Women and Children.
Abbott was a member of the first class to graduate from the School of The Museum of Fine Arts, and a founding member the BASA, which began in 1879 as an alumni association for the school. In the late 1880s, it began admitting non-alumni as members (Abbott’s Visionist friends Ralph Adams Cram and Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue were among the first) and eventually changed its name to Copley Society.
The group was motivated in 1890 by the unexpected death of a beloved teacher and first headmaster of the school, Otto Grundmann, to raise money to build a studio building in Copley Square in his memory. Grundmann Studios, designed by Cram, , contained two large galleries as well as live-work and work-only studios for rent. Abbott moved in when it was completed in 1894.
BASA members were well-connected in Boston society and their fundraising events were collaborations with their wealthy patrons, who included Isabella Stewart Gardner. Their yearly “Artists’ Festivals”,elaborate and immersive theme parties inspired by the students’ romantic visions of bygone worlds, were the subject of detailed articles, both before and after the events, not only in the local papers but in New York and other US cities.
Abbott had several different roles in the BASA in its early days, but came to be known as the driving force behind their theatrical productions and Artists Festivals. For the 1896 “Arabian Nights” festival, a team or artists led by Goodhue transformed one of the Grundmann galleries into the court of Caliph Harun Al-Rashid. Abbott and Gardner teamed up to costume scores of volunteers who mingled with guests as characters from the world of the Arabian Nights stories. They also held open studio hours in advance of the event for guests who needed help with their costumes, which were mandatory. Abbott, after greeting the high-class attendees in character as the caliph’s son Noureddin, asked them to sit on the floor of the gallery to watch a short play he wrote introducing the court. This was followed by music, dance, and magic acts until 12:15am. According to The Bostonian magazine, “the festival, which had begun with a certain decorum, that might be called Boston reserve … finally eliminated itself, as it were, from the cocoon of moderation into a full-fledge butterfly of innocent, joyous abandon.”
The BASA events seem to have played a major role in bringing together the artists who would form Boston’s bohemia in the 1890s, and this is likely how Abbott got to know Cram and Goodhue. In his autobiography, Cram remembered Abbott as a core member of the Visionists and the source of the costume Herbert Copeland used to officiate as “exarch and high priest of Isis”.
After graduating Abbott worked as an interior decorator and salesman for Shepard, Norwood, and Co., a department store on Winter Street in Boston. In the 1880s and early 1890s, he was active in the Boston theater community as a costume designer, actor, and playwright. His costume design credits included “Tabasco”, one of a series of very popular all-male burlesque operas produced by the First Corps of Cadets to raise funds to build an armory in the Back Bay. He wrote at least two plays that were produced: “A Private Séance” was staged by a repertory company in Helena, Montana. “The Hit”, in which Abbott played a theater owner, was staged in Boston by “The Strollers”, an amateur company affiliated with the BASA.
In 1895, Cram’s business partner Charles Wentworth wrote Cram a letter urging him to distance himself from his Visionist friends, especially Abbott, who he said was “rapidly getting a most questionable reputation”. In another letter he compared Abbott to Oscar Wilde, who was arrested for “gross indecency” that year, which suggests Abbott’s “questionable reputation” had to do with being perceived as gay.
In 1903, Abbott married Meribah Philbrick Reed, a poet originally from New Hampshire, in a small ceremony at a friend’s home. They moved to Chestnut St. on Beacon Hill, not far from the Crams.
In the 1890s and early 1900s Abbott gave lectures on cultural history subjects for the BASA and other organizations. His most popular presentation, which he was invited to give at Gardner’s home and those of other society women, was titled “Foibles and Furbelows of the Past”, about the fashions at Versaille in the period leading up to the French revolution. For these talks he used a life-sized cardboard doll he created called “Le Grand Pandore” to model outfits. In 1909 he was invited to present this talk in New York, London, and Paris, and and the White House for an event organized by First Lady Edith Roosevelt.
In the 1900s Abbott served as editor of costume-related photos for the French history book Days of the Directoire by A.R. Allinson. He also had a short story titled “Mamie” published in The Reader magazine.
Abbott died in 1910 at the age of 47. Strangely, though they had mentioned him many times over the years, the Boston papers don’t seem to have published an obituary or any information about his death. Meribah Abbott took over giving presentations with “Le Grande Pandore”, adapting the talk into a regular performance at Keith’s, a Boston vaudeville theater, in 1910. In 1913 she moved to Kittery Point, Maine, where she lived until her death in 1923.
* Updated 08/17/2017 with info from the early files of the Boston Art Student Association / Copley Society, from the Smithsonian’s Archive of American Art.
Pelletier, Mabel C., “Festival of the Boston Art Students Association”, The Bostonian, v.1 1894-85, p.354
Oliver, John N., “The Copley Society of Boston”, New England Magazine, January 1905, vol. 31, no.5, p.605
Shand-Tucci, Douglass, Boston Bohemia 1881-1900: Ralph Adams Cram: Life and Architecture, U. of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1995
The Boston Globe:
Ad for Shoe and Leather Insurance Co., 05/06/1875 p.5
“Barnet’s Peppery Opera”, 12/31/1893, p.29
“The Hit”, 02/28/1890, p.6
“Fun With The Caliph”, 04/05/1896, p.26
“Table Gossip”, 11/22/1903, p.43
“Famous Doll at Keiths”, 07/06/1910, p.9
“Table Gossip”, 11/13/1913, p.50
“Merry Widow Hats in 18th Century”, The New York Times, 01/05/1909, p.7
“Social Doings of the Week in Paris”, The American Register, London, 05/22/1909, p.3
“News from the Field”, The American Kitchen Magazine, April, 1899, Vol. XI, No.1., p.36
“The Soubrette”, The Daily Independent, Helena, MT, 03/10 1894 p. 6
Oliver, John N., “The Copley Society of Boston”, New England Magazine, January 1905, vol. 31, no.5, p.605
Society Page, The Washington Post, 02/07/1909, p.E6
“Kittery Point”, The Portsmouth Herald, 03/15/1923, p.2
Annual Report of New England Hospital for Women and Children, 1899
History of the New England Hospital for Women and Children, 1899
Clark’s Blue Book, Boston, 1905
Allinson, A.R., Days of the Directoire, John Lane, London, 1910
Abbott, John Colby, “Mamie”, The Reader, Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1904, vol. 4 p.366
1893 JAC Sr. Death Record
1901 JAC Jr. Application for Passport
1910 JAC Jr. Death Record
1903 JAC Jr. & MPR Marriage Record
Frederic Field Bullard (1864-1904) was a composer from Boston. He is best known for “A Stein Song”, co-written with fellow Visionist Richard Hovey, which was a favorite on college campuses. (You can hear a recording of “A Stein Song” by contemporary musician Nicole Edgecomb at the end of the “Visionists of Boston” documentary, or a vintage recording from the Library of Congresss linked below).
According to his friend and fellow MIT grad, poet Gelett Burgess, Bullard suffered a spinal injury as an infant which caused occasional pain throughout his life. He was an intellectually curious child who attended the Boston Latin School and then MIT. While studying chemistry as a “special student” he was active in MIT Glee Club performances, playing piano, flute, and double-bass as well as singing. After graduating in 1887, he decided to pursue his musical passion and spent several years in Munich, Germany studying under composer Josef Rheinberger.
Bullard returned to the US in 1892, initially to receive a prestigious music award in New York, then returned to Boston, were he kept himself very busy composing, arranging, and teaching music. He was successful in having several of his pieces published, including “A Stein Song” in 1898, though according to Burgess he never made a living from publishing. In 1896 he married his MIT classmate Maud Sanderson and in 1898 they had a son, Theodore Vail Bullard.
Like his fellow Visionists, Bullard was inspired by the past and by British Romanticism. His published songs included adaptations of poems by Percy Bysshe Shelly such as “Hymn to Pan”. According to Burgess, Bullard was slightly embarrassed to be best know for the “catchy” Stein Song and hoped to be remembered for his more sophisticated compositions. Fellow composer and MIT grad Leo R. Lewis wrote that Bullard was a true musical genius: “I am confident that the concert-giver of the year 2000, making up a programme of a score of the best songs by American composers who were at work in 1900, cannot justly omit a song by Frederic Field Bullard. Nay, more!”
Burgess wrote that Bullard’s associates “were such men as Richard Hovey, Bliss Carman, Ralph Adams Cram, and that little coterie of artists who, first as ‘The Visionists’ and afterward as the ‘Pewter Mugs’, contributed what was most joyous to life in Boston in the 1890’s. With these Bullard, in virtue of his character as well as his talent, was a boon comrade. He was of that ‘Vagabondia’ which gave to the town a new prestige, and he contributed not a little to that frenzied burst of youth which was embodied in ‘Chap Book’ times.” Ralph Adams Cram, who collaborated with Bullard on “Royalist Songs” inspired by Cram’s love of English monarchy, believed Bullard would have been recognized as a genius had he lived longer.
Bullard remained very dedicated to the MIT community, and MIT president Henry S. Pritchett asked him to lead students in compiling the first MIT song book, published in 1903 as Tech Songs: The MIT Kommers Book. In 1904, at the age of 39, Bullard died of pneumonia. Burgess believed that he “literally worked himself to death” preparing music for that year’s Tech Reunion event. Bullard and his family had recently moved from Boston to Scituate, Massachusetts (also home to Thomas Meteyard).
The “Stein Song” remained a staple of MIT Glee Club performances, including “pops” concerts at which the club performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It came to be considered MIT’s Alma Mater song (although the lyrics did not reference MIT) and freshmen were instructed to stand and remove their hats whenever they heard it. It was also a favorite at Dartmouth College (Richard Hovey’s alma mater) and Tufts University (where Leo Lewis taught). Lewis included it in a 1915 Tufts song book re-titled as “Campus Song” with lyrics slightly altered to refer to Tufts. In the 1920s, MIT held a series of contests for a new alma mater song to replace the “Stein Song,” in part because its drinking theme became more controversial during Prohibition. The attempts to change the song were not popular among students and alumni, and none of the winners caught on easily. “Arise Ye Sons of MIT” by 1926 alum John B. Wilbur is now described as “MIT’s closest thing to an old alma mater”.
Vintage Recording of “A Stein Song” by Frederic Field Bullard and Richard Hovey from the Library of Congress
Vintage Recording of “Beam From Yonder Star” by Frederic Field Bullard and William Prescott Foster from the Library of Congress
“Bullard: The Man” by Gellet Burgess and “Bullard: The Musician” by Leo R. Lowry, Technology Review, January 1904, pp. 586-601
Crams, Ralph Adams, “My Life in Architecture“, Little, Brown, and Company, 1936
Wikipedia (stub page only in German so far)
Kahlil Gibran is best known as a poet and the author of The Prophet, but he was also an accomplished visual artist. Most of his work is now in the Gibran National Committee’s Museum in his home town of Bsharreh, Lebanon. However the following seven drawings reside in Harvard’s Houghton Library, a legacy of his brief but formative time in Boston. Gibran drew these between the ages of 19 and 21 and gifted them to Josephine Preston Peabody, his close friend and poetic mentor who called him “my young prophet” and likely had a major influence on his most famous book.
The drawings were given to the library by Peabody’s later husband, Lionel Simeon Marks, who was a Harvard professor. One contains an Arabic inscription by Gibran which was translated by Harvard Professor William Thomson as follows:
“Give heed, o soul, for Love calls to thee, so listen:
Open the doors of thy heart and receive Love and the King.”
Check out the article on their new Medium page:
On December 16 each year Cram and two of his contemporaries are honored by the Episcopalian Church.
Check out the Visionists page just added to Wikipedia!