E. A. Abbey was born in Philadelphia and studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts in that city before becoming a draughtsman and then (aged 19) an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly in New York. He came to England in 1878, to produce illustrations for a serialised work in Harper's, staying in Warwickshire. He returned to the States in 1880, but within 8 months decided to permanently settle in England.
Abbey exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1885, establishing his reputation first as a black and white artist and then in oils. His first oil painting at the Royal Academy was Mayday Morn, and he became ARA in 1896 on the strength of his Richard Duke of Gloucester and the Lady Anne (from Shakespeare) in that year, and RA two years later. His subjects were largely chosen from the classics and history, as well as portraits.
Abbey worked in a variety of media, including as well as oil, watercolur and pen and ink, chalk, and pastel. He worked sometimes on the largest scale - his studio, Morgan Hall, was one of the largest private artist's studios in England, and contained a whole room of historical costumes. His magnum opus was a series of large pictures on the subject of the Quest for the Sangreal (1890-99) in Boston Public Library, America. In London, one important commission was a panel for the Royal Exchange.