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.