A book inspired by a single, century-old photograph shares tales of early 20th Century California, including an artist couple's love affair with San Juan Bautista, where their creativity was fostered.
On Saturday, Feb. 21, the San Juan Bautista Historical Society hosted an event featuring historian and author, Julianne Burton-Carvajal. Burton-Carvajal recently released, “Artists’ Honeymoon: Rowena Meeks Abdy & Harry Bennett Abdy at Work & Play in Monterey & Beyond, 1910-1920.”
Before Burton-Carvajal discussed her new book at the Native Daughters of the Golden West Adobe on 4th Street in San Juan Bautista, attendees had the opportunity to view articles about the Abdys from the out-of-print San Juan Mission News, an archive donated to the historical society nearly two years ago. Interestingly, the information contained in the articles didn’t make it into Burton-Carvajal’s book, as the articles were discovered after its publication.
Following a lunch of quiche and spring salad, Burton-Carvajal was introduced by Wanda Guibert, the society’s acting president. Burton-Carvajal explained that the genesis for “Artists’ Honeymoon” was the result of a photo of Monterey purchased in 2012 by Monterey photo archivist, Pat Hathaway. Hathaway’s online purchase unearthed hundreds of others owned by a Texas seller. Eager to discover more local gems, Hathaway purchased the rest, spending almost a year transferring the glass negatives into positives.
Slowly scenes emerged of California from a century ago, including a group of Italian fishermen preparing for the day’s catch on the Monterey Bay, a pastoral setting along the Central Coast, and a plein air artist at her easel capturing, in oil and watercolors, the rhythm of life in San Juan Bautista during World War I.
As he worked his way through the collection of negatives held in envelopes, Hathaway discovered the name of one its original owners, Rowena Meeks Abdy. When Hathaway recognized a photo of a residence in Burton-Carvajal’s Monterey neighborhood, he contacted her. (As it turns out, the residence was built and occupied by the Abdys.) Intrigued by the century-old scenes and their backstory, Burton-Carvajal, a specialist in early California history, art, and architecture, contemplated a project on the Abdys and the art world they inhabited. With Hathaway’s encouragement, Burton-Carvajal decided to write a book.
Beginning in April of 2014, Burton-Carvajal worked eight hours a day, looking through Hathaway’s photos, researching the Abdys, and writing. As the days turned to weeks and then months, the Abdys came to life.
In 1887, Rowena Meeks Fischer was born in Austria to American-born parents. An early death befell both her mother and father, leaving Rowena eventually in the care of stepparents. Her talent for art had surfaced while she was a young girl, later evolving and maturing in several art schools she attended.
By 1910, Rowena was a notable, California artist—her work appearing in San Francisco and Monterey art galleries. That same year she met Harry Bennet Abdy, a writer twenty years her senior whose penchant for adventure led him from his birthplace in England and across North America, “ ‘from Winnipeg to Mexico,’ “ Burton-Carvajal describes in her book. Six months after their introduction, Rowena and Harry married and settled in Monterey, where the couple became a fixture among the city’s art colony.
During her Saturday presentation, Burton-Carvajal explained that the Abdys never had children nor did they have formal jobs, as Rowena’s inheritance had provided the newlyweds with a reliable source of income. Free from familial and financial responsibilities, they enjoyed an extended honeymoon (hence the title of Burton-Carvajal’s book, “Artists' Honeymoon.”) During this time, the couple traveled the length of California in an art studio on wheels, Rowena painting plein air scenes of the Golden State, while Harry took photographs and crafted prose “near his wife’s easel,” writes Burton-Carvajal.
Among the many places the couple enjoyed spending their days was San Juan Bautista. Rowena and Harry “fell in love” with the city, according to Burton-Carvajal. From the historical record, the Abdys visited the town countless times, spending half of 1918 as residents of the onetime Mission Hotel, according to the Aug. 6, 1918 edition of the San Juan Mission News.
As Burton-Carvajal spun the yarn of the Abdys' life, she passed around 20 enlarged photographs of images found in her book, pictures that included Rowena standing below the San Juan Bautista Mission’s arcade with a surgical mask, an indication of the precautions the American public took when venturing outside during the deadly flu pandemic of 1918.
The area around mission figured prominently in the Abdys' visits to the City of History and provided Rowena with artistic inspiration.
For example, among Rowena’s works is a painting near the entrance to the church. The painting became part of a book, “Old California: Being Ten Reproductions of Watercolors by Rowena Meeks.” Using his gift for the written word, Harry provided context for each painting featured in the book. In a phone interview, Burton-Carvajal explained that Harry called this area, as many locals did, the Garden of the Apostles—a reference to the large cypress trees that stood as sentries over the sacred place.
Other locations that captivated Rowena’s palette, included the facade and rear of the Castro-Breen Adobe and 3rd Street.
In 1919, Rowena, ostensibly at the urging of the parish priest, created a new sign board for the mission. On Feb. 11, 1919, The San Juan Mission News reported that this endeavor was a team effort by the Abdys, stating that “Mrs. Abdy and her husband are taking a great interest in beautifying and making presentable the surroundings of this historical spot.”
As a writer, Harry, too, found inspiration and solace in San Juan Bautista. In fact, while staying at the Mission Hotel with his wife, he penned, “On the Ohio,” a book about the Abdys' river adventure with their dear friend and artist, Armin Hansen. Once again, the husband-writer and artist-wife joined forces. Reporting on another of the Adbys' visits, the Mission News stated on April 2, 1921 that, “Mr. Abdy wrote his successful book in Old San Juan, in room number two at the Mission Hotel, and Mrs. Abdy also made all the drawings there for the illustrations in the book.”
Their adoration for San Juan Bautista was so strong that the Abdys considered making it their home. But as Burton-Carvajal suspects, the lure of a larger artistic setting—one that would showcase Rowena’s work and lead to more publication opportunities for Harry—eventually trumped the small town’s appeal. The couple left Monterey and settled in San Francisco.
By 1930, the Abdys’ marital bliss had ended for reasons not mentioned in Burton-Carvajal’s book and for which the author didn’t care to speculate on.
Rowena continued living on Lombard Street in San Francisco, but soon her heartfelt sentiments for the mission town led her down that serpentine street back to San Juan Bautista.
In June of 1934, an article appeared in the Mission News announcing the construction of a new home and art studio on Franklin Street—its future owner, “Mrs. Rowena Meeks Abdy, famous San Francisco artist.” The article described the home, as “of real early Spanish California architecture” consisting of “five rooms and a bath” and to the “east of this” an art studio. The front of the home would be accentuated by “[a] beautiful garden.”
By September, the home was completed and Rowena became a San Juan Bautista resident, though not a permanent one. In fact, it’s unclear how long she resided at her Franklin Street residence, but thankfully the home still stands. What’s certain is that the artist retained her home in San Francisco until her death in April 1945, while Harry “born nearly twenty years earlier…would outlive her by nearly two decades,” as Burton-Carvajal notes in her book.
When discussing the book’s format, Burton-Carvajal explained in a phone interview that she wanted a unique way of presenting a story of a husband and wife that considered themselves first and foremost as artists, and whose lives the author wanted to use an an “intimate window” into Monterey’s art colony.
Her decision was to create a book in the style of the Arts and Crafts movement of the latter part of the 19th Century—a movement that favored unique design and craftsmanship over the cookie-cutter products forged in factories. In addition, she wanted to complement the narrative with 160 of the Abdys’ photos in sepia, a decision that captured the photo’s texture, while exponentially increasing the project’s cost. Moreover, she wanted this book about the Monterey Bay region to be printed in the area, not shipped overseas. In order to fund the project, Burton-Carvajal reached out to community donors whose generous gifts and donations covered the project’s $25,000 price tag.
Despite the critical acclaim that Rowena’s work received during her lifetime and the numerous exhibitions and galleries where it was showcased, few of her pieces are displayed in public today. As Burton-Carvajal explained to her Saturday audience, she believes most of Rowena’s artwork is in the hands of private collectors or hidden away in garages and attics, covered in dust and waiting to be rediscovered. Her message to local galleries and residents: keep your eyes peeled for these artistic treasures of San Juan Bautista’s past.
Before moving to Monterey in 1998, Burton-Carvajal lived in Santa Cruz. At least twice a year during that time, she and her family would make trips to San Juan Bautista. The impetus of these one-day sojourns was a reoccurring “pull” that Burton-Carvajal said she felt for the mission town. Perhaps this was the same “pull” that continued tugging at Rowena’s art brush and Harry’s pen.
Note: “Artists’ Honeymoon: Rowena Meeks Abdy & Harry Bennett Abdy at Work & Play in Monterey & Beyond, 1910-1920,” by Julianne Burton-Carvajal is available for purchase at the following locations: Old Capitol Books in Monterey; The Museum of Monterey; The Bookworks in Pacific Grove; and Pilgrim’s Way in Carmel.