Painting of Edward Kelly turns up at auction
Painting of Edward Kelly turns up at auction

Painting of Edward Kelly turns up at auction

Edward Kelly from the rare picture

A very rare painting of Dr John Dee’s magic partner Edward Kelley has just been sold at auction. 
Measuring over 8ft wide (2.49m), it was painted on nine wooden boards and depicted the alchemist (1555-1597) it had been stored in a stable in Warwickshire and then a coachhouse in mid Wales for many years, it had previously sold at a public auction within the last ten years but then re-emerged at Mellors & Kirk’s two-day auction on June 12-13.
It is the only known painted image of Kelley. Simply cataloged as ’17thcentury English School’, and was not printed from real life,
In fact it appears to have been based on a later woodcut image of Kelley which was used as the frontispiece to Meric Casaubon’s excerpts of Dee’s manuscript diary published in 1659.
Kelley was born in Worcester in 1555, educated at Oxford and for a time went by the name of Edward Talbot. Before acting as Dee’s scryer or medium, Kelley had worked for Thomas Allen, an astrologer known for practicing “black arts”.
The estimate at the Nottingham sale was £3000-5000 – a reasonable pitch given its unusual and somewhat esoteric appeal.  But it was considered “extremely fragile with numerous areas of flaking/missing paint… Shrinkage cracks between the boards.. Areas of woodworm on the reverse.. original rusted iron butterfly hinges.  The auctioneers were warning that even moving it could be risky. It was sold for £7500.
While it is not a picture taken from real life, it is interesting because it flies in the face of many impressions of Kelly as being a young criminal figure.  Here his beard is white and even longer than Dee’s.   He is not exactly slim either.
It appears that the painting was made for a person who was working with Dee and Kelly’s system.  It was painted on the inside of a cupboard or meditation room.   In the background there appears to be an image of someone summoning something while standing in a magic circle. In otherwords this is not about the alchemist Edward Kelly, but the magician.
This suggests is that there was a belief amongst the esoteric community of the time that Meric Casaubon’s woodcuts were accurate and perhaps based on his research rather than artistic fancy.  However the literal fleshing out of Kelly would appear to be based on some information which has not come down to us from other sources and the fact that it came from Warwickshire suggests some local knowledge.    


  1. For example, we have no clear idea what he even looked like; the only portrait was done from “reputation” a good 60 years after his death by the Dutch engraver Franz Cleyn. It shows a gaunt, long-faced, bearded man, wearing a fur-trimmed cloak and a four-cornered hat like a cleric’s biretta. However, this image is at odds with the few details we do have from contemporary sources. An English visitor in the fall of 1593 commented that he was “fat and merry” and another noted that he was a “weighty” man. He walked with a stick, notoriously mentioned by Dr. Dee in his account of Kelley’s altercation with one of Laski’s guards on the morning of his first visit with the Emperor. In the angelic sessions, his difficulty in kneeling is mentioned, and most revealing of all is the Papal Nuncio’s characterization in 1586 of Kelley as Dee’s hunch backed, “il zoppo,” companion.

    And then there is the question of his ears, or lack of them. Simon Tadeas Budeck, a Czech alchemist and occult tattletale, of whom we will hear more, describes Kelley as “having no ears.” Budeck however did not know Kelley, his manuscript comments are from 1604, and so are somewhat unreliable, though it seems his report is partly correct. The best documented evidence is from a letter, dated in Prague, 20 July 1593, in which an Englishman named Christopher Parkins reports being interrogated about Kelley by one of Rudolf’s councilors. Among the questions put to Parkins was “if I could give any account of the diminishing of one of his ears, or of his good or evil behaviour in England.” Parkins knew Kelley, he is the source of the fat and merry comment; therefore it seems likely that Kelley had had just one ear notched. The alchemist Budeck also describes him as being “long-haired,” perhaps to conceal the disfigurement.

    If we see Kelley as a long-haired, bearded, heavy-set man, with a sense of humor and a taste for the good things in life, and with a bent or twisted back that required a stick for support, it helps not only to humanize the legend, but perhaps also provides a few clues to his personality. This of course does not take away from Kelley’s predilection for violence, his hysterical rants, or his talent for insulting people. But it is very different from the Faustian, demonic deluder of legend. Yet, this aura of unpleasantness makes his success even harder to understand. What was it about him that held so many in his spell?

    From: An Alchemical Enigma:
    A Short History of the Rise and Fall of Sir Edward Kelley
    By Vincent Bridges (C) 2011

  2. Anonymous

    Nick the auctioneers say it is inscribed as Laski with his crystal and it looks just like Lord Albertus Laski who went with Dee and Kelly to Europe. If so then that woodcut made 60 odd years after the death of Kelly is probably really Laski too as it is very similar.

    John Souttar

    1. Ahoj there John… personally, I think it means “Laski(‘s)magician.” It does not look at all like Laski as he was described, and the setting and action is clearly not the sort Laski would have been known for… Kelley however was Laski’s magician, and may have been known as such to the Polish alchemists of the early 17th century.

  3. Hi Aaron, that was from the museum text I did for the Kelley museum in Prague:

    In some of the photos you see large open books. This is where the Alchemical Enigma text can be read. We have a small booklet of the Czech translation available at the gift shop. I have plans to publish the entire book length version in English and Czech perhaps as soon as this fall.

    As for the painting, I think it shows Kelley in his study at The Donkey in the Cradle circa 1595. Perhaps not from direct observation, but from the report of someone who was there…

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