Greetings, history buffs!
Nick Farrell just posted a blog about a rare painting of Edward Kelley that recently sold at auction in the UK (pictured above). I had mentioned this on Facebook back when it was first sold, but didn’t bother to blog about it. The reason I’m doing so now is because of the fascinating discussion that Nick’s post has generated about Kelley’s actual appearance (and to some extent his personality).
As Nick points out, the above painting was certainly made long after Kelley’s time, and was at least partially based on the woodcut of Kelley created for Meric Casaubon’s True and Faithful Relation… (see below). That, too, was made decades after Kelley’s death and based entirely on how the artist thought Kelley might have appeared. (Specifically fitting his – likely erroneous – reputation as a rogue and con-man.) Yet there are some differences between that woodcut and the above painting that suggest there might have been some “local knowledge” at work in the creation of the later image. Note that the painting shows him older, dignified and even on the heavy side – while the below engraving shows him gaunt, with a shorter scraggly beard and shifty eyes.
What really inspired me about this subject was a reply on Nick’s post by Vincent Bridges, where he quotes from his own work An Alchemical Enigma: A Short History of the Rise and Fall of Sir Edward Kelley. It’s just three short paragraphs, but they contain more insight into what Edward Kelley really looked like – and something about his personality as well – than I have ever read anywhere before. In fact, it is so fascinating I’m going to reproduce the comment here. Enjoy!
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?
Notice how this new vision of Kelley as a “weighty” man better matches the painting of Kelley? It is quite possible the artist was drawing on these descriptions of Kelley while also taking the woodcut into consideration.