The Missing Keyhole: An Aubrey Beardsley Minor Mystery

How La Beale Isoud Wrote to Sir Tristram (1893) is one of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Le Morte Darthur, published by JM Dent in 1894. It shows Isoud seated writing at a desk in an interior. Beyond her is a wall with twin windows and underneath these is a pair of identical, or almost identical, floor-standing chests or coffers. In the original drawing, which is extant in a private collection in London, the one on the right has a keyhole, but the other has not.

Aubrey Beardsley, How La Beale Isoud Wrote to Sir Tristram, 1893. Pen, brush and Indian ink, 27 x 22cm, Private collection, London


In the reproduction of the drawing in the original Dent 1894 publication of Le Morte Darthur this keyhole is mysteriously absent. In the reproduction of it, from the original drawing, in Linda Zatlin’s 2016 catalogue raisonné of Beardsley’s work published by Yale University Press (no. 525) the keyhole is also absent. However, in Brian Reade’s 1967 book, Beardsley (plate 106) the keyhole is present. This was the first known reproduction of the drawing since the original 1894 publication and the two following Dent editions in 1909 and 1927 in which we can assume it was reproduced from the original block. Reade’s book is notable for basing its reproductions as far as possible on the original drawings and his entry for this drawing credits ‘in private possession, England’ so it can be assumed the image is from the drawing. The drawing last changed hands in 2008 at Bonhams, Knightsbridge, London (19 November, lot 20) and the catalogue reproduction shows the keyhole to be present.

Aubrey Beardsley, How La Beale Isoud Wrote to Sir Tristram, reproduced in Le Morte Darthur (1893-94), facing p. 384.


So why is it absent in both the original publication and in Zatlin, but present in Reade and in the drawing itself?

It is worth noting in parenthesis at this point that at least one example is known of additions being made to an original Beardsley drawing by an unknown hand. The drawing in question is also a Morte Darthur illustration, Zatlin 454, which depicts a nude female figure standing up to the knees in a sea. In publications from the 1894 Morte Darthur up to and including Reade 1967 her outlined breast has only the faintest suggestion of a nipple, and the pubis, although distinctly depicted, was conventionally bare of hair. In Reade 1967 it is in this state and we know that he sourced a fresh photograph of it from the New York collection in which it then was. The photograph is extant and on the back bears the rubberstamp of the New York art photographers Juley and Son.

Aubrey Beardsley, Woman Standing in the Sea, Holding a Rose, 1893, Pen, brush and Indian ink, 12 x 8.6 cm (unaltered state)
Aubrey Beardsley, Woman Standing in the Sea, Holding a Rose, 1893, Pen, brush and Indian ink, 12 x 8.6 cm (altered state)


In 2015 the drawing appeared in auction at Sotheby’s, London, (14 July lot 96) but now had a distinct nipple and a dotted indication of a stubble of pubic hair. It was clear that these additions had been made relatively recently, since Reade at least. Also, they were of some crudity not only in the thought, but the technique. The nipple in particular is a botched blob. A rather good Beardsley drawing had been ruined by what might almost be described as an adolescent prank. Notified of this, Sotheby’s nevertheless went ahead with the sale and the drawing sold for £11, 250 against an estimate of £7000-£9000. There was no mention of the alterations in the condition report. The drawing appears in its altered state in Zatlin 2016 since the publishers took the view that it had to be shown in its present state, and an account of the alterations was placed in the text.

However, close examination of the original drawing of How La Beale Isoud Wrote to Sir Tristram suggests overwhelmingly that the keyhole is in the artist’s hand and the comparison with the alterations to Zatlin 454 reinforces this view. A tiny penstroke, it nevertheless vividly suggests a keyhole. That only one of the two chests is given a keyhole is also suggestive of the Beardsley’s quirky humour.

If we accept that the keyhole is by Beardsley’s hand, then a possible explanation for its absence in the original publication would be that the blockmaker read it as an error of some kind, and removed it from the block. The fact that there is only one keyhole might perhaps have contributed to a technician taking such a view.

It is not entirely impossible that Beardsley could have added it after the original block had been made. After the drawing left Beardsley’s hands it remained with the publisher, who owned it, until he sold it a year or so later to one Ernest Hart who in turn sold it at Christies, London, in December 1898 some nine months after Beardsley’s death (Zatlin). So to alter it Beardsley would have had to access it while it was still in Dent’s hands, and indeed get Dent’s permission to make the change. On balance however it seems most likely that the keyhole was there from the start.

An additional possibility is that on seeing a proof of the drawing with the keyhole, Beardsley asked for it to be removed and that this was done in the block so that the drawing remained intact. Alterations to some of his illustrations to Oscar Wilde’s Salome were made in the block in this way, but at the instigation of the publisher not the artist. And again, it is possible that Dent might have seen a proof and thought the single keyhole a bit silly and had it removed in the block.

As suggested above, its absence in the reproduction of the drawing in the original 1894 publication seems most likely to have been blockmaker’s error. So what happened when the drawing was reproduced, from the original, but without the keyhole, in the Zatlin catalogue raisonné? At the time the catalogue went to press, a fresh scan from the drawing was not available from its buyer at Bonhams in 2008, and the image used was Bonhams’, taken of course from the original drawing and, as noted above, including the keyhole. It would seem that the keyhole was somehow lost at some stage in the Yale UP editorial process. The editorial staff involved have expressed bafflement. A remote possibility is that someone decided to compare the image from Bonhams with one of the work as it appeared in the original Morte Darthur and decided that there must be an error in the new image and unilaterally made the change. Equally remote is the possibility that someone at the repro house thought the keyhole was an error and removed it unilaterally, as I have suggested above might have been the case in the original publication. But the mystery remains.

Simon Wilson is an art historian with a lifelong interest in Aubrey Beardsley.