On a misty May midnight in the year 1876, three men emerged from a fashionable address in Piccadilly with top hats on their heads, money in their pockets, and burglary, on a grand scale, on their minds. At a deliberate pace the trio headed along the thoroughfare, and at the point where Piccadilly intersects with Old Bond Street, they came to a stop. Famed for its art galleries and antiques shops, the street by day was choked with the carriages of the wealthy, the well-bred, and the culturally well-informed. Now it was quite deserted.
The three men exchanged a few words at the corner of the street before one slipped into a doorway, invisible beyond the dancing gaslight shadows, while the other two turned right into Old Bond Street. They made an incongruous pair as they walked on: one was slight and dapper, some thirty-five years in age, with long, clipped mustaches, and dressed in the height of modern elegance, complete with pearl buttons and gold watch chain. The other, ambling a few paces behind, was a towering fellow with grizzled mutton-chop whiskers, whose ill-fitting frock coat barely contained a barrel chest. Had anyone been there to observe the couple, they might have assumed them to be a rich man taking the night air with his unprepossessing valet after a substantial dinner at his club.
Outside the art gallery of Thomas Agnew & Sons, at number 39, Old Bond Street, the two men paused, and while the aristocrat extinguished his cheroot and admired his own faint but stylish reflection in the glass, his brutish companion glanced furtively up and down the street. Then, at a word from his master, the giant flattened himself against the wall and joined his hands in a stirrup, into which the smaller man placed a well-shod foot, for all the world as if he were climbing onto a thoroughbred. With a grunt the big man heaved the little fellow up the wall and in a moment he had scrambled nimbly onto the window ledge some fifteen feet above the pavement. Balancing precariously, he whipped out a small crow bar, wrenched open the casement window, and slipped inside, as his companion vanished from sight beneath the gallery portal.
The room was unfurnished and unlit, but by the faint glow from the pavement gaslight a large painting in a gilt frame could be discerned on the opposite wall. The little man removed his hat as he drew closer.
The woman in the portrait, already famed throughout London as the most exquisite beauty ever to grace a canvas, gazed down with an imperious and inquisitive eye. Curls cascaded from beneath a broad-brimmed hat set at a rakish angle to frame a painted glance at once beckoning and mocking, and a smile just one quiver short of a full pout.
The faint rumble of a night watchman's snores wafted up from the room below, as the little gentleman unclipped a thick velvet rope that held the inquisitive public back from the painting during daylight hours. Extracting a sharp blade from his pocket, with infinite care he cut the portrait from its frame and laid it on the gallery floor. From his coat he took a small pot of paste, and using the tasseled end of the velvet rope, he daubed the back of the canvas to make it supple and then rolled it up with the paint facing outward to avoid cracking the surface, before slipping it inside his frock coat.
A few seconds later he had scrambled back down his monstrous assistant to the street below. A low whistle summoned the lookout from his street corner, and with jaunty step the little dandy set off back down Piccadilly, the stolen portrait pressed to his breast and his two rascally companions trailing behind.
The painted lady was Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, once celebrated as the fairest and wickedest woman in Georgian England. The painter was the great Thomas Gainsborough, who had executed this, one of his greatest portraits, around 1787. A few weeks before the events just recounted, the painting had been sold at auction for 10,000 guineas, at that time the highest price ever paid for a work of art, causing a sensation. Georgiana of Devonshire, nÚe Spencer, was once again the talk of London, much as her great-great-great-grandniece Diana, Princess of Wales, nÚe Spencer, would become in our age.
During Georgiana's lifetime, which ended in 1806, her admirers vied to pay tribute to "the amenity and graces of her deportment, her irresistible manners, and the seduction of her society." Her detractors, however, considered her a shameless harpy, a gambler, a drunk, and a threat to civilized morals who openly lived in a mÚnage-Ó-trois with her husband and his mistress. No woman of the time aroused more envy, or provoked more gossip.
The sale of Gainsborough's great painting to the art dealer William Agnew in 1876 had been the occasion for a fresh burst of Georgiana mania. Gainsborough's vision of enigmatic loveliness, and the extraordinary value now attached to it, became the talk of London. Victorian commentators, like their eighteenth-century predecessors, heaped praise once more on this icon of female beauty, while rehearsing some of the fruitier aspects of her sexual history.
When the painting was stolen, the public interest in Gainsborough's Duchess
reached fever pitch. The painting acquired huge cultural and sexual symbolism. It was praised, reproduced, and parodied time and again, the Marilyn Monroe poster of its day, while Georgiana herself was again held up as the ultimate symbol of feminine coquetry.
The name of the man who kidnapped the Duchess
that night in 1876 was Adam Worth, alias Henry J. Raymond, wealthy resident of Mayfair, sporting gentleman about town, and criminal mastermind. At the time of the theft Worth was at the peak of his powers, controlling a small army of lesser felons in an astonishing criminal industry. Stealing the picture was an act of larceny, but also one of hubris and romance. Georgiana and her portrait represented the pinnacle of English high society. Worth, by contrast, was a German-born Jew raised in abject poverty in America who, through an unbroken record of crime, had assembled the trappings of English privilege and status, and every appearance of virtue. The grand duchess had died seventy years before Worth decided, in his own words, to "elope" with her portrait, beginning a strange, true Victorian love affair between a crook and a canvas.
Excerpted from The Napoleon of Crime by Ben Macintyre. Copyright © 1998 by Ben Macintyre. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.