Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Adam Worth: The World in his Pocket

Duchess of Devonshire

"An aspiration is a joy forever."
— Robert Louis Stevenson

In the spring of 1876, a sensation hit London. She was Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, dead 70 years but still a controversial, beautiful figure staring down from canvas in a painting done by the celebrated Thomas Gainsborough in the late 1780s. Because Gainsborough had caught so well her ethereal nature, her come-hitherness, and coyly transplanted the sensuality that was Georgiana through brush stroke, the duchess again enraptured the hearts of London and tagged men's souls. And now, nearly a century after she sat for her portrait - a portrait which sold for more than a painting had ever sold — she had won the heart of Adam Worth. He found her exquisite, beyond description.

Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire, had been, in her time, considered to be the most glamorous, most accomplished, but most shameless, wickedest woman in Georgian England. Her lifestyle, one of decadence, of libation, of free sex (including a menage a trois between her husband, the fifth Duke of Devonshire, and his mistress), had fueled many a gossip in her day. When she sat for her portrait, scholars believe about 1787, Gainsborough sought to translate to art more than the oyster white surface of this comely woman; he strove to flush up from within her the mischief and sensuality that was his subject. And achieve he did. In his painting, she seductively poses, sunlit curls surrounding her face, framed by a large hat of noble French design, decorated by plumage, her fingers caressing a rose in a suggestive manner, one eyebrow arched, her eyes burning with desire. (It was later said a man could light his pipe by the fire in her eyes.)

Gainsborough's Duchess of Devonshire (Ben Macintyre)
Gainsborough's Duchess of
(Ben Macintyre)

After Gainsborough presented it to the House of Spencer, the painting disappeared. It was rumored hat Georgiana's husband had it removed from over the family mantle when she became pregnant by another man. Either way, its whereabouts became a mystery. After her death in 1806 she and the painting faded from memory. However, in September, 1841, art dealer John Bentley discovered it quite by accident hanging in the parlor of a retired schoolmistress named Anne Maginnis. Mrs. Maginnis had no idea how her late husband had acquired it, but seeing that Bentley wanted it so badly, agreed to sell it to him for the sum of £56 - probably one of the best deals ever perpetrated by a connoisseur of art.

In the 1860s, Bentley sold it in turn to silk merchant and Member of Parliament Wynn Ellis, who owned one of the largest art collections in England. What Ellis paid is unknown, but one can gather that Bentley exceeded his investment. When Ellis passed away in 1875, he bequeathed his vast number of original works to Britain, some 402 paintings, some the works of the "old masters" like Rubens or Gainsborough. From these, the National Gallery selected 44 of the best to sell off through Mssrs. Christie, Manson & Woods of London, the finest art auctioneers in the world. The Duchess of Devonshire was among them.

The auction, which opened in May, 1876, was banner news, the rediscovery of Georgiana's portrait the main aspect. The London Times rang with praises for Gainsborough's work and again London's social pages were filled with stories, legendary and documented, about the Lady Spencer. As had been a decade previously, the Duchess of Devonshire was top gossip in the drawing rooms of the wealthy. The sordidness of her life tickled the antitheses of the new morality, and the independent fire that was the duchess charged the women's suffragette movement throughout England. As well, the fashion world capitalized on the hullabaloo; the faces of Victorian ladies suddenly adopted the same ivory skin complexion with the certain amount of cheek and lip rouge to give a woman "that royal pout,". And women began wearing wide-brimmed bonnets, plumed, not unlike the duchess'. (In the Sherlock Holmes mystery, A Case of Identity, author Arthur Conan Doyle describes a female character as wearing "a large curling red feather in a broad-brimmed hat which was tilted in a coquettish Duchess-of-Devonshire fashion over her ear".)

Poets fashioned verse about her, some good, though most of them awful, but all published in the newspapers or the society magazines of the time. Peter Pindar donated one of the worst, some of which reads:

Oh, sacred be her cheek, her lip, her bloom

And do not, in a lovely dimple's room,

Place a hard, mortifying wrinkle.

The auction began May 5, 1876. Right from the start three prospective buyers shot forward, all from the social zenith: the Earl of Dudley (long a lover of art with a palatial estate to show it off), Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (a giant in the financial industry) and William Agnew (art dealer, whose new art gallery at 39 Old Bond Street was the talk of the town). While the crowds of London marched through Christie's gallery in droves, deals were being talked up in the back rooms among the dealers and bidders.

At last, Agnew the dealer's years of experience won out. He grabbed the biggest and most talked-about prize of the decade for 10,000 guineas, what today would amount to $600,000 - a whopping sum in 1876.

Before the end of the month, Adam Worth would steal it.

* * * * *

Worth, though drawn to the advertisements for the auction, had been unable to attend Christie's show because he had been busy digging his brother John out of the mess with Meyer & Company in Paris. But, by May 27, the painting that cost so much had made its way to Agnew's Studio on Bond Street, where it was now being exhibited.

To view it and, more importantly, to case the layout of the studio, Worth brought one of his two partners in crime along with him that day. (Little Joe Elliott remained back at the Lodge, waiting for their return.) The man who accompanied Worth this day was his personal valet, Jack Phillips, better known as "Junka" for the amount of trash he was prone to carry about in his pockets. Dressed in striped trousers and tails of a gentleman's gentleman, Junka was anything but. A former wrestler and ongoing thug, Worth had hired him strictly as bodyguard. Junka bore a towering frame, barrel chest, grizzled mustache and a face that, to quote Worth biographer Ben Macintyre, "looked like it had been carved out of parmesan cheese"; he was the perfect deterrent to anyone out to accost his boss.

Junka Phillips, bound by the Pinkertons (Ben Macintyre)
Junka Phillips, bound by the
Pinkertons (Ben Macintyre)

The odd couple purchased two tickets to the exhibit and followed the line of sightseers to the second floor gallery where the Duchess of Devonshire was on display under the soft glow from two gas jets. The valet, who it is doubted could spell the word "art," grunted and grumbled and growled at this waste of an otherwise pleasant afternoon.

Beside him, Worth took no notice of Junka's impatience. Having laid his eyes on the masterpiece, Worth swooned, bewitched. He had expected to be magnetized by the face of oncoming wealth - rather, he was overcome by the woman in the gild frame. Her flame, her tempestuousness dazzled him and he fell in love, deep, penetrating hot love that he knew from first glance would hardly die.

She was Kitty Flynn, and more. She was Venus, and more.

Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, staring at his own painting, found new meaning in the beauty of youth; Worth found new meaning of youth in beauty. His life had been one passing theft after another, year after year, a rabid pursuit of money and riches, most of it leaving his hands as quickly as he touched it. But, here in Georgiana there was an eternity of riches, a glory more steadfast than a bank-full of British pounds. To steal such a bounty was in itself so heady it made his head reel. But, to have her, for as long as he wanted - for she, unlike Kitty, would never drive away in a caleche — was numbing. Her age wouldn't whither, her spoils would increase, and that light in her eyes would never diminish. He truly felt that she was smiling at him. Daring. Promising.

* * * * *

Junka Phillips and Joe Elliott would serve merely as lookouts. For this theft, Worth preferred to be the exclusive hands-on man, for he could not abide rough hands yanking at the priceless canvas. He had spent long hours over candlelit volumes studying how paintings are framed and how they must be removed from their frames so that no harm can come to them - and how to preserve their sometimes ages-old delicacy. These hours were not to be spent in vain.

Little Joe Elliott, small man, small scruples (Ben Macintyre)
Little Joe Elliott, small man,
small scruples (Ben Macintyre)

Near midnight, the three men returned on foot to Old Bond Street, now foggy and deserted. Lanterns flickered through the veneer on the facade of the studio, its red brick almost brown in the meager light. Joe Elliott ducked into the deep recess of a doorway at the corner of the street, where it melted into Picadilly; Junka followed his master a few steps further. The two remained in the shadows, dodging what gaslight there was. They stopped before a hand-painted shingle that read, "Thomas Agnew & Sons," immediately below a high arched window. One quick glance in either direction of the darkness, Worth nodded and the valet stitched the fingers of his two beefy hands together to form a stirrup, hoisting the other towards the sill. Worth, above him, pried open the casement with a small crowbar while Junka pushed him upwards through to the room beyond.

It was a daring robbery. Writes Ben Macintyre in The Napoleon of Crime: "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 woman in the portrait...gazed down with an imperious and inquisitive eye...The faint rumble of a night watchman's snores wafted up from the room below...Extracting a sharp blade from his pocket, with infinite care (Worth) cut the portrait from its frame and laid it on the gallery floor. From his coat he took a small pot of paste (and) 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...The stolen portrait (was) pressed to his breast."

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