Illustration from The Painted Dragon by Karl James Mountford
When I started writing The Painted Dragon, I knew that I wanted the story to centre on an art theft. Mysterious stolen paintings are a classic crime trope, appearing everywhere from episodes of ‘Jonathan Creek’, through to Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Goldfinch!
What’s more, a little research soon showed me that there were some fascinating real-life art thefts that took place during the late Victorian and Edwardian period. Here are two of my favourite examples:
The Mona Lisa
The theft of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from the Louvre by Vincenzo Peruggia in 1911 has been described as ‘the greatest art theft of the 20th century.’
A former employee of the Louvre, Peruggia reportedly entered the museum first thing in the morning amongst a crowd of workers, disguising himself in the same white smock the workers always wore. Waiting until the Salon Carré, where the Mona Lisa hung, was completely empty, he lifted the painting off the wall, and took it to a nearby service staircase where he removed its protective case and frame, before sneaking it out of the building.
Peruggia hid the painting in a trunk in his Paris apartment for two years, whilst the police investigated the crime. Amongst the many people they questioned were the artist Pablo Picasso. They even questioned Peruggia himself, but accepted his explanation that he had been working elsewhere on the day of the robbery. Meanwhile, in the Louvre, art lovers left bouquets of flowers against the bare wall, where The Mona Lisa had once hung.
Peruggia was finally caught in 1913, after he took the painting back to his home country of Italy. There, he contacted Alfredo Geri, the owner of a Florence art gallery, and told him that The Mona Lisa was in his possesion. After ‘authenticating’ the painting (to check it was real and not a forgery), Geri at once informed the police – and Peruggia was arrested.
There was a frenzy of delight when The Mona Lisa was found. Geri was awarded the rosette of the Légion d’Honneur by the French state, and exhibitions were organised all around Italy with great fanfare. Italian children even got the day off school to go to Florence to admire the rescued painting. Finally, at the end of December, the painting was transported back to Paris in its own special railway carriage. Whenever it passed through a station, people would gather to cheer and wave!
To this day, no one is absolutely certain why Peruggia decided to steal the painting. Some think it was for patriotic reasons: Peruggia believed the painting had been stolen from Italy by Napoleon (although in fact, Leonardo da Vinci had given the painting as a gift to the French king Francis I, 250 years before Napoleon’s birth!) and wanted to return it to its homeland. Others believe that it was con-man Eduardo de Valfierno who had masterminded the crime, with the aim of commissioning a forger to make copies of the painting, which he could then sell as the missing original. But whatever is the truth about Peruggia’s motives, there’s no doubt that the theft helped make The Mona Lisa more famous – and enigmatic – than ever.
The Duchess of Devonshire
One of the most fascinating art crimes I found out about during my research for The Painted Dragon was the theft of Gainsborough’s painting The Duchess of Devonshire .
In 1876, the recently rediscovered portrait had been sold to art dealer William Agnew at auction for the astronomical sum of 10,000 guineas – then the highest price ever paid for a painting at auction. The auction created a frenzy of interest around the painting, and when it was put on display at Agnew’s Bond Street gallery it drew big crowds of people, who all wanted to see this priceless portrait for themselves. But just a few short weeks after the painting went on display, Agnew’s gallery was broken into – and The Duchess of Devonshire was stolen!
The theft provoked a great deal of media attention, and the gallery was soon flooded with letters and telegrams from people all over the country, who either claimed to have spotted the painting, or had their own wild theories about how the theft might have taken place, and how Agnew could get the painting back.
The mysterious theft made the portrait itself even more famous. The Duchess of Devonshire herself became a fashion icon, and the painting had a huge influence on the styles of the day – with ostrich-feather ‘Gainsborough hats’ becoming all the rage in both London and New York.
Amazingly, the painting wasn’t seen again for 25 years, when the truth about what had happened to The Duchess of Devonshire was finally revealed. The painting had in fact been stolen by Victorian master thief, ‘the Napoleon of Crime’ himself, Adam Worth.
Initially, Worth had stolen the painting in order to raise bail to release his brother from prison. But when his brother was unexpectedly freed without bail, Worth decided to keep the painting ‘for a rainy day’. At this time he was posing as Henry J Raymond, a wealthy and highly respectable American gentleman. At his fashionable residence on Piccadilly, he kept the painting carefully pinned under the mattress of his four-poster bed. Later, he had a trunk made with a false bottom which allowed him to conceal the painting (along with other spoils, such as stolen diamonds) on his journey back to the United States. So began what Ben MacIntyre in his book about Worth, The Napoleon of Crime describes as ‘a strange, true Victorian love-affair between a crook and a canvas’.
It’s certainly true that Worth seems to have felt a strong desire to keep hold of The Duchess of Devonshire. For many years, he kept the portrait carefully hidden in a Brooklyn warehouse – and even when a robbery went wrong, and he was arrested and sent to prison in Belgium, he never tried to sell the painting, nor revealed its whereabouts to anyone.
In fact, it wasn’t until several years after his release from prison, in early 1901, that he finally negotiated a return of the painting to the Agnews (via the famous American detective agency Pinkerton’s) for the sum of $25,000. The portrait and payment were exchanged in Chicago in March 1901, and shortly afterwards the The Duchess of Devonshire arrived back in London, and was immediately put up for sale. Wall Street financier JP Morgan quickly snapped it up for a reported $150,000.
Adam Worth himself is such a fascinating figure that I’ll save writing more about him for another blog post. But you might like to know that after belonging to the Morgan family for most of the 20th century, today The Duchess of Devonshire has at last made her way back home to Chatsworth House, home of the Devonshire family.
The theft of The Green Dragon, the priceless painting that is stolen in The Painted Dragon, ended up being rather different to the real-life theft of either The Mona Lisa or The Duchess of Devonshire – featuring a forged painting, a locked-room mystery, and a mysterious criminal in red leather gloves. However, there’s no doubt that these real-life Edwardian art crimes had an important part to play in helping to inspire the story. If you would like to read a bit more about art thefts there are some fascinating books on the subject: I’d particularly recommend The Napoleon of Crime as mentioned above.
Check out my other ‘Behind the Scenes’ posts exploring the historical background of the Sinclair’s Mysteries
We had such a lovely time celebrating the launch of The Painted Dragon at High Street Kensington Waterstones this week! Here’s me and my wonderful editor Ali – we even dressed to match the book cover for the occasion!
As has become traditional, the book launch featured plenty of Sinclair’s-style hats for dressing up – but also the first ever outing of our brand new #SinclairSelfie banner!
Sneaking into Sinclair’s with author and partner-in-crime Katherine Webber
With my lovely friend and author pal Anna McKerrow
Clementine and Alice from ILA modelling hats with my amazing agent Louise, plus Helen from Pickled Ink/WRD Magazine (photo by Justine Alltimes)
Author buddy Robin with my former editor Hannah and Lydia from Egmont (photo by Justine Alltimes)
Refreshments included some special Painted Dragon chocolate cupcakes with green icing and bronze sprinkles which I made, inspired by the amazing cover of the new book!
Lots of fun was had by all – thanks so much to the fab team at Waterstones for hosting us, to everyone who helped out, and to all those who came along for making it such a wonderful evening!
Painted Dragon cupcakes
Doing my ‘happy author’ face during the speeches (photo by Justine Alltimes)
A dragon with some dragons….
A spot of book-signing!
Londoners note: you can now grab a signed copy of The Painted Dragon at both Waterstones Piccadilly and Waterstones High Street Kensington, while stocks last!
Illustration by Karl James Mountford, from The Painted Dragon
The third book in the Sinclair’s Mysteries series, The Painted Dragon, takes us into a new area of Edwardian London. In this story, we are plunged into the city’s art world – meeting art students, celebrated painters and art collectors – and going behind the scenes at exhibitions, auctions and museums, as well as art school the Spencer Institute.
Whilst the Spencer Institute is fictional, it was partly inspired by a real-life art school, the Slade, which still exists in London today. Forming part of University College London, the Slade was founded by lawyer and philanthropist Felix Slade in the 1860s. In the late 19th and early 20th century, an incredible number of famous artists studied there – including Augustus and Gwen John, Percy Wyndham Lewis, and (a little later, at around the time The Painted Dragon is set) the likes of Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, Richard Nevinson, Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer.
This group of young artists – together with their wider circle of writers and intellectuals – were something like the Young British Artists of their day. They enthusiastically embraced exciting new artistic movements such as Futurism and Vorticism and they led unconventional Bohemian lifestyles. They enjoyed wearing wild and unusual clothes – like Dora Carrington, who was one of the ‘Slade Cropheads’, a group of female students who dramatically rejected ideas of Edwardian beauty by cutting off their long-hair into short boyish bobs.
In all these ways, the art students rebelled against the conservative, traditional old-fashioned culture of the Edwardian era – and opened the door to the exciting new possibilities of modernism, taking their inspiration from the avant-garde artists of Paris and Vienna.
Dora Carrington and some of her fellow ‘Slade Cropheads’
In The Painted Dragon we see this world thorough the eyes of aspiring artists Leo and Jack, as they start their first term at the Spencer Institute. Like Leo, Jack and their friends at the Spencer, the real-life students at the Slade in the 1900s would begin their studies by spending lots of time in the Antiques Room, drawing from copies of plaster casts of Greek, Roman and Renaissance sculpture. Here, they would be carefully watched over by the strict Professor Henry Tonks – a rather terrifying figure, who was both respected and feared by his students! He was famous for his stinging criticisms, which sometimes made students weep – and rarely praised anyone. (Professor Jarvis, the stern drawing teacher who appears in The Painted Dragon, certainly owes a little something the real-life Professor Tonks.)
An Edwardian drawing class
Only when Professor Tonks considered them good enough were the art students allowed to graduate to the Life Class, where they would draw real models. Male and female students had separate life classes, for reasons of decorum! But in general, the art school was a place where the strict rules of Edwardian society were relaxed. Students came from many different backgrounds: the Slade welcomed both students like Mark Gertler, a talented sixteen-year old from the slums of East London; and well-off young people, such as Richard Nevinson, who came from a middle-class background and had previously attended an expensive public school. Outside classes, the students enjoyed socialising at bohemian cafes and restaurants like the famous Café Royal – which also makes an appearance in The Painted Dragon.
The Cafe Royal in 1901
These young artists were dedicated to their work, producing everything from portraits and still-lifes to landscape paintings. They played an important role in influencing – and unsettling – the art and culture of their time. But in 1914, the outbreak of war changed everything. The First World War, in which so many of them fought and died, had a shattering affect upon this young artistic community. Today, it’s sobering to reflect on what they might have been able to achieve under different circumstances: as Randolph Schwabe wrote: ‘Much talent and some genius was born into their generation, and their loss… is deplorable in its tale of waste and unfulfilment.’
If you’d like to read more about the Slade and these young artists, I’d highly recommend A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young Artists and the Great War by David Boyd Haycock. Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900 – 1939 by Virginia Nicholson also provides a fascinating insight into artistic and bohemian life in the early 20th century, including the importance of places such as the Café Royal.
For fiction, Pat Barker’s Life Class trilogy of (adult) novels are partly set at the Slade and focus on a group of young artists. I’d also highly recommend Ruth Elwin Harris’s YA novels The Quantock Quartet (now sadly out of print) about the artistic Purcell sisters – in particular Frances’s Story which follows ambitious older sister Frances to London to study at the Slade.
Today, you can see paintings by some of the artists who studied at the Slade at Tate Modern. For more of an idea of what the Edwardian art world would have been like, I’d also recommend visiting the grand Royal Academy (the heart of the Edwardian art establishement – the opening of the famous Royal Academy show each year was a highlight of the London Season) and the Wallace Collection, a beautiful gallery which includes lots of the kinds of paintings that might be found in Mr Lyle’s art collection – including ‘The Swing’ by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, which Lil helps bring to life in The Painted Dragon. You can also still visit the Café Royal on Regent Street, though today it looks very different to the bohemian cafe of the 1900s!
The pictures in this post all come via my trusty Edwardiana Pinterest board (click the image for the source) where you can also find lots more pictures of the Edwardian era.
Check out my other ‘Behind the Scenes’ posts exploring the historical background of the Sinclair’s Mysteries
Hooray! The Painted Dragon, the third book in the Sinclair’s Mysteries series, is published in the UK TODAY!
I’m so excited that the book is now out in the world. I’ve already spotted it in several bookshops – and there have been some lovely responses to the book online, including this fabulous 5* review from The Bookbag, and this wonderful review from Booklover Jo.
Here’s a bit more information about the book:
You are invited to attend the grand unveiling of Mr Lyle’s magnificent art exhibition at Sinclair’s department store!
When a priceless painting is stolen, our dauntless heroines Sophie and Lil find themselves faced with forgery, trickery and deceit on all sides.
BE AMAZED as the brave duo pit their wits against this perilous puzzle! MARVEL at their cunning plan to unmask the villain and prove themselves detectives to be reckoned with – no matter what dangers lie ahead . . .
This is their most perilous adventure yet!
‘I read it in one delicious sitting – a cleverly plotted, atmospheric page-turner with exquisite attention to detail’ – Fiona Noble, The Bookseller
‘Funny, scary, heart-stopping stuff – do not, under any circumstances, miss it’ – The Bookbag
One of my very favourite things about the new book is of course, the gorgeous cover illustrated by the brilliant Karl James Mountford (look our for Karl’s new picture book The Curious Case of the Missing Mammoth which is also out today!) Karl’s interior illustrations are amazing too – here’s a sneak peek at one of my favourites, which is the first time we’ve seen Sophie and Lil in a picture:
If you want to get hold of a copy of the new book you can buy it now from Waterstones | The Hive | Amazon. Add it on Goodreads here.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you might remember that last Christmas I ran a festive competition to win a signed copy of The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, plus a box of lovely goodies worthy of Sinclair’s department store itself!
I asked people to tell me what they’d buy from Sinclair’s, and had some lovely entries including those from the joint winners, who sent beautiful illustrations of their ideas.
Well guess what? The competition was so much fun last year that I’m running it again this year! This time round, you can win a signed and dedicated copy of The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth plus a special box of festive goodies that you might find in the store’s confectionery department.
Here’s a little sneak peek at the box:
To enter all you have to do is tell me: which of the characters from the Sinclair’s Mysteries would you most like to spend Christmas with, and why?
You can leave me a comment below, tweet me, leave me a comment on my author Facebook page, or even leave a comment on my Instagram – it’s up to you! Or if you’d prefer you can also send me an email to enter.
Just make sure you send over your entry by 5.00pm on Monday 19 December for the chance to win – I’ll choose my favourite response to win the prize. The competition is open to the UK only. Good luck!