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.
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.’
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’ byJean-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.
For my short story for the Mystery & Mayhem anthology, I wanted to try something a little different. Unlike the other Sinclair’s Mysteries, ‘The Mystery of the Purloined Pearls’ is written in the first person – from the point of view of aspiring actress Lil.
The action of the story takes place in between ClockworkSparrow and Jewelled Moth. As well as being a fun opportunity to see Lil doing some solo detective work, this story also allowed me to explore another area of Edwardian London – the Edwardian theatre!
We see something of the theatre in Clockwork Sparrow when Sophie goes to see Lil performing in the chorus line of a new show called The Shop Girl (fun fact: there really was a popular Edwardian musical comedy with this title – in real life it was originally performed in 1894!) However ‘The Mystery of the Purloined Pearls’ shows us more of the theatre world – and takes readers behind the scenes with Lil and the other performers.
Theatre was incredibly popular in Edwardian London. Before cinema or television, it was one of the most important form of entertainment; and whether they preferred the lively music halls of the East End, or the grand theatres of the West, the people of London flocked to see all the latest productions. Many theatres took advantage of exciting new techologies, such as electric light, to create impressive spectacles for their productions.
One of the most important of the West End’s theatres at this time was The Gaiety on Aldwych. Run by George Edwardes, known as ‘The Guv’nor’, it became famous for its frothy musical comedy productions – and in particular its dancing, singing chorus line of ‘Gaiety Girls’. Shows like A Gaiety Girl, and Our Miss Gibbs were hugely popular and were soon copied by many other theatres, both in London and beyond.
Gabrielle Ray on the cover of a 1909 edition of the Illustrated London News
Theatre stars like Gabrielle Ray (above), Gertie Millar, and Phyllis Dare, were the celebrities of their day – much like (the fictional) Miss Kitty Shaw, whose pearls dramatically go missing in ‘The Mystery of the Purloined Pearls’.
Theatre also had a huge influence on Edwardian fashion and style – The Merry Widow, which opened at Daly’s Theatre in 1907, not only helped make a big star of actress Lily Elsie, but also inspired a widespread fashion for wide-brimmed and plumed ‘Merry Widow’ hats which were an essential accessory for any fashionable lady over the next few years.
Lily Elsie’s costumes for the production were designed by leading London fashion designer Lucile who went on to design her personal clothes as well as costumes for several of her other shows. Lucile wrote: ‘That season was a very brilliant one… And just when it was at its zenith, a new play was launched with a new actress who set the whole town raving over her beauty.’ Lily Elsie soon became one of the most-photographed women of the Edwardian era.
There are lots of pictures of Edwardian theatre stars on my Edwardiana Pinterest board – as well as theatre programmes, tickets and photographs of what the theatres looked like. I found it fascinating to explore all this visual material about the glamorous world of the Edwardian theatre – but I particularly love these pictures of Lily Elsie, because she looks rather like how I imagine Lil!
If you like reading about the Edwardian theatre in this story, you might also enjoy reading Lyn Gardner’s Rose Campion mysteries, which are set a little earlier than the Sinclair’s Mysteries, and take place in the exciting world of the Victorian music hall!
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.
Like my own fictional department store-owner Mr Sinclair, Selfridge was an American. Born in Wisconsin in 1856, he left school at 14, first finding work as a junior book-keeper in a bank. He had several other jobs before aged 22, he took on a position at Marshall Field, then one of Chicago’s biggest and most successful new department stores.
Selfridge’s initial position at the store couldn’t have been much lowlier – he was employed as a ‘stock boy’ working in the wholesale department. But his energy and ambition led him to quickly climb the ladder, bringing lots of new ideas to help the store to grow and thrive. Within eight years he was promoted to manager, gaining a reputation for clever innovation, a flair for publicity, and the highest standards of customer service. In fact, whilst working at Marshall Field, he is supposed to have come up with the maxim ‘the customer is always right’.
Marshall Field department store in the 1800s
Before long ‘mile-a-minute Harry’ as he had become known had risen through the ranks, and had become a junior partner. He revelled in his new wealth and status, enjoying dressing elegantly and living the life of a Chicago society gentleman.
In 1890, he married Rose Buckingham, the daughter of a prominent Chicago family. Rose too had a head for business, having already enjoyed some success as a property developer – at that time unusual for a young woman. The couple had a spectacular wedding, and went on to have five children.
But after being refused a full partnership at Marshall Field, Selfridge began to look beyond Chicago. A holiday to London had given him the opportunity to observe a gap in the market – although London was at that time one of the most important cities in the world, its department stores had nothing to compare to their luxurious American equivalents, or to the elegant grand magasins of Paris.
After finding a site on Oxford Street, at what was then considered the ‘unfashionable end’, Selfridge invested some £400,000 in developing it. The costs of his project were huge, and there were all kinds of complications to overcome before his dream of opening London’s largest department store could become a reality – but at last, Selfridges opened in March 1909, in a blaze of publicity.
A newspaper advertisement from Selfridges opening in 1909
Meanwhile, Selfridge himself had become something of a celebrity in London. When he arrived at the store each morning – always very promptly at 8.30am – a crowd would have gathered on the pavement to see him. He always doffed his hat to his watching admirers.
He had a large corner office on the fourth floor of the store, with its own lift and a private dining room where he could entertain important guests. As well as a personal secretary, he had his own social secretary and a valet who would visit him in his office each morning to make sure he was always perfectly dressed.
Each day he would walk the store’s six acres. The department managers would anxiously telephone ahead to warn staff that he was approaching. He sent messages to his staff in special yellow envelopes – and he also famously used an hourglass in all his meetings, to stop people taking up too much of his time.
Selfridge hard at work
He also continued to bring all kinds of new ideas to his store – from exhibiting the aeroplane in which Louis Bleriot first crossed the Channel, to later on in 1925, hosting one of the first ever demonstrations of live television.
Selfridge captured some of his ideas about shops and shopping in a book, The Romance of Commerce which was published in 1918. The book included chapters exploring ancient commerce, Lorenzo de Medici, the East India company, and much more!
Flush with his success, Selfridge enjoyed a glamorous London life in the 1910s and 1920s. But in the later years of his life, his extravagance began to catch up with him. After losing much of his fortune in the Great Depression, and struggling to compromise on his luxurious lifestyle, he soon became heavily in debt. He was eventually forced out of Selfridges in 1941 on a reduced pension – and when he died just six years later, he was almost destitute.
His intriguing life story has since inspired a biography – Lindy Woodhead’s Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge which I mentioned in my last post – and a TV series as well. (I can’t help thinking that their version of Mr Selfridge looks a little different from the real-life man himself, pictured above!)
Jeremy Piven as Mr Selfridge in the ITV series
And of course, Selfridge also helped to inspire The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow. I was fascinated by the story of this charismatic character, who was often in my mind when I was creating my own fictional department store-owner, Edward Sinclair.
Although he’s also a wealthy American, Mr Sinclair ended up being quite a different character to the real-life Selfridge. He’s a younger, single man-about-town who lives in elegant apartments over the store, whose unknown past is much speculated upon by his employees – and who is always a little bit of a mystery…
But I did enjoy giving my Mr Sinclair a few of Mr Selfridge’s idiosyncracies. For example, Selfridge famously loved pug dogs – so I’ve given Mr Sinclair his very own pet pug, Lucky. And just like Mr Selfridge, Sinclair wears an orchid in his buttonhole and takes great pride in being immaculately dressed at all times.
Here’s where we first hear about Mr Sinclair, in Chapter 1 of The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow:
The owner of Sinclair’s department store was Mr Edward Sinclair, who was as famous as the store itself. He was an American, a self-made man, renowned for his elegance, for the single, perfect orchid he always wore in his buttonhole, for the ever-changing string of beautiful ladies on his arm, and most of all for his wealth. Although most of them had only been working for him for a few weeks, and most of them had barely set eyes on him, the staff of Sinclair’s had taken to referring to him as ‘the Captain’ because rumour had it that he had run away to sea in his youth. There were already a great number of rumours about Edward Sinclair. But whether or not the stories were true, it seemed like an apt nickname. After all, the store itself was a little like a ship: as glittering and luxurious as an ocean liner, ready to carry its customers proudly on a journey to an exotic new land.
Will we learn more about the mysterious Mr Sinclair (and his secrets)? You’ll have to wait for next year’s The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth to find out…
At lots of the events I’ve been doing this autumn, I’ve been talking about some of the real-life historical background to The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow. I thought it would be fun to share some of this here on the blog too.
If you’ve read the author’s note at the back of The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, you’ll know that although Sinclair’s Department Store is fictional, it was partly inspired by the real history of London’s Edwardian department stores.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, department stores were still a new phenomenon. Before this time, shopping generally meant buying from local markets and small shops, which tended to sell only a limited range of goods. It wasn’t until the 18th century that shops became grander, with enticing shop-fronts to tempt customers inside.
Even then, ‘shopping’ as we know it today didn’t really exist. Most shops specialised in just one thing – the confectioner’s sold sweets, the baker’s sold bread, the bookshop sold books, and so on. Shopping was a straightforward transaction, with many shops even employing ‘floorwalkers’ whose job it was to actively prevent people from browsing around looking at merchandise without buying anything.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, things started to change. People had more money to spend, cities were growing, and affordable manufactured consumer goods became more readily available. Glamorous, elegant new ‘department stores’ began to open up, offering people an exciting and very modern new way to shop.
Lots of Edwardian shoppers
For the first time, customers were encouraged to wander around a range of different departments, all together in the same building, admiring a tantalising range of different goods to buy. Department stores had beautiful displays, gorgeous windows designed to catch the attention of passers-by, and even their own restaurants where customers could enjoy lunch or afternoon tea.
These were exciting places. In 1898, Harrods boasted the first escalator ever to be seen in a British shop – on the day it was launched, staff members stood at the top ready to dispense smelling salts and cognac to anyone who had been frightened by this new experience!
New advertising helped to spread the word about these glamorous new department stores. During the week that Selfridges opened, a total of 38 different advertisements designed by well-known graphic artists appeared on over a hundred pages of eighteen national newspapers, costing the equivalent of £2.35 million in today’s money.
Selfridges, of course, was one of the most famous of the Edwardian department stores – and was certainly the biggest influence on my fictional store, Sinclair’s, though I also took inspiration from other famous stores like Fortnum and Mason, Liberty’s, Harrods, and the now-defunct Whiteley’s.
Selfridges first opened on Oxford Street in 1909, and was the brainchild of Harry Gordon Selfridge. An American who had previously worked in department stores in New York, he had grand ambitions for his store, which he wanted to be the largest and most glamorous in London. As well as the usual departments, it boasted all kinds of other facilities, including a post-office, a library, and even a ‘quiet room’ where people could relax if shopping became too overwhelming! Rather than being just a shop, Selfridge thought of his department store as something more akin to a cultural centre, and it soon became a fashionable destination.
The story of Selfridges (and Selfridge himself) is a fascinating one, and of course has also inspired the recent ITV series Mr Selfridge. I didn’t know about the series when I first started working on The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, though it was no surprise to me to discover that the story of the Edwardian department stores had grabbed others’ imaginations as well as my own! At first, I deliberately avoided watching so that I wouldn’t be influenced while I was writing, but I’ve since seen a few episodes and though it’s a very different story, the sets and costumes give you a great idea of what a department store like Sinclair’s might really have looked like:
At around the same time, the BBC also broadcast The Paradise, another series based on the rise of the department store – though this time set a little earlier, in the late 1800s. This series was loosely based on the novel Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) by Émile Zola and again gives a good flavour of the early department stores:
I loved finding out all about the history of the department store when I was researching Clockwork Sparrow. I wanted to make sure that my own fictional store, Sinclair’s, would feel as real as possible to the reader, and I had a lot of fun adding in some of the true-life details and facts I discovered.
As well as reading about the late Victorian and Edwardian department stores, I was influenced by lots of other reading about shopping in general – such as the lovely scene in one of my favourite books, I Capture the Castle, where Cassandra and Rose visit a 1930s London department store, which I wrote about for the Waterstones blog here.
Of course I also had to visit some contemporary department stores too – I spent lots of time wandering around the likes of Liberty’s, Harrods and Fortnum’s – and of course, sampling the odd afternoon tea along the way!
Harrods afternoon tea
If you’re interested in finding out more about the history of the department store, here’s are a few good places to start:
Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead
This is the book that inspired the Mr Selfridge TV series – an entertaining and very readable biography of Harry Gordon Selfridge, packed full of facts about Selfridges’ history.
Au Bonheur des Dames by Émile Zola
In this classic French novel, Zola captures the impact of the new grand magasins upon Paris in the 19th century
The Department Store by Claire Masset
This little book from the Shire Library series is a succinct summary of the history of the department store – from its earliest origins right through to the department stores of the present day.
The pictures in this post come via my trusty Edwardiana Pinterest board, where you can also find lots more pictures of Edwardian department stores.