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The case of the disappearing Duchess

The pioneering Scotland Yard detective Donald Swanson - whose personal archive is in the care of NESM - helped bring to a conclusion one of the most notorious art heists of the Victorian age: the theft of an iconic aristocrat's portrait...

26 May 1876, and in the London gallery of Thomas Agnew & Sons, art dealers, a daring heist is taking place. On the stroke of midnight, while two anonymous gentlemen keep watch along Bond Street, a third - dressed dapperly in frockcoat and top hat - enters the Mayfair address via a first floor window. Armed with little more than a knife and an audacious plan, the thief is lucky: all remains quiet in the street below, not a single bobby pounding the beat. In the main gallery he makes his way over the velvet rope that kept the daytime crowds from getting too close to Agnew’s star attraction. Then he carefully and quietly sets to work. By the morning 'Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire' by Thomas Gainsborough R.A is missing from its frame, and Mayfair - all of London in fact - is abuzz with the news that the most expensive painting then in existence has been stolen!

As Victorian heist stories go, the theft of Gainsborough’s Duchess of Devonshire is one of the most sensational. It caused an international stir and the newspapers were filled with speculation as to the identity of the thieves. The value of the picture (purchased by Agnew only three weeks before the robbery for a then-record £10,000) together with the fame of the portrait’s subject combined to create an irresistible crime caper which held public attention for years after.

Today, however, few have heard of the Bond Street heist or how it was solved, or the eventual involvement of a pioneering Scotland Yard detective who may be familiar to NESM visitors.

Anyone who has visited our exhibition Daring Detectives and Dastardly Deeds will already know the name Donald Sutherland Swanson. Last year we acquired the detective's personal papers - including diaries and letters - and some of them are now on display at our museum. His biggest claim to fame is the part he played in the investigation into serial killer Jack the Ripper in London’s East End. But for a Sheffield-based museum like ours, the Gainsborough heist stirs a certain local interest, for the portrait hangs today (yes, it was eventually recovered) at Chatsworth House, the grand stately home which lies just thirty minutes or so from NESM in the Derbyshire Peak District.

To understand the sensation the case caused (and the pressure Scotland Yard must have been under while investigating it) it’s necessary to know a little of the portrait’s colourful history…

Dating from 1785, 'Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire' was originally housed at Chatsworth, and for good reason. It was commissioned by William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, whose ancestral pile Chatsworth was, and who wished to have his wife, Georgiana, immortalised by one of England’s greatest painters. Not that Georgiana required a portrait to immortalise her; she was quite remarkable enough as it was.

Born Georgiana Spencer in 1757, the Duchess was a daughter of the noble family to which Diana, Princess of Wales also belonged. The Spencers, like the Cavendishes, had risen to prominence under the Tudor monarchs, purchasing their Althorp estate around the same time that the Cavendish ancestor, Bess of Hardwick, started building Chatsworth. Georgiana’s father was actually a younger son who would not normally have inherited Althorp. But his elder brother had come into possession of an even larger estate, and so gave Althorp up to the younger sibling along with the new title of 1st Earl Spencer. [For those interested in dynastic intrigue… the elder Spencer brother had become heir to his mother’s possessions. His mother was a Churchill, last of a famous family whose seat (Blenheim Palace) and title (Duke of Marlborough) were allowed to pass to Charles Spencer by special provision. This branch of the Spencers adopted the surname 'Spencer-Churchill', a name used by the Dukes of Marlborough since, and the full name of a certain Winston Spencer-Churchill who you might just have heard of!]

Lady Georgiana Spencer was married to the Duke of Devonshire in 1774 at the age of 17. Her life was a sad one, a case of an intelligent and charismatic woman brought low by a distant and arrogant husband, and whose own ambitions were restricted by the society in which she lived. Georgiana was a political radical. She made speeches on behalf of the Whig (Liberal) Party. She was adored by the public for her charm and obvious compassion for the poor, to whom she gave both money and time. She was also something of a Georgian It Girl, famed for her fashion, including her enormous wigs. But her unhappy marriage led Georgiana to gambling and alcohol addiction, which probably contributed to her death at the age of 48 in 1806. (For those interested in learning more about Georgiana, you can read Amanda Foreman’s acclaimed biography, or watch the film based upon it: 'The Duchess', starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes.)

Georgiana’s fame and popularity lasted long after her death, making the Gainsborough portrait a must-see. It was lost from Chatsworth in the 1830s, under mysterious circumstances which have never been fully explained, somehow finding its way to the home of an elderly schoolmistress. The portrait had originally been full length, but the schoolmistress cut it in half to fit over her fireplace! (The bottom half is still missing, by the way, so if you find a picture of half a dress in your attic, don’t assume it’s worthless; you might just have half a Gainsborough.) She sold it to an art dealer in 1841 and it was sold again 35 years later by Christie’s, where Agnew & Sons made headlines by paying £10,000 for it. Thus, the portrait was famous and fascinating enough even before it was sensationally stolen from Agnew’s three weeks later.

Naturally, Scotland Yard was under intense pressure to find the painting, both due to the public interest in the case and the painting's enormous value and the early investigation was headed up by Inspector John Meiklejohn (at the time of the theft, Swanson was yet to be appointed to the detective department).

Unfortunately for the team at Scotland Yard - and although they didn't yet know it - they were up against a more than worthy foe. Despite the best efforts of the Met detectives, it wasn’t until 1893 that the truth about the heist began to emerge, when two men walked into Scotland Yard with information on an individual named Adam Worth.

Worth (left) was perhaps the most notorious master criminal of the Victorian age. Like Swanson, his name is not well known today, although many will have heard of Professor Moriarty, the archenemy of Sherlock Holmes; Arthur Conan Doyle, is thought to have based the character on Adam Worth who was known as the “Napoleon of Crime.” Born in Germany and raised in the US, Worth began his criminal career by joining a pickpocket gang in New York. After time in prison (from which he escaped) he moved to Europe where he became an adept bank robber. Operating under the alias Henry Raymond, he managed to ingratiate himself into respectable society. But the Bond Street heist led- eventually- to Worth’s downfall.

It turned out the two informants entering Scotland Yard were none other than the accomplices who had stood guard outside Agnew & Sons as Worth stole the Georgiana portrait. The two men - Joe Elliot and Junka Phillips - provided information that saw Worth arrested on charges unrelated to the Bond Street heist. The pair had fallen out with Worth after receiving no reward for their help in stealing the painting, which Worth had decided to keep. He had been planning to hold the picture hostage to raise bail money for his brother, but his brother being freed without his help, Worth hid the painting and refused to tell Elliot and Phillips where it was. So instead, they gained their revenge by getting Worth imprisoned.

Swanson became involved in the Gainsborough case

in 1896, after being appointed the superintendent of CID at Scotland Yard. After Worth’s release from prison the thief admitted taking the portrait home to America. Swanson was instrumental in the negotiations with the Pinkerton Detective Agency for the picture’s ransom which saw it returned to England in 1901. It was later sold to New York banker J. P. Morgan.

Worth died a year later. In 1903, Donald Swanson retired from Scotland Yard. (If you want to read more about Swanson's career you can read our previous blog here.) 'Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire' remained in the Morgan family until 1994. That year it was put up for auction at Sotheby’s where, very fittingly, Chatsworth took the opportunity to buy the portrait back. It was finally returned to its original home after more than 160 years. (Right, on display in Chatsworth's South Sketch Gallery.)

It is also quite fitting that the archive of Detective Donald Swanson now lies at NESM, just a few miles from the very painting that he was responsible for recovering.

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It felt like a metaphor for my own journey through addiction and recovery. Just as the Duchess vanished, I felt lost during my darkest times. However, recognizing the signs your liver is healing marked the beginning of my comeback. It was a tangible proof that recovery was possible. This mystery reminded me that even when things seem dire, there’s hope for a positive resolution. Just like solving a mystery, piecing together my health and life required patience, persistence, and support. The Duchess’s story mirrors the twists and turns of finding my way back to wellness.

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