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"Adam Worth, the greatest thief of the 19th century, could have furnished the basis of a great novel...Ben Macintyre has given him a biography that reads like one."
--Los Angeles Times Book Review
A New York Times Notable Book
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.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Posted September 11, 2014
This writer is absolutely incredible. This book is impossible to put down. It reads like a finely written novel, rather than a work of non-fiction. I will continue to seek out any other works by this author. I would read ANYTHING written by him. He is a veryskilled story-teller, someone I have read all his books written to date,and I intend to follow him from here on. In the future, I'll jump on any new book as soon as they are released.Ifyou are looking for an author you can always count on for quality literature, look no further!!! KDWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 17, 2012
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