“My horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration at his skill.”
–Arthur Conan Doyle
Professor Moriarty has become one of those villains we just can’t help but be mesmerized by. As awful as his crimes are, there is something about the way he builds and elaborates the schemes he does to confound Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson that draws us in. In fact, the detective himself sees this master criminal as a genius and respects his intellect, while despising his disregard for the law. But who inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to create this particular character?
Well you might be disappointed to learn that the man who would inspire Moriarty was not a violent one who murdered without batting an eye. However, his life was more cinematic than you might imagine. In fact, a lifelong cat and mouse chase between the outlaw and the Pinkerton set on bringing him to justice seems to be an incredible story all on to itself. Yet this is the tale of this criminal and the object of his affection: the portrait of a noble lady.
The portrait, believed to have been made in 1785, was painted by Thomas Gainsborough. Its protagonist, which is also the title of the work, was the Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Cavendish, a society girl known for her extravagant style and persona. Yet for all her liberating attributes, which seem closer to that of a contemporary celebrity than that of an eighteenth century aristocrat, Georgiana died surrounded by debts. In the year of her death, 1806, her portrait disappeared from her home, Chatsworth House.
Thirty some years later it reappears in the home of an elderly lady who has cut the bottom half of the canvas off so that it might fit above her fireplace. An art collector buys it from the woman and, for some years, it passes from the hands of one collector or dealer to the next. Eventually it’s acquired by William Agnew, who places it in his London Gallery. In 1876, as several people come to visit the Duchess, one man is cunning and set on acquiring her, without purchase. Adam Worth, working under his alias, Henry Raymond, of a wealthy American businessman in London, was actually a world traveling conman and thief.
While Worth’s initial interest in the painting was to use it as a barter piece in getting his brother out of prison, he eventually could not give the painting back. Something about Georgiana’s gaze drew him in. He would spend the rest of his life running from the Pinkerton Agency, which was tasked in catching him and retrieving the artwork. He specifically connected with one of the detectives on his trail, William Pinkerton. It’s only when Worth sensed it was all done for him that he admitted to stealing the Gainsborough and agreed to return it.
In 1901, the Agnew Gallery reacquires the Duchess’s portrait. Since then, it has also swapped owners, but it now hangs in its original home in Chatsworth. When we see Georgiana’s flirty yet controlled self, we can’t help but see why so many were taken by her image. What’s incredible is how this noble lady captured the heart of one of the most cunning criminals ever.
While several of Sherlock Holmes’ stories were based on true crime events and situations, many having to do with the Pinkerton Agency, it’s the tale of Adam Worth and his network of crime that led to one of our favorite villains. Moriarty appeals to us because of his obsessions and desires. It is the fact that he sees himself not as an outlaw but as a man of particular taste and intellect that draws us, as well as Sherlock, in. Perhaps when Conan Doyle heard the story about the painting and the man who stole it, he saw beyond the crime. In doing so, he created a character that has captivated audiences to this day.
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