What links the Rokeby Venus, Pinkerton’s Detective Agency, the Duchess of Devonshire and my house?

Ans; Thomas Agnew and Sons, art dealers

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (as played by Keira Knightly in the 2008 film The Duchess) was painted by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) between 1785 and 1787. Having been lost from Chatsworth House for some time, in 1841 a former schoolmistress sold the Duchess’s picture to a private dealer for £56 – not a bad price when live-in housemaids on a country estate earned a mere £10 a year. In 1876, after the death of a subsequent owner, the Gainsborough painting resurfaced at London auction house, Christie’s, and the hammer went down on the princely sum of 10,000 guineas (£10,500). The buyer was William Agnew of Thomas Agnew and Sons. Three weeks later, the very same painting was stolen from their vaults and for the next 25 years nothing was heard of the most expensive painting ever to have been bought at auction.

On the 10th March 1914, suffragette Mary Richardson slashed Velázquez’ Rokeby Venus at London’s National Gallery with a meat cleaver. Her justification? She wanted the government to release fellow suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst from prison and, as the painting was amongst the most well-known in the gallery, she targeted it. The Rokeby Venus was famous because, having been bought from the Rokeby Estate in Yorkshire (hence the name), it was put up for sale in 1903 by art dealers Thomas Agnew and Sons for the enormous sum of £40,000. As the National Gallery Art Collection had just been set up by the British Government, the very first painting purchased for the nation was – yes – the Rokeby Venus.

So why am I whittering on about a London art dealer? What on earth has it to do with my house?

During lockdown, for want of anything better to do during long empty days of isolation, I researched the residents of my 16-house road built in 1904. Between 1914 and approximately 1925, a family named Smith lived here. When a family historian encounters the surname Smith, their heart sinks; it’s the most common surname in the English-speaking world and notoriously difficult to research. Add Thomas, John or William to the mix and you’re travelling the road to nowhere – they are amongst the top 10 names ever!

However, I found Thomas in the 1911 census visiting his widowed mother and siblings whilst wife Jessie showed off their firstborn son to relatives in Southport. He was a salesman in ‘fine art.’ Now call me a cynic but I imagined him working in a small, seedy picture framing workshop or flogging stale watercolours in some Manchester side street. Nothing fancy…

On the 6th January 2022, to much fanfare Findmypast published the long awaited 1921 census online. I duly trooped down to Manchester Central Library, one of three centres where the census can be accessed for free. The other two are the National Library of Wales and The National Archives in Kew, London. My objective; to clear up anomalies and queries hanging over some residents of my road. The unique selling point of the 1921 census is that it not only lists a person’s occupation but it also names their employer and address. My Thomas Smith managed the Manchester branch of Thomas Agnew & Sons, art dealer. The showroom was 14 Exchange Street, Manchester, the poshest area of Manchester City centre.

And I had never heard of it.

A Google search later and I was screaming at my laptop. Thomas Agnew & Sons has a Wikipedia entry; its own page on the National Gallery’s website and is listed in Grace’s Guide. After new ownership and rebranding, it’s still in existence as the Agnews Gallery. Not to be confused with auction houses like Christie’s, Sotherby’s and Bonham’s, it was (still is?) the most famous art dealer in the world. And a resident of my house ran the Manchester branch from c1914 until the stockmarket crash of 1932 when the Manchester branch closed. (I must look for a Velázquez’ and Gainsborough in the attic.)

Thomas Agnew and Sons was born in Manchester as an 1817 partnership between Italian print-seller and framer Vittore Zanetti and Thomas Agnew (1794-1871). In 1834, Agnew became the sole proprietor, his sons joining the enterprise in 1851. Their prosperous business moved into purpose-built headquarters in 1877 at 42-43 Bond Street, Mayfair, one of London’s most famous and prestigious streets. In its heyday, Agnew and Sons had branches in Liverpool, Manchester, Paris, Berlin and New York. Its archives were held by the company until sold to the National Gallery in 2013.

What exactly did my Thomas Smith do in the gallery each day? Regional newspapers give us a clue. For instance, they advertised upcoming sales. Under his tenure, I discovered the following newspaper announcements;-

Burnley News, 28 April 1923 Page 9 

NEW PURCHASES The following watercolour paintings have just been purchased out of the funds allocated to the Art Gallery Committee from the Edward Stocks Massey Bequest:— “Kits Flying,” by Charles Harrington, and ” Fruit,” Wm. Hunt, from Mr. H. Bateman, of Manchester; Landscape by Copley Fielding, and Seascape (P. de Whit, from Mr. C. A. Jackson, Manchester; “Coblenz,” J. B. Pyne, and “An Arab Girl,” by E. Lundgren, from Messrs. Thomas Agnew Sons, Manchester. According to Lord Leverhulme: “There was never picture bought but there would relief to the rates.” shall look for a substantial reduction next year.

And another advert in Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 21 November 1925 P1 

EXCHANGE STREET GALLERIES.

EXHIBITION OF SELECTED

WATER COLOUR DRAWINGS.

THOS AGNEW and SONS. 

14 EXCHANGE STREET. MANCHESTER.

The Manchester branch was a satellite dealing in watercolours rather than old masters. I guess when Thomas found something exceptional in his travels around the North West, he despatched it to Bond Street where it would achieve a higher price than in the provinces.  

Findmypast also names employees; Agnew’s Manchester branch employed at least 14 men although some were based at Salfrord’s Worsley Street works including French polisher Wycliffe Ross, gilder Thomas Gormley and mount cutter William Booth Whinfield.

I can’t end this blog without revealing what happened to the Gainsborough painting stolen from Thomas Agnew’s vaults in 1876. I can assure you Georgiana is not in this house with me more’s the pity!  

Enter the shadowy world of Pinkertons, the most famous private detective agency in the world founded in the USA in the 1850s by Scotsman Allan Pinkerton.

Twenty-five years after the initial theft, it was discovered the thief was the notorious arch-criminal Adam Worth (1844-1902), the ‘Napoleon of Crime’ reworked and revisualised by Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes books.

Worth had stolen Gainsborough’s The Duchess to bail out his brother from prison but when his brother was unexpectedly released, Worth no longer required the money. Instead, he kept the portrait for himself. Legend has it he was so enamoured of The Duchess that he slept with her next to his head. Towards the end of his life in 1901, Worth approached Pinkerton’s Agency demanding $25,000 for her safe return to Agnew’s. Portrait and payment exchange took place in Chicago after which the painting was returned to London and put up for sale. She remained in private hands until 1994 when she was sent for auction at Sotheby’s. She has finally returned home to the Chatsworth Estate. Meanwhile, perhaps I can knock on the door of the house where the Smith family moved circa 1926 and ask if they found any paintings in their attic. Dream on…

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