Today (May 6) in London History – Found in a Churchyard

The winter-spring of 1974 saw an “intersection” of the IRA and a famous painting. The painting, a Vermeer, was recovered on May 6, 1974. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling. London Walks connecting. You’re listening to the May 6th episode of the Today in London History series.

Here we go. 

There are places in London – buildings, streets, parks, churchyards, bridges, docks – that are like a coral reef. They accrue memories and associations. 

A case in point, the churchyard of St Bartholomew the Great, the ancient Smithfield church. The seam of history is so rich there that if you mined it all on a walking tour you’d spend the whole two hours without moving from that spot. Just an example or two. There’s the business of the churchyard being much higher than the surrounding ground. The burials there did what yeast does to a loaf of bread. 

There’s the church’s association with the grandfather of American independence, Benjamin Franklin. There’s the great Puritan poet John Milton – suddenly a hunted man – going to ground somewhere thereafter the Restoration. There’s being able to stand there and see at a glance the outcroppings of five centuries of London life. There’s the great final scene of the much-loved film Four Weddings and a Funeral.

There’s that haunting photograph of the Verger standing amongst the still-standing old tombstones in the churchyard. I say still standing because some time thereafter a vandal – maybe two vandals – took a sledgehammer to those ancient tombstones. Laid waste to them. 

And now the coral reef has another accrual. Today, May 6th, is the anniversary of the recovery of a stolen painting. 

Vermeer’s The Guitar Player. Wrapped in newspapers, it was found on May 6, 1974 in the churchyard of St Bartholomew the Great. It had been stolen at about 11 pm on Saturday, February 23rd from the gallery at Kenwood, the magnificent old house that crowns the Northern Heights of Hampstead Heath. In 1974 its value was said to be worth well north of a million pounds. So much for the price tag. In practically every other sense, the painting was priceless. The thieves had used a sledgehammer to smash through a window covered by steel bars at the back of the gallery. 

The Kenwood Gallery had installed a £60,000 security system two years previously, following the theft of two paintings by the 18th-century Italian artist, Francesco Guardi. The Guardi paintings were recovered by Belgian police after they raided an art dealer in Brussels.

The £60,000 security system went off if a painting was touched. One of its connections was to Hampstead Police Station. It didn’t get the job done on that February Saturday night in 1974.

The Guitar Player was one of only about surviving 30 Vermeers. It wasn’t just a masterpiece, it had a history. Before becoming part of the Kenwood Collection it had been owned by Lord Palmerston, the Victorian Prime Minister and before that Foreign Secretary, who’d done so much to shape the modern world. 

An art historian said the painting was so well known it would be impossible to dispose of it to a museum or an honest art dealer or collector.

In another twist, there was speculation that the thieves had made off with the wrong painting. Hanging in the same room was a beyond price Rembrandt. 

And then a few weeks later, an extraordinary development. On March 6th the Times newspaper received a letter enclosing a tiny bit of canvas – one inch by a quarter inch – purportedly from the painting. Sent as proof that the letter was genuine, that the letter writer had access to the painting. The letter offered a kind of prisoner exchange. The transfer to a Belfast prison of Dolours and Marian Price, sisters serving life sentences for IRA car bombings in London. 

And talk about historical swings and roundabouts. Two centuries previously the so-called Gordon Rioters had Kenwood in their sights. They were going to destroy it, burn it down. It was Lord Mansfield’s house. He was the Lord Chief Justice. His house was a target for the rioters because they were venting their fury on any building connected with members of a government planning to allow Catholics more right. In the event, the Landlord of the nearby Spaniards Inn saved the day. He plied the rioters with drink. Got them so sozzled they couldn’t stand up, let alone find their way the few hundred yards to Kenwood.

Anyway, come 1974 it’s Catholics – IRA members or sympathisers – doing for Kenwood. Or at least making off with one of its most prized treasures.

And the quid pro quo for the return of the painting was the Price sisters, convicted IRA footsoldiers, being transferred from hated England to a prison in Northern Ireland. 

Cue the imprisoned Price sisters. Speaking through their father the sisters appealed to the thieves to return the painting. In an announcement at Speaker’s Corner, Albert Price said his daughters – both of whom were on hunger strike in Brixton prison in support of their demand to be transferred to a prison in northern Ireland – did not want to benefit from gimmicks. 

Authorities said there would be no deal. The thieves countered with threats to burn the painting. On St Patrick’s Day.

There must have been a calculation on the part of the gang of thieves that they were on a hiding to nothing. That clearly they weren’t going to achieve their ransom demand. And that burning the painting would do no end of public relations harm to their cause.

One can surmise that, because of the anonymous telephone call subsequently made to Scotland Yard. The caller said the painting would be found in the churchyard of St Bartholomew the Great. The police had no trouble finding it. Wrapped in newspaper, it was leaning against a brick gatepost near an alcove not far from the church door. Sure enough, a small piece of canvas was missing from the rear. Experts said it had been stored in a damp place and in consequence there was some minor damage to the painting. 

And that’s the tale of the stolen Vermeer. And its recovery on this day in London history, May 6th, 1974. For further reading – should you want to dig deeper – maybe Google the Price sisters. They were born into a strongly Republican family in west Belfast. They were force-fed when they were on hunger strike in prison The account one of them gave of being force-fed is harrowing. Wheels within wheels, Delours Price accused Gerry Adams of being her commanding IRA officer when she was active in the IRA. Needless to say, Adams denied her allegation.

 They were opposed to Sinn Fein’s “peace strategy” – and, in consequence, the Good Friday agreement.

Politics, colonial history, the dark days of the early 1970s, one man’s terrorist being another man’s freedom fighter, the theft of the painting…all of that is now a kind of frame round The Guitar Player. It’s a dark, troubled, storm cloud of a frame. The contrast with the gentle, exquisite beauty of the painting is wrenching.  And yes, today’s Today in London recommendation: go to Kenwood. See the painting. And its fellows. Kenwood rejoices in one of the most magnificent art collections in London.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

Our secret recipe? It’s no secret. It all comes down to the guiding, doesn’t it. The calibre of the guiding. Rest assured, being a London Walks guide is not a summer job done by college students. It’s not paint-by-numbers guiding. You will NOT be guided by a callow youth who’s memorised a script. You will be guided by accomplished professionals – barristers, doctors, Museum of London archaeologists, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, historians, distinguished academics, elite, professionally-qualified Guide of the Year Award-winning Blue Badge, City of London and Westminster Guides. Well-connected, experienced, savvy, assured guides – Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new. It’s elementary my dear Watson: A top-flight guide is worth every penny. A mediocre guide is time and money wasted. The time wasted is of course compounded by the opportunity cost. 

And on that caveat emptor note, good night from London. See ya tomorrow. 

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