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Hampstead Cemetery’s plinth of thieves

Stolen not once but twice, there are fears Sir William Goscombe John’s statue of his wife, which graced her grave, may have been melted down

13 April, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

‘Gorgeous and very moving’ – Sir William Goscombe John’s statue of his late wife

IT was the best way artist Sir William Goscombe John could show his everlasting love: create the most beautiful sculpture he could, honouring the memory of his lost wife, Marthe.

And for 80 years the graceful bronze marked their shared final resting place in Hampstead Cemetery.

It depicted a woman turning back and looking over her shoulder, as if she were stepping through a door into a heavenly world beyond. She wore a flowing gown, a floral-patterned shawl, and had her hands against her mouth as she moved into everlasting rest.

Goscombe John had created similar pieces, one for composer Sir Arthur Sullivan and another, a figure named Grief, in his native Wales. They were cast while he lived in Paris, studying under Auguste Rodin. He drew on them as he paid tribute to Marthe, who died aged 60.

Yet its beauty was admired from afar – and one evening in 2001, a group of persons unknown clambered into the burial site in Fortune Green and removed the piece.

Was it stolen to order? Was it coveted by a collector?

Detectives did not crack the case – but the sculpture was recovered a few months later when it appeared in a catalogue of an auction house in Surrey.

But it was not returned: as the cemetery underwent a long-planned restoration, the figure was locked in a shed at St Pancras and Islington Cemetery in East Finchley.

And then, on an autumnal afternoon in October 2006, as dusk fell, the piece went missing again.

And it has yet to be recovered.

George Roilos’s painting of William Goscombe John

Detectives discovered that a gang brazenly carried the sculpture into the back of a white van.

At the time, a spokesman for Islington Council, who manage the cemetery, told the Camden New Journal it was not a “tiptoe job”.

“It was a forceful entry – the hinges had been ripped off the door,” they said.

Nearly 15 years on, since it was last seen in public, there have been no further sightings.

Former director of the National Portrait Gallery Sandy Nairne, who lives in Kentish Town, has experience dealing with art thefts.

He was working at the Tate when, in 1994, two paintings by WM Turner the gallery had loaned to an exhibition in Frankfurt were stolen.

They were worth approximately £24m, and he set out on a tireless quest to discover their fate – a journey that included middlemen, Balkan drug kingpins and all manner of detectives, loss adjusters and art experts.

The Turners were recovered – but Mr Nairne sadly does not hold much hope for the Goscombe John. The Metropolitan Police say they have no record of it ever being found.

The memorial had been listed by English Heritage 18 months before its first disappearance – and that its sale was attempted suggested the first gang knew what they were after.

Sir William’s reputation is such that his works are collectable.

Born in Cardiff in 1860, he studied at the Royal Academy, travelled across Europe and worked at Rodin’s Paris studio.

When he and Marthe returned to the UK in 1892, they settled in Kilburn –where he lived until his death in 1952.

Art historian Dr Roger Bowdler, who lives in Hampstead, is a specialist in monuments.

“I saw it before it was stolen,” he recalls. “It is beautiful.”

Goscombe John’s First World War memorials have become classic imagery of a nation collectively mourning.

“Goscombe John was distinguished,” Dr Bowdler adds. “He was Kilburn’s most famous resident. He worked during an interesting period – sculpture was moving from Classical to being imaginative, romantic and free-spirited. He helped create the mood of the time.”

And the missing piece is particularly important.

The grave as it is now

“This was profoundly personal,” he says. “It was honouring his wife by doing the best he can. It was gorgeous and very moving.”

The statue that graced the grave is not the only Goscombe John to go missing. A male nude called Joyance was stolen from a Cardiff fountain at around the same time.

Dr Bowdler wonders whether this may mean the artist was targeted.

“Bronze memorials are valuable for their sculptural value,” he says. “They are not just private and personal – they are for everyone, and that makes their loss even more profound.”

Despite this coincidence, Mr Nairne wonders whether it’s the value of the metal that attracted the second theft.

“People stealing big bronzes – that is unusual,” he observes.

“Thieves will go for high value paintings but by and large the risks of getting into a museum or gallery are too large to be worth it.

“And how do you dispose of well-known items if they are listed and known about?”

He recalls the theft of a Henry Moore, stolen for its metal value rather than aesthetic importance.

“The awful, terrible truth of the matter is the thieves who took the Moore were interested solely in its scrap value,” he says.

“It isn’t impossible the Goscombe John was taken for a collector, but the value would more likely be in the metal. There has been an increase in recent years of thefts from churches as the price of metals goes up.

“Criminals are simply greedy. They are only interested in money.

“The idea that there is a hidden collector seeking out works and commissioning thieves to steal to order does not ring true.

“There is no Dr No character in his hidden, submarine lair surrounded by priceless works. There is just no evidence of this – and it is illogical when you consider it.

“They’d only ever be able to show the works to themselves. It is a myth, perpetuated by films like The Thomas Crown Affair. The truth about criminal activity and art is much more crude and base. If it’s made of metal, they will sell it on for a fraction of its value.

“The Turners we recovered were used as collateral in drug deals. It seems perhaps a bizarre coincidence that this piece by Goscombe John was targeted by two different criminals in a short space of time.”

In earlier ages, grave robbers would be put off such disrespectful thefts under the threat of somehow being cursed by forces from the spirit world.

Not so today – and the outcome is Goscombe John’s once-glorious memorial is a bare headstone left with its inscription to those interred beneath, and a simple stone shell motif.

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