Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid; painting by Johannes Vermeer

National Gallery of Ireland

Johannes Vermeer: Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid, circa 1670

In an essay first published by The New Yorker in 1995, Lawrence Weschler described an exchange with Antonio Cassese, the presiding judge at the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, whose litany of the horrors recounted in his court had just concluded with a Muslim prisoner’s going mad after being forced to castrate a fellow prisoner with his teeth. Asked how he kept from going mad himself, Cassese replied, “You see, as often as possible I make my way over to the Mauritshuis museum, in the center of town, so as to spend a little time with the Vermeers.” For Weschler, who had also been spending time with the paintings, the judge’s words prompted a crucial revelation: what they both saw as the “peacefulness” and “serenity” of Vermeer’s art was not just an antidote to pain and suffering but its product—a deliberate effort to counter, by excluding, much of the world the artist inhabited:

When Vermeer was painting those images…all Europe was Bosnia (or had only just recently ceased to be): awash in incredibly vicious wars of religious persecution and proto-nationalist formation, wars of an at-that-time unprecedented violence and cruelty, replete with sieges and famines and massacres and mass rapes, unspeakable tortures and wholesale devastation.1

Weschler’s discovery, as he acknowledged, was not really new. An intense awareness of all that Vermeer “conspicuously excludes”—the phrase is Harry Berger’s—has long been a feature of his modern reception.2 Writing in the aftermath of World War II, the Dutch art historian P.T.A. Swillens, whose monograph on the painter was interrupted by the Nazi invasion of 1940, recalled how “the orgies of idiocy and barbarism” that followed only heightened his appreciation of his subject, “who, like so many of my contemporaries, became the victim of the madness of despots.”3 More recently, observers have noted in the paintings’ stillness both the absence of the artist’s eleven surviving children and a deliberate evasion of the domestic violence perpetrated by his abusive brother-in-law, who was eventually sequestered in a madhouse for attacking both his own mother and Vermeer’s pregnant wife. The domestic and the political merge in Tomas Tranströmer’s haunting poem on the painter, whose opening lines, as translated by Robin Fulton, call the brother-in-law “the death-bringer we all must tremble for” and invoke “gaping red flowerheads sweating premonitions of war,” even as the poem as a whole meditates on the precarious illusion of safety Vermeer constructs by holding such forces at bay in his work.4

In lieu of a personal photo, Rose Dugdale’s Facebook page offers only an image of Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid, but it seems doubtful that the gesture is meant to evoke any feeling of serenity in the viewer. When Dugdale, the subject of Anthony Amore’s The Woman Who Stole Vermeer, was convicted for her part in the theft of this and eighteen other paintings from the Irish estate of Sir Alfred Beit in the spring of 1974, she defiantly pronounced herself “proudly and incorruptibly guilty!” and there’s no evidence that she has ever rescinded that verdict.5 There’s also no evidence that she has ever had more than a casual interest in Vermeer’s art itself. But rejection of the protected world in which she grew up has long been central to Dugdale’s identity, and the self-professed “freedom fighter” who hoped to exchange the painting for IRA hunger strikers may well relish the irony of continuing to deploy it as a token of her commitment to political struggle. If she has ever realized that her chosen cause is an outgrowth of the very sectarian conflicts so conspicuously absent from Vermeer’s art, we never hear of it. Nor does Amore’s book make anything of the fact that Vermeer was a Catholic in a Protestant country, having converted to the barely tolerated religion at the time of his marriage. But this irony, too, shadows Dugdale’s identification with the painter.

Amore has good reason to be interested in what he calls, after Beit’s estate in County Wicklow, Ireland, “the Russborough House art heist.” The author or coauthor of two previous books on art crime, he is the director of security and chief investigator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which famously lost a Vermeer—the painting known as The Concert—to thieves in 1990. That crime, which has never been solved, goes unmentioned here, though in the book’s epilogue Amore plausibly speculates that Dugdale may also have been responsible for another Vermeer theft, the relatively brief disappearance of The Guitar Player from Kenwood House in London just two months before the Russborough heist. At one point, the thieves threatened to burn the painting unless their demands were met, but unlike The Concert, The Guitar Player was safely recovered with the help of an anonymous tip: a detective found the canvas, wrapped in newspaper, propped up against an old headstone in a London churchyard. As in the Gardner case, however, the criminals themselves have never been officially identified.


In titling his book The Woman Who Stole Vermeer, rather than the more obvious “a Vermeer,” Amore is presumably paying tribute to this double act—an achievement that would make Dugdale, in his words, “the stuff of criminal legend.” Partly because it proves so difficult to unload well-known masterpieces, most art thieves, he reports, don’t try more than once. That a woman may have pulled this off makes Dugdale in her chronicler’s eyes even more of “a pioneer.” Though some in the business have employed female accomplices, it’s apparently quite rare for a woman to act as the mastermind of a major art theft. According to Sir Alfred, who witnessed the looting of his house, “the woman…was the leader of the whole operation, and knew what she was about.” But while Dugdale is proud of her history, I doubt that she ever hoped to go down in the annals of art crime. Being famous for stealing Vermeers is an odd fate for a woman who would clearly prefer to be remembered, if at all, as a heroine of Irish republicanism.

Unlike other female contemporaries whose names are associated with the cause—Bernadette Devlin, for instance, or Dolours and Marian Price, whose hunger strike partly motivated the Russborough heist—Dugdale had no obvious connection with Ireland or Catholicism. The IRA was in her case a purely elective affinity, a commitment chosen among other radical allegiances in the political ferment of the 1960s and 1970s. Born in 1941 to a former British cavalry officer who worked as an underwriter for Lloyd’s of London and a mother whose family owed its fortune to the slave trade and Lancashire cotton mills, Dugdale was raised on a country estate in Devon, educated “with the daughters of aristocracy” (her phrase) at an exclusive school for young women, and destined—by her mother at least—to make a fashionable debut in the London season of 1958.

With the benefit of hindsight, Amore identifies some faint signs of the would-be revolutionary in Dugdale’s childhood and adolescence: her outrage when her parents pierced her ears against her wishes, for instance, or the expert rifle training she acquired from her father and his British army friends on hunting expeditions that she later credited for aiding her work as a guerrilla. But her first real impulse of resistance seems to have been inspired by the prospect of coming out as a debutante, a ritual she equated with “being sold as a commodity” on the marriage market. Though she eventually acquiesced, the price of her surrender was an agreement that she be allowed to attend Oxford the following autumn—a university education having not otherwise figured in the Dugdales’ plans for their daughter. Nor, apparently, were they alone in their assumption: among the 1,400 young women presented at Court in 1958, a grand total of four, including Dugdale, subsequently headed to university. One of the others was the future biographer and cultural historian Fiona MacCarthy, who later wrote a book about the experience, Last Curtsey (2006), to commemorate the fact that theirs had been decreed the final performance of the ritual. “We had to put a stop to it,” Princess Margaret observed. “Every tart in London was getting in.” The record numbers who crowded into the palace for this last opportunity must have seemed intent on proving her right.

Though Dugdale went on to earn a doctorate in philosophy from Bedford College at the University of London, it’s not clear how seriously she ever entertained the idea of an academic career. The picture Amore paints of her as an undergraduate is that of a young woman still in search of intellectual and political focus. No radical as yet—asked to write an essay on the House of Lords, she was the only one of her small cohort willing to rise to its defense—she left Oxford with a relatively undistinguished record, but with warm memories of the back-and-forth with tutors and peers. Among those tutors was the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, who recommended her for a master’s program at Mount Holyoke as “an intelligent ‘all-rounder,’” “sensible and in no way neurotic”: a verdict Dugdale seems to have promptly confirmed by dividing her time in Massachusetts between writing a thesis on Ludwig Wittgenstein and speeding around the country in one of a series of sports cars purchased by her wealthy parents.

In 1964 she returned to the UK, where she followed brief stints as a research assistant for the UN and a junior post in Harold Wilson’s Labour government by enrolling for her doctorate. Amore, who regards Dugdale’s dissertation on proper names as a baffling detour in her trajectory, suggests that she found her true calling while holding informal seminars at Bedford on the first volume of Marx’s Das Kapital. Though she would later profess herself impatient with Marxist theory, Marx’s analysis of British imperialism in Ireland clearly had more impact on her future than any account of naming in John Stuart Mill and Wittgenstein.


Dugdale officially spent 1967–1968 lecturing in economics at Bedford, but like so many in that tumultuous year, she was already putting the university behind her. At twenty-seven she was a bit older than the typical soixante-huitard, but both her “feeling that the world could change, was about to change,” as she later said, and her vagueness as to the means of achieving it sound all too reminiscent of the era. The problem, as Dugdale saw it, was not “whether to get involved, but how”—a formula that notably left the object of the involvement also unspecified. Figuring it out in her case took her from a Cuban summer camp for would-be revolutionaries to student-led protests at British universities, before a fellow protester suggested she make a trip to Northern Ireland.

In Derry, Dugdale watched as Catholic stone-throwers, many quite young, repeatedly faced off against the British army and its rubber bullets. Though she was not present for Bloody Sunday, when thirteen died after the army fired more than a hundred rounds of ammunition at unarmed civilians protesting the internment of prisoners without trial, the “pure horror” of the event apparently galvanized her. “There was no question,” she concluded, “that you needed to do everything you could to support that cause.” Freeing Ireland from its imperialist oppressors meant preparing herself for the possibility that she would have to do some killing too.

Rose Dugdale

PA Images/Getty Images

Rose Dugdale, Tottenham, London, 1974

As things turned out, no one would actually die at Dugdale’s hands, though the threat of violence was now an unmistakable part of the picture. Sometime after her thirtieth birthday, she joined forces with Walter Heaton, a former guardsman and self-described revolutionary socialist who had been radicalized while fighting for the British in Malaya and had already served time for a series of petty offenses. Heaton was older than Dugdale and married, but the two began an affair, which they took no trouble to conceal from his distressed wife. There are also suggestions that Heaton was abusive toward Dugdale, and that she welcomed such behavior as evidence of working-class authenticity. (Amore doesn’t pursue the question, perhaps because Heaton, unlike his former lover, was willing to be interviewed for the book.) By this point Dugdale had moved from upscale Chelsea to Tottenham, where the heiress who’d once curtsied to the queen was now kicking open doors and cursing out civil servants on behalf of local welfare recipients, when she wasn’t being hauled off to court for “willfully obstructing” a constable at a labor protest. Amore also suggests that she and Heaton were running guns for the IRA while pretending to transport Irish children to London as a reprieve from the Troubles.

Though Heaton’s feelings for Dugdale appear to have been genuine, others suspected he was more interested in the money she was determined to lavish on him. Her parents had already provided her with something like £150,000, and despite their increasing estrangement, they never seem to have contemplated cutting her off. As Dugdale saw it, Heaton had every right to her family’s “accumulated theft,” and when the money began to run out, they decided to help themselves to more. Knowing that her parents would be at the races on Derby Day, the couple rounded up some accomplices and succeeded in hauling off approximately £85,000 worth of assorted valuables, including eight paintings, before they were tracked down and arrested. Even had they not made the mistake of enlisting a shady relative of Heaton’s who later betrayed them to the police, the crime would have proved easy to solve, since more than one clue—dogs that didn’t bark, for instance—clearly pointed to the daughter of the house.

While their more experienced confederates pled guilty, Dugdale and Heaton welcomed the chance to make their case in open court. Predictably denouncing the trial as “political” and her parents as “gangsters, thieves and oppressors of the poor,” Dugdale nonetheless let her accomplices take the rap for her. After initially claiming that she had been coerced by one of them, she found herself in a courtroom ready to draw its own distinctions between heiresses and poor men with criminal records. In an episode that oddly recalls the trial of Magwitch and Compeyson in Dickens’s Great Expectations, the presiding judge sent Heaton away for six years, while granting his genteel accomplice a two-year suspended sentence, on the belief that she was “unlikely to offend again.” No doubt sex, as well as class, entered into this judgment: though Amore argues that the woman was the mastermind in the case, the court preferred to assume otherwise.

Dugdale, who had reportedly adopted a working-class accent when she condemned this “obvious example of British injustice,” clearly had no desire to play Compeyson to Heaton’s Magwitch. But the relationship ended in betrayal all the same, when she took up with a new lover named Eddie Gallagher only a few months after his predecessor was imprisoned. The spurned Heaton now pronounced her “fish-blooded with no real emotions for anyone,” but Gallagher, six years younger than Dugdale, was the real thing: a working-class Irishman, born and raised in Ulster, and already a committed republican. He also seems to have been something of a loose cannon: known as “Mad” Eddie, he was drawn to the Provisional wing of the IRA but never clearly affiliated with them, and when he and Dugdale took direct action on their behalf, the Provos tended to disavow responsibility. Both the Russborough heist and the attempted bombing of a police station that immediately preceded it proved better at grabbing headlines than at advancing the republican cause. Amore quotes one exasperated IRA source after the Russborough affair: “People like Dugdale, who are in revolt against their upbringing and perhaps feel a bit guilty about their comfortable situation in life, should stay out of our business and leave the fighting to the people who know what they are doing.”

In the case of the bombing, the lovers were partly following a playbook established by the Provos themselves several months earlier in the autumn of 1973, when a daring raid with a hijacked helicopter succeeded in freeing three high-value prisoners from Mountjoy Prison in Dublin. With Dugdale acting as frontwoman, her team managed to replicate the hijacking—she pretended to be a journalist who wished to hire the helicopter in order to investigate an island arts community—but their effort to bomb the police station in Strabane, Northern Ireland, ended in failure. The homemade bombs, constructed from ten-gallon milk churns, were so heavy that one had to be abandoned before the mission was underway and two others were dumped prematurely, while the fourth landed harmlessly in a river and the fifth failed to explode.

The pilot was then directed to fly to “the Free State”—the Republic of Ireland—where the hijackers made their escape. The border town of Strabane had already suffered multiple bombings, but this was the first time it had been attacked from the air, prompting a local police officer to joke mordantly about “this new military weapon—The AGMIC—the air-to-ground milk-churn.” Though Dugdale deemed the action “operationally very important and exciting,” she also knew that the police had strong grounds for suspecting her involvement. When she showed up at Russborough pretending to be a Frenchwoman whose car had broken down, she was already a fugitive.

If she “knew what she was about” in stealing the pictures, as Sir Alfred thought, the IRA seems to have judged the operation less kindly. It particularly objected to Dugdale’s decision to rent a lonely cottage nearby in advance of the heist, a maneuver that only risked calling attention to her status as an outsider. They also appear to have been skeptical of the very idea of using art as a bargaining chip, especially when the art in question didn’t belong to the British government. From the leadership’s perspective, headlines about a stolen Vermeer just detracted from the plight of the hunger strikers, while police roadblocks threatened to disrupt secret talks with a Unionist representative that had been scheduled for the following day.

Meanwhile, the police had their own reasons for finding the operation somewhat amateurish. Though the thieves had enough foresight to rip pages from Sir Alfred’s diary in order to authenticate their ransom letter, they seem to have taken little care to cover their tracks or to establish a secure hiding place for the paintings. The getaway car, which the police quickly located, conveniently provided both a driver’s license bearing an alias Dugdale had already used and a fragment of frame from one of the stolen paintings. Having been traced to the rented cottage, she was initially able to drive off in what appears to have been an abortive attempt at escape by sea, but if she was expecting a boat to arrive as she waited at the pier, her rescuers never showed, and she returned to the cottage with most of the paintings still in the car she had driven, which had been borrowed from her landlord. The others were found in a locked room of the cottage, presumably because they didn’t fit in the vehicle.

Though Dugdale refused to identify herself, she was arrested without a struggle. Gallagher, who remained at large, was later briefly incarcerated on unrelated grounds and joined in a dramatic IRA prison break, only to be tracked down once again after attempting to free Dugdale and two other prisoners by threatening to kill a Dutch-born factory director whom he and his gang had kidnapped in Limerick. By the time he surrendered, his lack of discipline and suspicious handling of funds seem to have earned him the enmity of the Provos as well as the Irish government, which sent him away for twenty years.

Dugdale received nine years for the Russborough heist and an equivalent sentence, to run concurrently, for the Strabane bombing. Already pregnant with Gallagher’s child at the time of the trial, she gave birth in a makeshift maternity ward of the prison and several years later married the father, having managed to persuade the authorities to transport him from his prison to hers for the unorthodox ceremony. The bride is said to have looked “radiant” in a black velvet jacket and corduroy trousers, but her parents were not on hand for the ceremony. Though they continued to feel “a great deal of affection” for their daughter, Mrs. Dugdale told the press, “nothing would induce us to go to this wedding.” They seem to have been more than willing to support her in other ways, however, since she was eventually paroled three years early on the promise of a reconciliation with her parents.

Iris Murdoch, too, continued to act in loco parentis, in her case by urging the government to supply the prisoner with more books, lest she be “condemned to reading thrillers, in the company of uneducated IRA ladies,” and emerge from the experience “an embittered urban guerilla.” Although Dugdale reportedly did while away her time behind bars reading Irish history and Russian novels, it’s hard to imagine that the woman who had greeted her son’s birth by announcing “he’s going to be a guerilla” would have welcomed this appeal.

I don’t know whether that son inherited her revolutionary impulses, but as an art thief Dugdale did have offspring of sorts: one real and the other fictional. In 1986 the Beits’ Vermeer and other paintings were stolen once again, this time by a Dublin criminal named Martin Cahill. Compared to Dugdale, Cahill and his gang were professionals, but stealing art was hardly in their line, and Amore is convinced that they would never have headed for Russborough had they not been inspired by her example. Like their predecessor, they proved better at lifting pictures than at disposing of them, though they were expert enough to keep their haul hidden for seven years, before an elaborate sting led to the paintings’ recovery in 1993.6 Unbeknownst to the thieves, they had actually been holding government property, since before the break-in the Beits had bequeathed their Vermeer to the National Gallery of Ireland, where Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid returned when it surfaced for the second time.

The Vermeer at the center of Katharine Weber’s novel The Music Lesson (1998) is imaginary, but her narrative of a well-educated woman who assists her IRA lover in stealing the painting and then holes up with the canvas in an isolated Irish cottage clearly owes its inspiration to Dugdale. Weber heightens the stakes by making her fictional Vermeer a possession of the queen and by having her thieves threaten to burn the painting if the government doesn’t accede to their demands—the script laid out at Kenwood, in other words, rather than at Russborough. She also ups the ante by arranging for the crime to result in serious violence, when an innocent bystander accidentally stumbles on the picture’s hiding place.

But The Music Lesson’s most significant departure from the facts concerns the fate of the painting. Before its heroine takes up with the IRA, she is a museum librarian rather than an economics instructor, and the text that finally moves her to act is not Das Kapital but Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Forced to choose, she prefers to betray her lover and his cause by burying the painting rather than treat it as a fungible commodity. Her crime may have been inspired by Dugdale’s, but in responding to the aura of an object she regards as irreplaceable, she sees a very different Vermeer.