Friday, 21 September 2012

The Considerable Charisma of the Butchered Blackmailer

                        Charles Augustus Howell was born in 1840 at Oporto to Anglo-Portuguese parents. He always described himself as a man of high rank in Portugal, and when in evening dress he wore a broad red ribbon, the ‘Order of Christ’, across his chest. 

Charles Augustus Howell

He came to England in his youth but left in 1858 for Italy, where it was rumoured he was involved in a plot to assassinate Napoleon III. He returned in 1864, and by the following year he was working as Ruskin’s secretary and almoner. Howell was variously described as ‘a man of unusual personal charm and business capacity’, ‘a very amusing man, full of anecdotes’ and a ‘Gil Blas Robinson Crusoe hero out of his proper time, a creature of top boots and plumes, splendidly flamboyant.’ 

D G Rossetti - Charles Augustus Howell

Physically, ‘although his face was as hairless as a woman's there was not a feature in it that was not masculine,’ he was ‘strong’ and ‘powerful’ and he ‘smoked cigarettes in that kind of furious sucking way which is characteristic of great smokers,’ although ‘tobacco juice seemed to ooze from his face like perspiration, or rather like oil.’ Rossetti described him as ‘a professional talker,’ and ‘the greatest romancer of his age,’ who ‘was always having astounding experiences and marvellous adventures.’ 

He was what we might call today ‘a fixer’ and ‘a charmer’. He bought and sold art works, provided books and publishers, dealt in prints and people; he knew and saw everything, gaining a nickname ‘The Owl’, and ‘introduced everybody to everybody else, he entangled everybody with everybody else, and it was easier to get involved with Howell than get rid of him.’ And that, of course, was the problem. Like all confidence tricksters, Howell was charming and charismatic, but very much in business for himself. 

Charles Augustus Howell

An example of this is his dealings with the artist James McNeill Whistler. Howell undertook to have some of Whistler’s prints produced by Graves the printer. One day, Whistler called on Graves and asked for some proof prints of his own pictures but Graves refused to hand them over, saying he had specific instructions from Howell not to give them to anyone else bar Howell. A furious Whistler went to Howell, demanding to know what was going on. It was, said Howell, a terrible mistake, and he offered to write a letter to Graves, adding that Whistler could post it himself. He dashed off a note, put it in an envelope, sealed it and handed it to Whistler, who popped in the post. He called again on Graves later, and received the same denial to his request. Furious again, he asked Graves if he had received a letter from Howell, and when Graves said yes, he demanded to see it. It read, “Of course you will not give Mr Whistler the proofs he desires.” 

Walter Greaves - Portrait of J M Whistler

Whistler, by now incandescent with anger, went back to Howell, demanding an explanation. Howell was all apologies – it was all a terrible mistake. Graves had written to him as Whistler’s agent, asking if he should put large edition numbers on the prints. Howell had replied, “Of course you will not,” and then “Give Mr Whistler the proofs he desires.” Don’t you see – two sentences, a full stop inadvertently omitted. “Of course you will not. Give Mr Whistler the proofs he desires.” Terrible mistake, old chap, a million apologies. Whistler, placated, went back to Graves and eventually got some, but not all, of the prints he wanted. But he also had got a glimpse of how Howell operated, and did not trust him again. 

J M Whistler - Arrangement in Brown and Black

One of Whistler’s favourite models was Rosa Corder, and Howell commissioned him to paint her portrait, Arrangement in Brown and Black: Portrait of Rosa Corder. Corder was a talented artist herself, Ellen Terry the actress described her as “one of those plain-beautiful women who are far more attractive than some of the pretty ones,” and in 1873, she and Howell became lovers. 

Rosa Corder

Under his wing, he tutored her in his dubious methods, and she is said to have produced forgeries of works by Fuseli and Rossetti, which Howell sold as originals. Max Beerbohm drew a caricature of the two at work in his Rossetti and his Circle, which he entitled “Mr. ---- And Miss ---- Nervously Perpetuating The Touch Of A Vanished Hand.” 

M Beerbohm caricature of Howell and Corder

It was Howell who arranged for the exhumation of Rossetti’s poems from the grave of Elizabeth Siddall, and although sworn to secrecy by Rossetti, the story got out. When Ruskin discovered that an arrangement for charitable payments in his name had been made to some of Howell’s cousins, he too became suspicious and eventually resolved never to see Howell again. Edward Burne-Jones’s wife Georgina said that Howell was, “One H which should be dropped.” Rossetti, in one of his better limericks, wrote: -
"There's a Portuguese person named Howell,
Who lays on his lies with a trowel;
When I goggle my eyes,
And start with surprise,
It's at monstrous big lies told by Howell."
One of his tricks was to let news of his death be leaked, so that he could discover what people said about when they got the news. He actually died in April 1890, in very suspicious circumstances – one night his body was found in a gutter near to a pub in Chelsea. His throat had been slit, either before, during or after death, and a ten shilling coin had been placed in his mouth, the sign of revenge on a libeller. To prevent further scandal, the cause of death on the death certificate was given as ‘pneumonic phthisis’ (tuberculosis). After his death, many carefully filed letters from or about famous people were discovered at his home. 

Howell in later life
In 1904, Arthur Conan Doyle published a short story in his The Return of Sherlock Holmes entitled The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, a thinly disguised pseudonym of Charles Augustus Howell – Milverton is a notorious blackmailer, who holds many incriminating letters in his safe, and is eventually shot by one of his victims, who grinds her heel into his dead face. Holmes, who witnesses the murder, refuses to investigate it for the police, “… my sympathies are with the criminals, and I will not handle the case."

Holmes, Watson and Milverton

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