Born in Sri Lanka; father a tea planter. Education: Earned degrees in art history and English.
Home—London, England. Agent—Christopher Little, Christopher Little Literary Agency, Eel Brook Studios, 125 Moore Park Rd., London SW6 4PS, England.
Bonham's Auctioneers, London, England, former head of old-master painting department; Sotheby's (auction house), London, England, former staff member; Reed Books, editor, beginning 1991; former art and antiques correspondent for House and Garden magazine.
Miller's Collecting Prints & Posters, Miller's (London, England), 1997.
Fayf: Collecting Pottery & Porcelain, Mitchell Beazley (London, England), 1997.
The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story, Warner Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Millionaire: The Philanderer, Gambler, and Duelist Who Invented Modern Finance, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1999, published as The Moneymaker, Bantam (London, England), 1999.
(Contributing editor) David Linley, Design and Detail in the Home, Harry N. Abrams (New York, NY), 2000.
The Grenadillo Box (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2004.
The Serpent in the Garden (novel), Bantam (London, England), 2004.
The Thief Taker (novel), Bantam (London, England), 2004.
An Aristocratic Affair, Bantam (London, England), 2006, Bantam (New York, NY), 2007.
Privilege and Scandal: The Remarkable Life of Harriet Spencer, Sister of Georgiana, Crown Publishers (New York, NY), 2007.
Contributor to periodicals, including Country Life, Apollo, and Antiques Collector.
The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story has been adapted as an audiotape.
Janet Gleeson is an antiques expert who has used her specialized knowledge to write a best-selling nonfiction book, The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story, as well as the historical mystery novels The Grenadillo Box and The Serpent in the Garden. The Arcanum brings to life the story of the discovery of porcelain in Europe in the early eighteenth century by the alchemist Johann Frederick Böttger. Although China had possessed this secret for centuries, porcelain existed in Europe only as an imported good from Asia and so was once nearly as valuable as gold. The process for making fine china started, as Gleeson relates, when young alchemist and apothecary Böttger boasted that he had discovered the fabled "philosopher's stone"—also called the arcanum—that could turn base metals into gold. After Böttger fooled the powerful King Augustus II into believing that he could perform this miracle, the greedy king imprisoned Böttger in a castle in Meissen near the city of Dresden. The hapless alchemist was then told he could not leave until he produced large quantities of gold for the ruler. Knowing that he could not achieve the task, Böttger instead promised to make porcelain for the king so that he could avoid being hanged. He managed to do so in 1709, and as a result Meissen became a valuable economic center with the establishment of the first porcelain factory in Europe. Böttger, however, would suffer a horrible death in Dresden in 1919 after years of breathing toxic arsenic and mercury fumes.
But the story of Böttger's discovery makes up only the first part of The Arcanum. The rest is devoted to the rivalry between Johann Gregor Herold, who invented prized glazes for Böttger's porcelain, and the artist Johann Joachim Kändler, who created figurines and statues out of it. However, New York Times reviewer Ed Regis considered the part of the book after Böttger's discovery "somewhat of an anticlimax." Many reviewers nevertheless appreciated Gleeson's ability to turn a piece of history commonly known only to aficionados of porcelain into nonfiction that reads like a novel; the book became a best-seller in the author's native England. Booklist contributor Gilbert Taylor called it "pure reading pleasure," and a Publishers Weekly writer described the book as a "delightful historical narrative."
Gleeson followed The Arcanum with another historical book, Millionaire: The Philanderer, Gambler, and Duelist Who Invented Modern Finance, set in the eighteenth century. The book's subject is John Law, the roguish heir who squandered much of his inheritance gambling and had to flee imprisonment in England after killing a man in a duel. He ended up in France, where he set up a company that encouraged investments in France's land holdings in the Mississippi valley, and he set up the first centralized bank in France. Law also introduced paper currency to France, but when his company fell into financial ruin, this paper money became worthless and the fortunes he had created for others disappeared as well. As a result, Law ended up fleeing France as well and living in exile.
Some reviewers of Millionaire criticized the manner in which Gleeson repeatedly speculates about Law's life, filling in holes and guessing on people's inner thoughts wherever no documentation existed. Wall Street Journal contributor James Surowiecki noted skeptically that Law's story could make for an interesting "intellectual biography. Unfortunately, Ms. Gleeson hasn't written it. What she has given us instead is an ill-fitting combination of racy anecdotes, half-baked social history and a haphazard discussion of Law's intricate attempts to change the way eighteenth-century Europeans thought about things like money, value and risk." On the other hand, some reviewers praised Gleeson for crafting an engaging story. For instance, Diana B. Henriques, writing in the New York Times, called Millionaire a "rollicking tale" that is "captivating and potentially … instructive."
Gleeson drew upon her antiques knowledge and experience when she wrote her first novel, The Grenadillo Box, a mystery in which Chippendale furniture plays an important part. Set in eighteenth-century England, the story features Nathaniel Hopson, an apprentice to the now-renowned Thomas Chippendale. While Hopson is on a job to build a bookcase for Lord Montfort, the latter is murdered in what his family tries to pass off as a suicide. However, too many clues to the contrary leave Hopson suspicious, including the way Montfort's dead hands clutch a box made of grenadillo wood. When Hopson's friend John Partridge, who designed the box, is murdered too, Hopson wonders if he might be next and sets off to find the killer. Several reviewers were receptive to Gleeson's first novel, many especially enjoying the story's setting, while others had reservations. A Publishers Weekly critic, for one, commented that "Gleeson does a respectable job of recreating Georgian England, [but] her characters and story line fail to match her descriptive skills." However, Booklist contributor Connie Fletcher asserted that the author "hits all the right history-mystery notes, … [blending] historical detail with riveting crime drama."
Gleeson followed The Grenadillo Box with another historical mystery, The Serpent in the Garden, which is again set in the eighteenth century and which features a portrait painter, Joshua Pope, as the protagonist. While Pope is working on the portrait of a well-to-do couple at their estate in Richmond, England, the body of an unidentified man is discovered in the greenhouse. Pope sets out to learn who the man is and how he died. London Guardian reviewer Sarah A. Smith gave The Serpent in the Garden a somewhat chilly reception. "Gleeson knows her history and she knows how to write an entertaining, if mildly preposterous, story," attested Smith. "What she doesn't know is when to stop ven- triloquising or piling on detail. As a result she fails one of the first tests of historical fiction: to leave the reader wanting to know more."
The Thief Taker features eighteenth-century detective Agnes Meadowes, a widow who works as a cook for the Blanchard family, who are silversmiths. Agnes comes to the family's rescue by assisting to recover a silver wine cooler that has been stolen in the wake of the murder of their apprentice and the disappearance of the kitchen maid, who is later found dead as well. The term "thief taker" refers to the individual whom Agnes contacts to help retrieve the stolen property, a valuable item slated for sale. In a review for Booklist, Margaret Flanagan remarked that "suspense and historical detail are artfully interwoven into another historical whodunit." A contributor for Kirkus Reviews called the book "a rousing tale of murder and deceit."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, January 1, 1999, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story, p. 816; November 15, 2003, Connie Fletcher, review of The Grenadillo Box, p. 578; September 15, 2006, Margaret Flanagan, review of The Thief Taker, p. 31.
Guardian (London, England), May 3, 2003, Sarah A. Smith, "Writing in Coils," review of The Serpent in the Garden.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2003, review of The Grenadillo Box, p. 1191; July 1, 2006, review of The Thief Taker, p. 656.
New York Times, October 17, 1999, Ed Regis, "What a Dish!," section 7, p. 33; July 23, 2000, Diana B. Henriques, "A Big Idea about Money," section 7, p. 7.
Publishers Weekly, December 21, 1998, review of The Arcanum, p. 38; November 10, 2003, review of The Grenadillo Box, p. 45.
Times Literary Supplement, April 3, 1998, David Watkin, "The Secret of China," p. 10.
USA Today, April 8, 1999, Deirdre Donahue, "A Magical Alchemy of History and Porcelain, Cracks and All," p. D10.
Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2000, James Surowiecki, "The Father of Modern Finance," p. W9.
Washington Post Book World, May 23, 1999, John Crowley, review of The Arcanum, p. X07.