Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jack the Ripper

Walter Sickert

Walter Sickert
Walter Sickert
Walter Sickert (1860-1942), a very highly regarded British painter, has become a semi celebrity this year, as American crime novelist Patricia Cornwell has made him the subject of her new book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed. "I do believe 100 per cent that the artist Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper," she said.

For anyone who follows Ripper scholarship, this event by itself a big ho hum. Dozens of writers promoting dozens of books over more than 10 decades have claimed to have discovered the identity of Jack the Ripper. There is no reason to assume that this phenomenon will not endure for another 10 decades.

What makes this particular book promotion special is that Cornwell is a respected crime novelist, the creator of the fictional medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, and a person very familiar with state-of-the-art forensic techniques. Even more extraordinary is that she spent an alleged $6 million of her own money on the Sickert investigation. To prove her theory, Ms. Cornwell hired art and forensics experts and bought 30 Sickert paintings. Cornwell's forensic team analyzed DNA samples from 55 letters, envelopes and stamps sent by Mr. Sickert and his first wife, Ellen, Montague John Druitt, another Ripper suspect, and some of the many letters which were signed Jack the Ripper.

Not that this will in any way hurt sales of her book, but Ripper experts are very skeptical of Cornwall's claim and her very expensive investigation. Retired police officer Stewart Evans, now a crime historian and author of four Ripper books, dismissed Ms. Cornwell's theory as "nonsense, devoid of any evidence whatsoever." The British newspaper The Guardian reported on December 8, 2001 that:

The American crime novelist Patricia Cornwell was accused of 'monstrous stupidity' for ripping up a canvas to prove that the Victorian painter Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. Even in the context of the crackpot conspiracy theories, elaborate frauds and career-destroying obsessions that London's most grisly whodunnit has spawned, Cornwell's investigation is extreme. Not only did she have one canvas cut up in the vain hope of finding a clue to link Sickert to the murder and mutilation of five prostitutes, she spent 2m buying up 31 more of his paintings, some of his letters and even his writing desk.

But Cornwell's claims - which are to form the basis of her next book - were met with derision yesterday by Sickert experts and biographers outraged that one of his paintings had been sacrificed "to add credence to this silly theory". Andrew Patrick, of the Fine Arts Society, who refused to say which paintings she had bought from him, said: "Everyone knows this stuff about Sickert is nonsense." Richard Shone, who curated the last big Sickert show at the Royal Academy in London in 1992, said: "I can't believe she has done this, it's such a red herring. It all sounds monstrously stupid to me. Is she so obsessed that she doesn't mind the destruction of a painting by such a very fine artist to add credence to this silly theory?" He added: "Sickert was interested in the music hall, the theatrical and low life, and he played around with these themes like Degas, his mentor. He always painted from photographs, and was one of the first artists to do so.

Although Cornwell found no DNA on the clutch of Scotland Yard's Ripper letters, most or all of which are believed to be fakes, to compare with samples taken from Sickert's desk and canvasses, she cites one achievement. One of the dubious Ripper letters had the same watermark as Sickert's writing paper, which he had received from his father.

Letters attributed to Jack the Ripper sent to the police have been preserved under plastic, which degrades DNA, but a former Scotland Yard curator found a letter that had never been sent to the archive. Although the letter had DNA from several people on it, she believes there is a partial connection.

Cornwell told Reuters on October 29, 2002, that she discovered that a Ripper letter written from Manchester on November 22, 1888, had the same watermark stationary used by Walter and Ellen Sickert after their marriage three years earlier.

Cornwell said that some of Sickert's paintings bear a chilling resemblance to photographs of Jack the Ripper's victims and that some of the Ripper's letters contained phrases used by the famous painter Whistler, that were often mocked by his student Sickert.

Walter Richard Sickert was born in Munich on May 31, 1860. His mother was an Englishwoman, his father a Danish artist employed in Germany as an illustrator on a comic journal. In 1868 the family settled in England.

Sickert's early work was heavily influenced by Whistler and Degas.

Net Canvas lists these events as the major ones in Sickert's life:

His life slipped into a regular pattern, unbroken for 15 years. In 1885 he married the daughter of a Liberal politician. He made numerous paintings from his sketches of the London music halls and their audiences, or held evening classes. In 1893 he opened an art school in London under Whistler's patronage.

Sickert's friendship with the dictatorial Whistler ended after a court case in which they took opposite sides. In 1899 Sickert was divorced and went to live in Venice, Dieppe, and Paris for six years. Back in London in 1905, he set up a studio in Soho and took rooms in Camden Town. His output was now almost exclusively music hall scenes and the faded life around him. He taught at the Westminster Institute, started a school for etching, and held shows at London and Paris galleries. In 1911 Sickert founded the Camden Town Group, enlarged and renamed the London Group three years later.

Sickert, late in life
Sickert, late in life
Sickert became an associate of the Royal Academy in 1924 and an academician ten years later. In 1941 Sickert was honored with a one-man exhibition at the National Gallery in London. The next year he died in Bath, England, on January 22.

On October 30, 2002, The Ottawa Citizen said that "Mr. Sickert was put on the suspect list for the Ripper killings about 25 years ago, but that theory was discounted by art historians and biographers. He painted naked prostitutes in attitudes of near death or sleep, and produced a series of works called the Camden Town drawing, featuring a naked prostitute on a bed with a clothed man. In one drawing, the man has his hands around the woman's neck."

Like so many Ripper book authors, Cornwell takes certain facts of her Ripper candidate's life and twists them around to make them seem damning. For example, Wolf Vanderlinden in "The Art of Murder" focuses one of Cornwell's central premises:

Several general questions have been raised about Walter Sickert's art and its supposed connection to the Whitechapel murders. Patricia Cornwell, for instance, has pointed out that Sickert liked to paint prostitutes. That this would be considered to be 'evidence', albeit circumstantial, is perplexing. Sickert did indeed paint prostitutes as did many artists of his day - Degas, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec all used prostitutes as models. They were some of the few women that could be easily found to pose naked for an artist in late- Victorian and early-Edwardian society. It is also important to ask at what point in his artistic career did Sickert start to paint prostitutes? Around the time of the Ripper murders? No, this began much later in his career in Dieppe and Venice. Before that he had painted mostly landscapes, cityscapes and some portraits. He started painting a series of nudes lying on iron bedsteads in Neuville in 1902, and although the models were not necessarily prostitutes, Sickert did begin painting prostitutes in Venice in 1903-1904.

As Sickert wrote to Jacques-Emile Blanche from Venice "From 9 to 4, it is an uninterrupted joy, caused by these pretty, little, obliging models who laugh and unembarrassedly be themselves while posing like angels. They are glad to be there, and are not in a hurry." 13 These are not the words of a practised serial killer talking about his preferred victims but rather an artist who is enjoying the free and easy-going nature of his new models.

Another aspect of Sickert's work has been commented on by Stephen Knight: the titles of various paintings. Sickert often re-titled his work, and so one painting might have two or three titles. A working title might change into a finished title at one exhibit, which might then change again for another showing. Sickert enjoyed using titles that told the story of the painting or offered the viewer an interpretation of the painting. He did this with such abandon that no real significance should be taken from the title of any Sickert painting. For an example, look at his supposed Ripper related painting The Camden Town Murder, also titled What Shall We Do For the Rent? (circa 1908). The painting is of a man sitting on the edge of a bed, eyes downcast. Behind him lies a naked woman. With the title The Camden Town Murder, the woman is obviously dead and the man is either her killer, filled with remorse, or her lover who has found the body and who sits in stunned mourning. Change to the alternate title - What Shall We Do For the Rent? - and now the picture is totally different. The man sits on the bed feeling the weight of his financial problems while his wife or girlfriend lies next to him, her hand gently resting on his knee, offering him some small, tender support.

Walter Sickert painting The Camden Town Murder, also titled What Shall We Do For the Rent?
Walter Sickert painting The
Camden Town Murder, also
titled What Shall We Do
For the Rent?
Like the paintings in the section on the conspiracy theory, Sickert's paintings in the Camden Town series do not leave a clear indication that they represent what has been claimed of them. Patricia Cornwell will try to claim that they are malevolent, sinister depictions of a man's hatred and contempt for women, but that is a rather naive opinion of the work of Walter Sickert. If no artist ever tried to prick our sensibilities and show us things we would rather ignore, then what is the value of art to society? Let me leave this section with this observation. When asked why, if Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper, did he wait almost twenty years to start painting his victims?

In summary, while Ms. Cornwell distinguishes herself from the myriad of other Ripper finders in the scope of her expenditures, the result of all this effort is little better than the much more modest budgets of the average Ripper finder. Despite this, no doubt her book will be a best seller and it will be made into an entertaining movie, whether it is nonsense or not.

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