Saturday 24 March 2012


By Essie Fox

Walter Sickert

In her book Portrait of a Killer, Jack the Ripper: Case Closed the American author Patricia Cornwell claims that Jack the Ripper had been none other than the artist, Walter Sickert, a dominant figure in the school of British Impressionism in the nineteenth century.

Having amassed a fortune with her Kay Scarpetta novels Cornwell spent £2,000,000 buying several of Sickert's paintings, along with some letters and his desk. With these pieces of evidence she hoped to prove the artist's guilt and connection with the Whitechapel crimes by linking Sickert's DNA with that extracted from letters penned in the name of Jack the Ripper. In her efforts to secure forensic proof she cut up one of Sickert's paintings - an act of destruction that came to result in nothing more conclusive than public outrage and derision.

She did however succeed in matching the watermark on Sickert's personal stationery with that used by the author of the Ripper letters. But, as those letters were considered as hoaxes such determined detective work only proved that Sickert may have been a perverted trickster.

Prince 'Eddy', The Duke of Clarence

However, before you condemn her as mad, Cornwell was by no means the first to link Sickert to the Whitechapel murders. Others - tipped off by none less than the artist's illegitimate son, Joseph, suggested that Sickert was involved in the slayings as part of an elaborate hoax to protect Queen Victoria's dissolute grandson, 'Eddy' the Duke of Clarence from a scandal that was breaking out regarding his involvement with a prostitute. The working girl, called Annie, became pregnant with the prince's child and may even have secretly married him - until Eddy was hauled back home again, dying two year later, with Annie kept quiet by being confined in a lunatic asylum. Who knows what was really going on!

Cornwell's theory was more directly inspired by looking at the artist's work and it is true that Sickert's depictions of the female nude were bold, provocative and disturbing scenes  where human flesh is viewed as meat; mottled, pale and drained of blood.

In 1908 Sickert produced a series of four paintings said to be based on the murder of a Camden prostitute called Emily Dimmock, along with the man who may or may not have been her killer. In these studies Cornwell claims that the pose of the bodies have eerie similarities with the Ripper's victims. She also points out that in later paintings, even when the subjects are clearly alive, those images are brutal and voyeuristic, full of aggressive tension.

What is most certainly true is the fact that in earlier years Sickert developed something of an obsessional interest with the Whitechapel crimes, and around the time of those murders he rented a studio in East London, insisting that his lodgings had been previously used by no other than Jack the Ripper himself - though how he could ever know such a thing when the murderer's identity had not been exposed remains another puzzle. 

But Sickert said he knew, claiming to have written the name on some paper which was then placed 'for safe keeping' between the covers of an edition of 'Casanova' - an ironic choice of book, and one that was later mysteriously burned!

Even so, some 'proof' of the link remains with Sickert's painting of that very room being extremely dark and sinister, and perhaps the pink slash  upon the floor is meant to suggest something more visceral than an innocent shaft of falling light.

And now the mystery rises again with Liam Scarlett, the Royal Ballet's choreographer, having recently created a daring new dance after having been obsessed for years with the Sickert/Ripper enigma. 

The ballet opens up at the Royal Opera House on April 5th 2012. It is 50 minutes long, and rather than being presented as a logical narrative, it will be a series of 'canvases' blurring real life and art - much as Mr Sickert may have done.

Essie Fox is the author of The Somnambulist: A Victorian gothic mystery.


Linda B-A said...

This is absolutely fascinating and intriguing - and I had not heard the anecdote about Patricia Cornwell. My goodness, the mystery must have got under her skin. Many thanks for such a diverting post!

Essie Fox said...

I think you can still watch the BBC Omnibus programme about this Linda - Oh yes, here's a link to watch in six parts via Youtube:

adele said...

I followed all the Cornwell/Ripper stuff at the time. It's all endlessly fascinating...though I've gone off Cornwell a bit having been a fan for ages. It all just got too same old same old. But a very interesting post, Essie.

alberridge said...

Fascinating post, Essie, and thank you so much for finding the BBC link. I missed that one, and now you've really whet my appetite.

Very interesting about Cornwell too. A shame about the painting, but I'd guess many Ripper devotees would have been happy to do the same if they only had the money. It's an extraordinarily widespread obsession.
(Not me, of course. No, no. Just mildly interested, that's all).

Essie Fox said...

It is strange that the Ripper myth has expanded so - and no signs of abating. There were surely other murders going on! But I suppose it is the link with sex, and the horrible mutilations, and a clear intent of a devious mind to even be able to contemplate such callous, efficient planning.

Susan Price said...

Cornwell must have read and learned a lot about serial killers, so I'm surprised she didn't take the point that, unless jailed or dead, they don't stop. Many of the people supposed to be Jack the Ripper went on living after his final, dreadful murder. There was a man, suspected at the time, who was found drowned soon after the final murder - and the killings stopped. The rest, it seems to me, is just waffle and conspiracy theory. And to destroy a Sickert painting for such nonsense! - Good grief!

Essie Fox said...

I know - terrible really!

Jackdaw said...

Jack the Ripper was but a Royal Conspiracy contrived by Masons, Police and high ranking officials.
Sickert was complicit with its workings in many ways and left clues towards the same within his portraits - maybe through guilt of conscience?

The names Walter Sickert and Jack the Ripper are made up by 13 letters.

Both names can be split into 4 decibels / sounds - ie

In both names there are exactly the same vowels positioned in exactly the same order.
These being A E I E

w A l t E r s I c k E r t

j A c k t h E r I p p E r

The first letter of the victims surnames are?
S tride C hapman K elly E ddowes T abram = SCKET

Mary Ann Nichols = MAN

Jackdaw :-)

If you wish to see the clues to JtR within Sickert's paintings then follow the link

Anonymous said...

I don't know much about Art, but what I have seen of Sickert's I don't really like, therefore, I'm not too upset with the destruction of one (of many) of his paintings. I know, that makes me a bad person. Anyhow, I thought I read that Patricia made a statement saying, in fact, she did not destroy the painting? Hopefully, she was able to get what she thought she needed without destroying it entirely