The first art-related conspiracy this series of ten aims to tackle is one of the most infamous incidents in modern history, which occasionally rears its curious head in the discourse – but is, perhaps for the best, left out of the canon of traditional teachings of the subject.
The Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 gripped London, shaping much of the social scene of the time. Today it is considered an elusive mystery that has been accepted as such, though over time many researchers and theorists have attempted to explain these serial incidents – none with success; hence the extensive and ever-growing list of suspects. From among the many possible killers, one in particular struck the artistic community – this is the case we will explore (and debunk) today.
A British avant-garde artist closely connected to the Camden Town Group, Walter Sickert is undoubtedly one of the most recognisable names of the twentieth century. Sickert’s distinctive style, as well as his cosmopolitan and eccentric lifestyle, propelled him into the art world, allowing him to achieve great success within his lifetime by becoming an elected Associate of the Royal Academy. Sickert’s pieces were often considered to be fluid domestic scenes, lending a personal insight into the artist’s lifestyle as well as his subjects.
Walter Sickert, Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom, 1906-7, Manchester Gallery of Art (photo © Manchester City Galleries)
Among the usual nonchalant settings of his scenes, however, two of his paintings seem particularly sinister. Referring directly to the Ripper murders, Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom and The Camden Town Murder have spawned many theories about Sickert’s involvement with the case. Most have faded out of the discourse over time and occupy only desolate conspiracy blogs in the most benign corners of the internet, but one theorist, the American crime writer Patricia Cornwell, suggests she has strong cause to believe that Jack the Ripper and Walter Sickert are one individual based on DNA evidence. And yet, with two books published around this case, she has chosen not yet to release the full extent of her findings. With a background in popular fiction, it may well be that Cornwell’s past has simply corrupted the true nature of her research. Yet in this case her determination to make this tenuous link a proven fact has both tarnished Sickert’s legacy and destroyed his paintings – literally.
But before I delve deeper into Cornwell’s theory –which is still, as far as the public is concerned, unproven – I would like to trace Sickert’s actions to further explain the origins of these theories. The Ripper paintings, two of his most famous pieces, lie at the heart of the accusation – it is often said that Sickert would not have had access to the details of the crimes or the crime scenes, raising suspicion among the sceptical. Considering the heavily publicised nature of this case, however, it is likely that he would know most details and be able to infer the rest. Moreover, it is said that Sickert’s landlady believed the room she rented to him was originally the Ripper’s, which is where the inspiration for the interiors of both paintings seems to come from.
An eccentric artist who took a keen interest in this case as it happened, many rumours circulated Sickert – not then, but since. Surely his exemption from the contemporary investigation should say something about his innocence? But all the same, he does also give us many reasons to doubt this guiltlessness.
In Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom, the figure we assume to be the murderer stands tall and proud as he peers through the window. His black silhouette is contrasted in the background by the grey light engulfing the subject and in the foreground by a burgundy stretch of carpet drawing us into the Ripper’s line of vision through double doors of the same colour. Sickert’s interest in this case is evident by the distinct character profile he has made for the killer: living within a dark realm of his own design, the Ripper stands upright, watching the world, proclaiming his guilt and revelling in the outcry it caused. It is evident here that Sickert exploits colour and light to reflect an admiration of the Ripper’s confidence as well as a judgment on his nefarious personality.
Walter Sickert, The Camden Town Murder, c. 1908, Yale Centre for British Art (photo © Estate of Walter R. Sickert)
Sikert’s second piece on the matter, The Camden Town Murder, completed around a year after Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom, has a completely different composition but uses almost exactly the same palette and develops on the same subject. Set in the bedroom Emily Dimmock, a suspected victim of the Ripper, the painting shows two principal figures, substantially changing the dynamics of the painting. Without them, the room would echo yet another interior penetrated by the murderer’s depraved actions. However, his spirit still lingers with the heavy use of grey and burgundy. These colours are juxtaposed by the pale white skin of the victim who lays motionless, facing away from the viewer. A man, assumed to be her partner, sits at her bedside, his hands clasped in prayer and his head hung in mourning. This, although opposite to the first piece in composition, provides striking similarities in its atmosphere. The first piece uses light to reflect London and the outside world but, in this piece, a young woman lays dead, embodying the mood of the city and the sense of the Ripper’s domination. Whilst this is often used as a declaration for Sickert’s egotistical and misogynistic nature – two features that make him a likely guilty candidate – this piece also uses the male character to reflect sorrow and sensitivity, a feature lacking in the first image. This, from an art-historical perspective, lends to Sickert’s innocence: he respected the victim in death, turning her face away from the viewer, and wanted to evoke the notions of mourning and, by extension, love via the male figure’s body language and the bright and accessible composition (in comparison to the first piece, at least).
The convenience of the Sickert/Ripper myth is evident but, in the absence of Cornwell’s supposedly conclusive but confidential evidence, there is little to tie Sickert definitively to the crime. Former mortuary assistant turned crime writer, Patricia Cornwell, seems to have made a career out of it nonetheless.
Other theorists, including Jean Overton Fuller and Stephen Knight, maintain Sickert was the Ripper or at the very least an accomplice. It is only Cornwell, however, who asserts his guilt so confidently. In her book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed, she goes beyond claiming to have found new evidence that was never investigated, positing psychological theories for his possible murderous streak. She proclaims a Freudian lens is necessary to view this case, suggesting that Sickert was unable to have sex because of a “botched” surgery that aimed to fix a genital deformity. She posits that this, along with multiple failed friendships and affairs, led him to an intensified realisation of both his social and physical rejection, in turn driving him to an aggressive hatred of the opposite sex responsible for this outcasting, further resulting in murder. Yet she bases this largely on his dark and supposedly revealing paintings.
To supplement her theory, Cornwell revisits the widely disputed Ripper letters. With these, she says she found a genetic similarity between the Ripper and Sickert but, once again, the only evidence she offers is an elaborate statement on the matter, which was later publicly demystified and debunked by Scotland Yard. What sets Cornwell apart from other fantastical Ripper conspiracists, however, is her willingness to believe her own delusional theory, going to the extent to buy six million pounds worth of Sickert paintings to test DNA from and then later destroy them. Cornwell disputed the later point, although we have not seen these paintings since their auction, it is safely assumed by many critics that she did, in fact, destroy these valuable works of art.
This theory also seems to have been established only a year before publishing, leaving neither enough time to investigate thoroughly the evidence Cornwell found, nor the circumstantial evidence it re-examines in the same way all other Ripper conspiracists do. This weak attempt at constructing an unoriginal Ripper theory has become all too familiar in recent years, especially considering the ever-growing superfluous and extensive list of suspects. It is more than likely, as Ripperologists confirm, that Walter Sickert is not the famous serial murderer. For more information on Cornwell’s theory and its lack of scientific persuasion, I would recommend Caleb Carr’s review of the novel in The New York Times. Carr discusses Cornwell’s theory in relation to the actual published and investigated evidence it presents concluding that it clutches at minuscule, partial DNA evidence that narrows the suspect pool to an eighth of the world’s population – not exactly the hard proof she claimed to have.
The public keep this case alive because of its tantalising, mysterious nature, augmented by the seemingly unlimited availability of suspects, which, ultimately, does no harm. What can be agreed, however, is that Cornwell’s financial benefit from the needless destruction of Sickert’s pieces to bolster her book’s questionable worth is a crying shame for art, history, and the Sickert theory.
Besides, the case against Prince Albert is far more entertaining and vastly more likely.