• gerard van weyenbergh

ART & CRIME part 3: Is Walter Sickert Jack the Ripper?

In 1907, a terrible murder shook the city of London. On September 12, a 21-year-old prostitute, Emily Dimmock (known as Phyllis), was found dead at her home in the Camden Town neighborhood. Naked on her bed, the young woman was slaughtered from ear to ear during her sleep, awakening the memory of the crimes of Jack the Ripper, committed twenty years earlier in the district of Whitechapel. A series of disturbing elements caught investigators' attention on a 30-year-old artist named Robert Wood, acquitted thanks to a brilliant lawyer, leaving the case - although some remain convinced of his guilt - unresolved.

In 2002, the novelist Patricia Cornwell, author of detective novels, believed to have found the killer.

In her book "Jack the Ripper: Case Closed. Portrait of a killer", she accuses another artist, Englishman Walter Sickert (1860–1942), of being Emily's murderer and also being the famous Jack the Ripper. By observing this little-known impressionist paintings, a pupil of James Whistler and friend of Edgar Degas and Oscar Wilde, the American discovers a murderous neurosis.

Certainly, his series of paintings nicknamed "The Camden Town Nudes" is appealing. In 1905, two years before the murder, Walter Sickert moved to the working-class neighborhood of Camden Town. There, he begins to paint realistic nudes, always reproducing the same pattern: a woman lying on a modest iron bed, in a dark room with earthy colors, where sometimes a chamber pot or a mirror appears. Still, faces are disturbingly blurred or obscured. Robust and plump, the female bodies are abused by the brushstrokes and the chosen angles, announcing for some ( the Dutchwoman , 1906; the Camden Town Affair, 1909) the distortions of Francis Bacon. Radical works, the opposite of the academicism that the artist hated!

The beauty is sunk in a box of white linen like a dead woman in her coffin.

One of them, Mornington Crescent Nude (1907), is brighter. On a sky blue background, the sleeping model seems more peaceful and desirable, despite some ambiguities. Placed on the bottom of her legs, a white sheet gives the illusion that they are amputated at the knees. Lying on her back, her arms glued to her sides, the beauty is buried in a white linen box like a dead woman in her coffin. Her body, very pale, has greenish nuances. Not to mention the line at the base of her neck, which could be a collar or a fatal incision!


More importantly, in 1908–1909, shortly after the murder perpetrated in his neighborhood, the painter added to this series a set of four paintings entitled What Shall We Do for the Rent? , Which he later renamed the Camden Town Murder. This time, a dressed man, standing or seated near the naked woman, introduces a threatening presence into each canvas. In the Camden Town Affair (1909), the man is standing, overhanging the woman who, with one arm folded over her face, seems to adopt a defensive posture while her genitals are exposed to the viewer. But most disturbing is the Camden Town Murder(circa 1908), which represents the seated man, from the front [ill. in one]. Behind him, the woman, naked and lifeless, with a greenish neck, has her face turned towards the back of the picture. Leaning forward, head lowered and hands clasped, the man seems desperate. Is the woman sleeping? Or would he just strangle her?

Sickert himself was fascinated by the crimes reported in the press, and in particular those of Jack the Ripper.

Convinced of Sickert's guilt, Patricia Cornwell claims to have spent $ 7 million trying to gather evidence against him. The novelist purchased thirty-one paintings by the painter and part of his correspondence. The novelist allegedly took DNA from the works to compare them to that found on fifty-five letters signed Jack the Ripper, and maintains that DNA present under the stamp of one of them would be that of the artist. Didn't the latter also use the same writing paper? Wasn't Nemo's nickname, found in one of the missives, the name he used when he was an actor? As a child, Sickert was operated on three times for a "fistula" - "a hole in the penis," his nephew John Lessore would have specified. From there, Cornwell imagines he could have come out mutilated,

But the work is completely refuted by Jack the Ripper specialists who denounce a mass of coincidences and speculations. First, most of the 600 anonymous letters received by the police and the media in 1888 were hoaxes. The painter, aged 28 at the time, could very well have written one without being the murderer. As for the paper he used, it was the most ordinary of the time. The painter would even have a solid alibi: according to Sickert's biographer, Matthew Sturgis, the artist was staying in France at the time of the murder. Besides, the man, accused of adultery by his first wife, looks very different from the helpless described by Cornwell. Finally, there would be little chance that Camden's Slayer and the Ripper were the same person.

In 1990, however, Jean Overton Fuller also published a work linking the painter to the murders of 1888. Preceded, in 1976, by Stephen Knight, author of a delusional theory: according to him, the queen's doctor, Sir William Gull, would have committed the crimes with the complicity of Prince Albert Victor and Sickert! One might wonder why the artist, who has never been cited in any official investigation, has attracted so much attention from amateur detectives. No doubt because he himself was fascinated by the crimes reported in the press, and in particular those of Jack the Ripper. In 1908, his landlady told him that one of her former tenants, a shy veterinary student, had gone on strange nocturnal sprees in 1888 before disappearing and that she suspected him of being the murderer. Sickert then painted a dark and dismal, almost abstract view of the room in question under the title Jack the Ripper's Bedroom ( the House of Jack the Ripper ). Chilling! But far from being proof of guilt! © Beaux Arts, Josephine Blinde