Being Sickert

Being Sickert

Patricia Cornwell’s much publicised book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed proposes British artist Walter Sickert as the notorious ‘Ripper’

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Walter Sickert, photograph: George Charles Beresford, 1911

According to crime writer Patricia Cornwell, to Walter Richard Sickert’s acquaintances of the time, ‘being Sickert’ meant being a chameleon. In her recent book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed, Cornwell says that Sickert, the famous British artist, went by and used many other names — including ‘Mr Nobody’, ‘An Outsider’ or just plain ‘Dick’ — and claims that by night he committed horrendous acts against older women (and later younger men most likely) as the serial killer, Jack the Ripper.

Much of Cornwell’s 360-page book makes for gruesome reading, as she describes in some detail one atrocity after another, beginning with the first killing attributed to the Ripper late on a bank holiday in August 1888, in London’s East End. Sickert was 28 at the time, had been married for three years and lived within easy walking distance. Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde was playing to packed houses on the London stage. Could this have influenced his actions, Cornwell asks. Sickert started professional life as an actor (and was an accomplished make-up artist), but by now was pursuing a career as a painter and man-about-town — and friend to big-name French artists. Cornwell’s research is exhaustive and obsessive — delving into every hidden crevice of the painter’s life — and very convincing at the time of reading. She makes a fair bit out of Sickert’s difficult childhood, particularly his birth defects and subsequent operations. Apparently he was born with deformed genitalia, and as a toddler had several operations all of which may have left him incapable of sexual intercourse. Proposition: his defects left him with a defining and dysfunctional sexuality. It’s neatly summed up on the dust cover: ‘. . . the consequent genital surgical interventions and their effects on his upbringing present a casebook example of how a psychopathic killer is created’. I guess so.

While a great deal of Cornwell’s writing is speculative and circumstantial, there are, as an FBI agent said to her, far too many coincidences for the proposition not to be seriously considered. Much is made of links between the Ripper’s letters (if they were really his) and those of Sickert (both in theory wrote copious notes and letters to the world): how and with what they were written, the style of language and wit, use of particular ‘favourite’ words and names, sketches and symbols employed, use of similar water-marked papers, and locations the letters were posted from — in short, unmistakable connections in style and ‘presence’. Two assumed Ripper letters in particular are linked through a complex DNA ‘marker’ process to two of Sickert’s letters (via saliva on envelopes and stamps). Cornwell admits that on its own this is not conclusive, but asks us to add it all together. Is this, as Cornwell would have it, the naked truth about a man who was in his time beyond suspicion? Was he simply born 100 years too soon to be caught? The relatives of course remain unhappy, as do some scholars, while others, initially quite sceptical, are now convinced we are told. Other more famous suspects of the day are given short-shift, in order, one might think to support the author’s own theories, on which Cornwell apparently spent around US$12 million of her own money researching.

Questions remain: if the London Metropolitan Police at the time had been able to deduce the clues more succinctly — the Ripper left many cryptic and taunting messages it seems — and as a consequence had Sickert become a suspect, would he have been charged? Would a jury today convict on the evidence presented in this book (assuming the DNA process remained inconclusive)? I think not, but these issues aren’t really addressed by Cornwell. This is only the case for the prosecution. For some strong rebuttals to her theories, check out the substantial Ripper website www.casebook.org which suggests that Cornwell’s book is based almost entirely on pure speculation. ‘. . . certain ideas about the Ripper crimes are, unfortunately, largely inaccurate’.

Walter Sickert Camden Town Murder

Walter Sickert, ‘The Camden Town Murder’ (detail), originally titled, ‘What Shall We Do for the Rent?’, 1908. © Estate of Walter R. Sickert / DACS

Walter Sickert holds a commanding position in modern British art, and is highly admired and collected as a painter and draughtsman. His work, like many artists, was full of variety in style and subject matter — scenes of music halls and theatres, as well as depictions of quiet London streets and (sometimes slightly strange) portraits of high-minded people and British royalty. He painted nude women on beds with fully clothed men (often in leering or aggressive poses — nothing too unusual here), but also macabre contemporary murders. What does this mean? Cornwell infers that an analysis of Sickert’s paintings shows how his art continually depicted his horrific mutilation of his victims. If subject matter alone were directly related to an artist’s real life, then what, for example, should we make of Francis Bacon, to name just one other artist? Art scholarship is not Cornwell’s forte.

The eight works of Walter Sickert in the Queensland Art Gallery Collection — three oils, two etchings and three drawings dating from 1894 to 1922 — give little away about a life on the dark-side, but having just read this book they’re certainly worth a closer (and perhaps different) view. The titles alone have become more interesting: Little Rachel 1907 (an oil), Portrait of a young lady c. 1894 (chalk drawing), and A wicked piece c. 1922 (modest etching), for example. There’s also the more substantial painting Whistler’s studio, which can normally be seen hanging in the International Galleries. Sickert was a student of James McNeill Whistler, and while they were friends for a few years, Whistler later rejected him, not even inviting Sickert to his wedding to a young beauty. Ah, another painful thorn says Cornwell.

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Walter Sickert with shaved head c.1920

Of three art books on Sickert I looked at, only one — Sickert (1943), edited by the distinguished scholar Lillian Browse — really hinted at a darker side: ‘ . . . he would mysteriously disappear for days on end; he rented old sheds in remote corners of the town . . . He had . . . a private working life which took him to queer places where he improvised studios . . . leaving them after a short while’. All very suspicious and fitting Cornwell’s thesis, but just as easily interpreted as eccentricities of an artistic and mercurial nature — a desire to be immersed in the real street-life that was the artist’s oeuvre. Another book (Richard Shone’s Walter Sickert of 1988) does mention that the then professor of painting at the Slade School, Fred Brown, ‘felt obliged to sever their friendship on account of the “sordid nature” of Sickert’s drawings’ in a 1911 exhibition. Sounds like your average art school.

Walter Sickert lived on to a ripe age, dying in his eighty-second year in relative poverty in 1942 with an unfinished canvas on his easel. According to Cornwell, what he most likely did in later life, apart from drawing and painting a lot, gets wilder, with many more surprises. Case closed? I think not.

[First published in Artlines Autumn 2003, © QAG/Ian Were. Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed by Patricia Cornwell. Published by Little, Brown 2002. RRP Aus$45.]

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