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To understand Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942), imagine a cross between Degas, Hopper, and Andy Warhol, and then for color and tone, add the English weather. He was a painter of fabulously murky realist scenes, smoke-filled music halls, and weirdly remote portraits worked up from press clippings. His big themes were whoredom and boredom. He was a prolific writer and opinionizer and man about town, a leading light in the art scene, with a flock of disciples, admirers, and mistresses.
Let's start again: If you want to understand Walter Richard Sickert, get yourself to a butcher's shop, acquire a 32-ounce sirloin steak and some offal (make sure they have kidneys), dress your purchases in an old shirt, and attack this assemblage on the kitchen table with a selection of sharp Sabatier knives, giving off appropriate exclamations of psychopathic frenzy. This is exactly what crime writer Patricia Cornwell did in a BBC documentary that aired in England last Wednesday. Cornwell, the flamboyant bad girl of detective fiction and creator of morgue sleuth Kay Scarpetta, has been publicly proclaiming that Sickert led a double life as the world's most notorious uncaptured serial killer. Indeed, she "staked her reputation" on her thesis, even before her investigation was complete. Portrait of A Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed will be published in the United States next week. (Click here to read the first chapter.)
The atrocious Whitechapel murders of the 1880s, which claimed the lives of at least five prostitutes, never resulted in an arrest. But in the courtrooms of conspiracy theory, amateur criminology, detective fiction, opera, film, musicals, folklore, and Ripper walking tours, there have been countless convictions. Sickert has been indicted before for the Ripper crimes (on the evidence of an exposed bogus son) as an accomplice to a band of rogue Freemasons bent on protecting the royal family from a bastard scandal by murdering prostitute witnesses. But with vitriolic fervor, Patricia Cornwell casts him anew as a lone psychopath, a woman-hater motivated by the trauma of childhood operations on a penile fistula who arrogantly left deliberate clues in letters and paintings, clues that festered for 114 years until her own detective genius uncovered them.
Like other Ripperologists, Patricia Cornwell disdains the genre she has joined. From the first drop of blood in the East End gutter, the murders have compelled ghoulish public fascination, but Cornwell's book, a nearly 400-page study with a 13-page bibliography (but no footnotes or appendices) is unencumbered by reference to the shelves of previous speculative literature. "I have avoided the recycled inaccuracies that have metastasized from one book to another," Cornwell grandly claims—and she has done no such thing. True, she discards the royalist/Masonic explanation favored in movies such as From Hell. But her idée fixe about Sickert derives from facts and fantasies abundant in the Ripper literature. Sickert's name appears in the annals of Ripperdom only because of wacko theorizing by predecessors Cornwell brushes aside.
In a way, the painter walked himself right into the dock. A theatrical personality, trained for the stage, a great raconteur in the tradition of Wilde and of his master, Whistler, Sickert loved to enthrall his countless friends, disciples, and young admirers, many of whom were female (which doesn't strike Cornwell as an unusual attribute for a serial killer of women). The Victorians, for all their prudery, had ghoulish tastes—hence the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's—and Sickert, who aged into a Victorian eccentric, was no exception. In his 70s, he took the young sister-in-law of his third and final marriage to see the house of Dr. Crippen. The artist's early biographers recount Sickert's favorite Ripper yarns, such as the time a party of young girls ran away from him in a nighttime street, calling out "Jack the Ripper! Jack the Ripper!" A landlady told him that the murderer was the previous lodger in his very room: a consumptive who burnt his clothes in the morning after nocturnal rambles.
Like bad detective fiction, the key to reading Ripperology is to work everything backward. Stephen Knight, the first of the royalist/Masonic theorists, asserted that Sickert's tale of the landlady inspired the best-selling 1911 novel The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes. Logic would dictate that it was the other way around, with an old painter titillating gullible young acolytes with a personalized tale lifted from pop culture. The Lodger was filmed in 1926 by Hitchcock, with Ivor Novello in the lead, carrying his notorious Gladstone bag. Sickert's Ripper anecdotes were all recorded in the 1940s.
Conspiracy theorists and literary sleuths never seem to get cultural history. The lore of Jack the Ripper set in before the last of the murders took place, and fascination only accumulated as the undetected Jack became the archetypal psycho. And yet Cornwell, who spent $6 million (deductible) on her investigation and enlisted an army of forensic experts, art consultants, and conservationists, presents as prime evidence of the painter's guilt the fact that Sickert titillated a young mistress by donning a red Ripper scarf at his easel.
Sickert was a flaneur straight out of Baudelaire and was supremely self-conscious about it. He was a "painter of modern life" who roved the seedier quarters of the metropolis in search of subject matter, taking studios in dingy districts, usually several at a time. A people-watcher and an addict of music halls, he also had what Flaubert called the "undertaste," a lurid voyeuristic fascination for the oldest profession. This, of course, he shared with legion modern artists, from Degas and Lautrec to Picasso and beyond. The notorious Camden Town Murder of 1907 provided the occasion for a particularly lurid series of nudes in the artist's trademark grimy interiors. To an artist fascinated by modern city life, convinced that art's proper subject was "gross material facts," the phenomenon of sexual murder inevitably drew his attention. Typically for Sickert, however, these works are rich in ambiguity. What could be a man contemplating the nude body of a woman he has or is about to dispatch could equally be read as a laborer about to set off in the morning while his missus enjoys a lie-in. The same composition is alternately titled, between paintings and etchings, Camden Town Murder and What Shall We Do for Rent?
As a graduate of crime reporting and years in the city morgue, and chairman of the Board of the Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine, Patricia Cornwell set out to prove her case with technology and thoroughness unknown to the befuddled Scotland Yard of the 1880s. The problem is that in her scramble to get down to forensic business, Cornwell gets befuddled herself by first principles. The police were flooded by letters from would-be Rippers, most of which were filed away as crank mail. Cornwell has decided, however, that they are virtually all authentic and that they come from the hand of Sickert himself.