Walter Sickert: Capturing the Darker Side of Life

The following article was written for an upcoming issue of History Magazine.

Laura Grande looks at the life the enigmatic artist whom some believe was Jack the Ripper.

Walter Sickert was a man of mystery. Even those who were close to the acclaimed artist only saw a small glimpse into the life of the intensely private man. Sickert’s main devotion was his passion for capturing the darker side of life on canvas, holding a mirror up to society and its flaws.

However, his many artistic accomplishments have since been overshadowed by rumor and speculation.

In 1976, 34 years after his death in 1942, Sickert was moved to the top of the long list of Jack the Ripper suspects, which had been accumulating since the 1888 murders in London.

Authors Stephen Knight, Jean Overton Fuller and, most recently, Patricia Cornwell, have all published books citing Sickert as Jack the Ripper, claiming he even went so far as to sketch the bodies of his victims and display them in galleries around the world. Art historians and Sickert’s fans have since voiced their outrage over the allegations.

Was Sickert really Jack the Ripper or were these accusations a malicious smear campaign? Depending on where your opinion lies, the revelation that Sickert was the Ripper is either a remarkable achievement after the passage of so much time, or an irresponsible and slanderous attack on a good man’s character.

A Troubled Childhood

Walter Richard Sickert was born in Munich, Germany on 31 May 1860. The son of Danish artist, Oswald Adalbert Sickert, and his English-Irish wife, Eleanor, Walter was the first of six children born to the couple.

An appreciation for art was instilled in Walter at a young age, as he was later to become the third generation of Sickert artists. Walter’s paternal grandfather, Johann, was once a patron of Denmark’s King Christian VIII.

The majority of information about Walter’s early life that has been gathered by historians over the years was derived from the 1935 memoirs of his only sister, Helena. Without her work, details of Walter’s early years would have been scarce. At the time of the publication of Helena’s memoirs, Sickert was 75-years-old and living in England.

According to his sister, as a child Walter bounced from school to school. Despite his intelligence and the fact that he was fluent in English, German, French and Italian, the boy struggled. He was expelled from University College School in his early teens. He attended King’s College in Wimbledon until he was 18; however, teachers struggled to cope with his erratic mood swings. Over the years, any type of authority figure in Walter’s life would later claim he was arrogant, manipulative and seemed to have no fear of consequences. In short, Sickert was a handful and, as result, had very few friends.

However, Helena’s memoir never mentions the medical trauma Walter endured at the age of five, as a result of three separate fistula surgeries. This was likely because Helena was unaware of what her brother went through, having been only an infant at the time.

Oswald Sickert moved his family to London in 1865 so Walter could have a third, and final, surgery to correct the fistula. Dr. Alfred Duff Cooper oversaw the procedure at St. Mark’s Hospital. However, no documentation exists of the operation, as the hospital did not archive patient files at the time (this only became proper protocol in 1900). Therefore, without a record precisely indicating what Walter’s infirmity was, one can only speculate as to the location of the fistula.

These surgeries, combined with his aggressive childhood behavior, become a focal point in the argument of those who believe Sickert was Jack the Ripper. Patricia Cornwell, in particular, believes that the operations were done on young Walter’s penis, making him sterile, and thus leaving him to take out his sexual frustration on innocent women on the streets of London later in life. Sickert’s supporters, however, are quick to point out that it has never officially been specified in any found document as to where, exactly, young Walter’s fistula was on his body, thereby making Cornwell’s reasoning unsound.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Sickert was a master of disguise. He had a fondness for changing his name and he would frequently dress up and perform for colleagues. His brief stint as an actor with Sir Henry Irving’s company, when Sickert was in his late teens, brought him a lot of joy, as he was able to perform regularly at the Lyceum Theatre in London. He sometimes went by the stage name Mr. Nemo (the Latin word for “no one”) which some have claimed is another link in the Ripper connection, as the alleged Ripper letters were sometimes signed Nemo. However, it was a popular trend, at the time, to take on the name for fun and to add an air of ambiguity. Charles Dickens even used it for a tragic character in his 1853 novel, Bleak House.

However, Sickert eventually returned to his original passion for painting after meeting the American-born British-based artist, James Abbott McNeill Whistler in 1879. Although Sickert was only 19-years-old at the time, Whistler was drawn to the young man and asked him to be his pupil and assistant.  In 1881, Sickert exhibited his first piece at the Fine Art Society in London, officially becoming a pupil of the legendary Whistler.

With Whistler as his teacher, Sickert learned to paint from nature in broad strokes and in one single sitting, a style that is referred to as alla prima. Sickert also studied tonal painting, learning how to contrast light and shadow, and imbuing his pieces with an air of dark, intense mystery. Although referred to as an Impressionist painter, Sickert’s style was unique; his subjects often cast in shadow, their faces appearing to be mutilated and covered in blood due to his shadowing technique.

In 1883, Sickert was entrusted with Whistler’s Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, taking it to Paris to be displayed at art shows. It was while in France that Sickert met French Impressionist painter, Edgar Degas. He quickly became a devoted pupil to the renowned Degas, learning how to sketch and focus on frank depictions of everyday life. It was likely through these lessons that Sickert came to be drawn to a darker subject matter, delving into the sordid side of life. Degas took delight in training a young man who was finally coming into his own as an artist. Sickert returned to England in high demand and with a newfound confidence in his artistic abilities.

On 17 June 1885, Sickert married Ellen Cobden, a woman 12 years his senior. They bought a studio at 54 Broadhurst Garden in South Hampstead, where Sickert lived during Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror in 1888.

Jack the Ripper?

At the time of the Ripper slayings, Sickert was 28-years-old and completely devoted to his artwork. Addicted to newspapers, tabloids and journals, Sickert took a keen interest in the case, voraciously following the news reports in late-1888. He would often bring up the case during dinner conversations, reveling in other people’s theories on the gruesome subject.

The murders of prostitutes Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Kelly had the public transfixed. It’s generally accepted by historians and Ripperologists that these five women were killed by the same person. However, there were dozens of other similar murders in Whitechapel during that period that could easily have been the work of either the same person or a copycat.

Art historian and leading Sickert scholar, Dr. Anna Gruetzner Robins of the University of Reading, claims it’s nearly impossible to study Sickert without considering the possibility that he may have been Jack the Ripper. This seems to be less an outright accusation and more of an acknowledgement of Sickert’s attraction to the macabre, especially for the sake of his art.

Eventually, the unsolved murders were all but forgotten by the media outlets. Sickert was never implicated in the crimes or called in for questioning. Suspicion would fall on him decades after his death. However, it was the art he created in the subsequent years after the Ripper killings that attracted the attention of authors such as Cornwell.

In 1896, Sickert separated from his wife, Ellen, after 11 years of marriage. The couple never had any children and Ellen would cite Sickert’s independence and infidelity as the reason behind their official divorce in July of 1899. It was around this time that Sickert had a falling out with Whistler and the two never spoke again.

By the fall of 1898, Sickert had already moved to Dieppe and, soon after meeting the widowed Mme. Augustine Villain, he moved in with her and her children. Many Sickert supporters and historians claim that he fathered a son, Maurice, with Mme. Villain, consequently debunking the theory that Sickert was sterile and, as a result, violent and sexually frustrated. Later in his life, Maurice would insist that he was the son of the famous artist.

Regardless of whether Maurice was his biological son or not, Sickert returned to London in 1905, buying a new studio at Fitzroy and Charlotte streets. It was around this time that Sickert began painting images of music halls and London scenery. He was also an esteemed teacher at the Westminster School of Art, where he remained off and on until 1918.

Sickert focused on sketching prostitutes during this period. He also continued experimenting with light and shadow. Cornwell argues that two early-20th century sketches of Sickert’s resemble the corpses of Ripper victims Catherine Eddowes and Mary Ann Nichols. Cornwell points out the shadows in Putana a Casa resembled the violent slashes on Eddowes’ face, while Venetian Studies’ sleeping woman shares similarities with Nichols.

In September of 1907, a young prostitute named Emily Elizabeth Dimmock was found murdered in her bed in Camden Town. Those who believe Sickert was Jack the Ripper make links between the similarities of Dimmock’s murder and that of Mary Kelly. Sickert was drawn to the murder of this young prostitute, titling one of his sketches The Camden Town Murder, which featured a man sitting on a bed next to the victim, with his hands covering his face. In true Sickert fashion, he provided an alternate title for the 1908 sketch; calling it What Shall We Do For The Rent? The title effectively changes the public’s perception of the image, this time portraying a devastated man sitting next to his sleeping wife, overcome with the burden of his financial woes.

That same year, Sickert drew a haunting sketch of a shadowy figure, face hidden in darkness, standing in an empty room. It was titled Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom. Cornwell argued it was Sickert’s own room in the house where he was living during the time of Dimmock’s murder.

Sickert defenders argue that the gritty images of death do not indicate he was a murderer, as Cornwell proposes, only that, like most of the English population, he was intrigued by the criminal underbelly of Victorian London. If Sickert were the Ripper, they ask, why would he wait nearly 20 years before sketching his victims? Sickert historians believe he likely saw the morgue photos of Eddowes and Nichols (which were rumored to be quietly circulated at the time), hence the similarities between the Ripper victims and Sickert’s Putana a Casa and Venetian Studies. It would also explain why there were no other sketches resembling other Ripper victims. As Sickert supporters point out, the sketches resemble the morgue photos, not the actual crime scenes, thereby diminishing the theory that he had an insiders’ knowledge of the crimes because he was the killer. As for his preference in sketching prostitutes, it is argued that many artists did this, as the women were usually the most obliging and saw it as an easier way of making money.

The Final Years

In 1911, Sickert founded the Camden Town Group, a society for British painters, and married Christine Angus, a student 17 years his junior. However, by 1920, Christine had died and a grieving Sickert flung her cremated remains at the assembled mourners during her funeral. This was to be the start of his breakdown and descent into strange, irrational behavior. Those who support the theory that Sickert and the Ripper were one and the same saw this as proof of his damaged psychology, while Sickert supporters argue it was a moment of extreme grief that was soon made worse by the death of his beloved mother, Eleanor, in 1922.

It wasn’t until 1926 that Sickert started to show stability in his life again. He married his longtime friend, Therese Lessore, who would remain his wife until his death. However, the marital bliss did not last, as only a few months later Sickert suffered a stroke which took him over a year to recover. In his final years, Sickert would mostly paint from photographs, likely due to a lack of creativity after such a long illness. In 1941, the National Gallery in London put on a one-man exhibit in his honor, showcasing the finest paintings and sketches of his illustrious career.

On 22 January 1942, Sickert passed away from kidney failure at the age of 82 in Bath, where his cremated remains were later buried.

To this day, the theory that Sickert was Jack the Ripper is dismissed by those in the art world. Many perceive the research of authors Stephen Knight, Jean Overton Fuller and Patricia Cornwell to be baseless attacks on one of England’s finest Impressionist artists. Sickert is, by no means, the only Ripper suspect; however, the theory has since gained traction due, in part, to Cornwell’s 2002 book, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed.

The continual speculation, nearly 70 years after Sickert’s death, only adds to enigma of this private, erratic and talented artist. Whether Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper or not, he took that secret with him to the grave.

Above: Sickert’s 1908 painting titled The Camden Town Murder, which some believe mirrors the death of prostitute Emily Dimmock. The painting’s alternate title is What Shall We Do for the Rent? which effectively changes how the viewer interprets the painting.

Sources:

Cornwell, Patricia. Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed. New York: Berkley Books, 2002.

Jakubowski, Maxim and Nathan Brand, Ed. The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper. United Kingdom: Constable & Robinson, 1999.

The Official Jack the Ripper website, http://www.casebook.org/.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in British History and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Walter Sickert: Capturing the Darker Side of Life

  1. Rina says:

    This is interesting to read. Thanks for sharing it with us here, Laura.

    I was thinking about reading Cornwell’s book, although I’m not really convinced by her theory, even more so after reading your article. Anyway, Walter Sickert seems like a fascinating personality, Ripper or not.

    Regarding the The Camden Town Murder painting: If you didn’t know about said title, would you think that the woman shown was dead? Having the title What Shall We Do for the Rent? in mind, I thought of a woman prostituting herself “to pay the rent”, so you’re right, the title does indeed change the perception. That was random but I just wanted to state it. 🙂

    • Laura Grande says:

      Thank you for reading it. 😉

      I don’t believe Cornwell’s theory either but I’d still recommend her book to anyone fascinated by the case. She really recreates the seedy underbelly of Victorian London and, whether you believe her or not, she’s done a lot of research. Ripperologists will continue to debate this for years but I think that we have to come to the realization that we won’t ever know who the Ripper was for sure.

      That’s an interesting question. Yes, I would. I get the impression that she is dead simply because she appears nude. If it were painting about a man grieving over his financial situation it would have been a very unusual choice, in my opinion, for Sickert to have made a sleeping woman nude and vulnerable-looking like that. I didn’t think of it the way you interpreted it, though. I always assumed that when Sickert changed the title it was the man who was wondering what he’d do for the rent, but it could very well have been the woman as prostitute. Whatever the meaning may have been, it’s definitely ambiguous.

      • Rina says:

        I guess that’s one of the reasons why the Ripper case is so appealing: We’ll never know who did it. No matter what theories and proofs people come up with, there’ll always go a certain feeling of doubt with them.

        What speaks for your theory, though, is that the man does indeed look worried and concerned. He doesn’t appear like your usual punter. If the painting was about showing how the woman has to prostitue herself I guess Sickert would have pictured the man differently.

      • Laura Grande says:

        Yeah, the image of the man is definitely the aspect that leaves the painting open to interpretation. His body demeanour could either mean he’s upset that he’s just killed someone or distressed over having to tell his wife about his financial woes. At the same time, though, the woman is naked on the bed. What does this mean?

  2. Rina says:

    The nudity might be just a feature to make the viewer pay attention but it could have a far deeper meaning as well. It leaves room for various interpretations. It definitely is a fascinating painting – with or without the Ripper theory.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s