The Man Who Knew Too Much - Walter Sickert (S1E6)
Updated: Jan 31
One of the most important painters of his generation, Walter Sickert gravitated toward scenes of low life and at times depicted women who appeared to be dead. In the 1970s, a man purporting to be Sickert’s illegitimate son implicated the painter in the Whitechapel homicides. Sickert has since become a favored Ripper candidate and has received more attention as a possible perpetrator than any other artist covered this season. Show notes and full transcript below.
Above: The Camden Town Murder, painted by Walter Sickert circa 1908 and nominally inspired by a real-life homicide. Held by Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund. Accession No. B1979.37.1.
Photograph of Sickert taken in 1911 by British studio photographer George Charles Beresford.
Jack the Ripper's Bedroom, painted by Sickert circa 1906-7. Around the time of its creation, Sickert was living with a landlady who suspected a former tenant of committing the Ripper crimes. Her suspicions inspired him while he was choosing a title for this picture. Held by Manchester Art Gallery. Accession No. 1980.303.
Sketch of Sickert by his mentor, James McNeill Whistler, first published in 1895. Held by the Cleveland Museum of Art. Accession No. 1924.41.
Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket. Painted by James McNeill Whistler in 1875. Held by the Detroit Institute of Arts. Accession number unavailable at the time of this writing. Accession No. 46.309.
Sickert unveiled Gatti's Hungerford Palace of Varieties, Second Turn of Katie Lawrence, at the New English Art Club in 1888, meeting with scandal. For one critic, it embodied “the aggressive squalor which pervades to a greater or lesser extent the whole of modern existence.” Held by Yale University Art Gallery. Accession No. 1960.43.
Sickert's best-known painting, Ennui. In Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, Stephen Knight claims that the figure on top of Queen Victoria's left shoulder in the picture-within-the-picture is a gull--an allusion to Sir William Gull, Physician-in-Ordinary to the monarch herself and supposedly the man who wielded the knife in the conspiracy to carry out the Whitechapel murders. Copyright held by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Accession No. WA1940.1.92.
---Baron, Wendy. Sickert. New York: Phaidon: Distributed by Praeger, 1973.
---Baron, Wendy. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online. Published on Sep. 23, 2004, accessed on Aug. 15, 2022.
---Baron, Wendy and Richard Shone, eds. Sickert, Paintings. New Haven; Lonson: Yale University Press, 1992.
---Begg, Paul, Martin Fido, and Keith Skinner. The Jack the Ripper A-Z, Third Edition. London: Headline, 1996.
---Cornwell, Patricia. Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed. New York: Putnam’s, 2002.
---Cornwell, Patricia. Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert. Seattle: Thomas and Mercer, 2017.
---Fuller, Jean Overton. Sickert and the Ripper Crimes: An Investigation into the Relationship Between the Whitechapel Murders of 1888 and the English Tonal Painter Walter Richard Sickert. Oxford: Mandrake, 1990.
---Knight, Stephen. Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. McKay, 1976.
---Sturgis, Matthew. Walter Sickert: A Life. London: Harper Collins, 2005.
---Sugden, Philip. The Complete History of Jack the Ripper. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994.
---Tickner, Lisa. “Walter Sickert: The Camden Town Murder and Tabloid Crime.” In The Camden Town Group in Context, edited by Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy. Tate Research Publication, May 2012. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/camden-town-group/lisa-tickner-walter-sickert-the-camden-town-murder-and-tabloid-crime-r1104355, accessed Aug. 8, 2022.
That man was Jack the Ripper—she was sure of it. The year would have been about 1907, and painter Walter Sickert was chatting with his landlady as she dusted his room in Camden Town, London. His antennae perked up when she hit upon the topic of a veterinary student who had previously rented his current lodgings, right at the time of the Whitechapel homicides. It always happened the night of a murder, his landlady recalled. She and her husband heard their tenant leave in the small hours and come back before sunrise, stealing up to his room where he paced about like mad. Not until the newspapermen had started barking headlines about mayhem and mutilation did he resurface, hurrying down the stairs and out the front door to purchase a copy of his preferred periodical. Then, he’d retrace his steps and shut himself up to leaf through its pages. Her blood had run cold the day after one of these nocturnal excursions: inside his fireplace, she had discovered the charred remains of one of his suits. She was certain he’d burned it because it was stained with gore. Before she could notify the police, however, the lodger took ill. His condition worsened, and his mother came to collect him, bringing him back home to the coastal town of Bournemouth, where the sea breeze did little to restore him to good health. He was dead within weeks, and lo and behold the murders stopped. Sickert had long had a morbid fascination with the Whitechapel nightmare, and his landlady’s account inspired him while choosing a name for a picture he completed around this time. It’s included on the Art of Crime website, along with others discussed this episode. In this painting, we peer through a set of folding doors into a grungy domestic interior. A slender man stands with his back turned to us, cloaked in shadow as he gazes out a window. There is no indication of whom or what we might be looking at but for the title Sickert gave to the picture: Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom.
Over the years, Sickert told and retold this story, prompting other artists to tell their own versions. Marie Belloc Lowndes heard and made use of it as the basis for her 1913 novel, The Lodger, in which a landlady fears that she’s harboring a latter-day Ripper. In 1927, Alfred Hitchock adapted her novel for the silver screen, titling his film The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog—something of a Psycho before he made Psycho.
On its own, this story had legs. Yet Sickert had more to tell about the Ripper—or at least we’re told he did—and those stories travelled, too. Sickert courted controversy throughout his career, at least in part by depicting scenes of squalor and what appeared to be crime. By the time of his death in 1942, he was hailed as one of the twentieth century’s most significant British painters. Thirty years later, he would earn a much less admirable reputation. In 1976, Sickert would stand at the center of one of the tallest tales ever told about the Whitechapel murders, Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution by Stephen Knight. What’s strange is that Knight’s entire book is based on a tale that Sickert himself was said to have told to his illegitimate son decades earlier. The Final Solution has been roundly discounted, but Sickert has raised suspicions as the killer ever since. Today, we’ll hear the story of how all the Ripper stories Sickert supposedly told have landed him in the suspect line-up. This is The Art of Crime, and I'm your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 6 of The Unusual Suspects . . .
The Man Who Knew Too Much: Walter Sickert
Birth and Relocation to Britain
On May 31, 1860, painter and illustrator Oswald Sickert, along with his wife, Eleanor, welcomed the first of six children into their home. They named him Walter. Partly for his precocity and partly for being the eldest of the lot, his mother and father held him apart from and above his siblings, even referring to him and his four brothers as “Walter and the boys.”
The Sickerts were living in Munich at the time of Walter’s birth, but alarmed by changes in the geo-political climate, they relocated to England, taking up residence first in Bedford before settling in London in 1869.
Three Masters, Two Arts
As he neared adulthood, Sickert felt pulled in two artistic directions. On the one hand, he yearned to bask in the limelight of the London stage. On the other hand, however, his father’s vocation as a painter beckoned. It would take the better part of a decade for Sickert to resolve this tension, but eventually he’d arrive at a solution that combined his passion for both the visual and performing arts. The long and sinuous path to this endpoint can be charted according to the idols Sickert worshipped and sought to emulate along the way.
The first was the darling of London theater, the actor-manager whose name we’ve encountered more than once already: Henry Irving. While attending King’s College School, London, Sickert haunted the stalls of the Lyceum, feasting his eyes on the master at work.
In imitation of Irving, Sickert took a stab at managing and acting in a troupe of his own, christening them the Hypocrites—the “Hyps” for short. During the summer of 1877, his family vacationed in Newquay, Cornwall in southwest England, where he helmed a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Aged seventeen, Sickert played the lead, prevailing on his friends and siblings to cover the supporting roles. The script was trimmed down for the sake of brevity, and Sickert staged it in a disused quarry—an ominous setting that suited Shakespeare’s tale of witchcraft and warfare. Sickert clearly had the ambition, charisma, and vision to mount a stellar production, but it remained to be seen whether he could breathe life into the titular king-slayer. He would set the tone for his performance with Macbeth’s grand entrance. As Sickert imagined it, he would make a lordly appearance at the top of a steep slope leading down into the pit and then descend to join the other performers below—impressive in theory though not so much in practice. By a cruel twist of fate, Sickert turned his ankle in the middle of the scene, forcing him to slide down the scree on his backside, much to the amusement of the performers playing the hideous witches who would tell Macbeth his fortune. Nothing wicked was coming their way, not in this production.
As he’d shown by talking his friends and relatives into these amateur theatrics, Sickert had a gift for getting what he wanted out of his collaborators. His younger sister, Helena, recalls in her memoirs that “he was able to infuse so much charm into life.” He could also make “our pursuit interesting,” so that “we were generally his willing slaves.” As an adult, Sickert would put this skill to good use, cajoling or dragooning others into whatever project it was he’d undertaken. It was not uncommon for him to consolidate friendships only to let them fall apart when they ceased to suit his purposes. For all his warmth and magnetism, Sickert could also be cold and off-puttingly self-absorbed.
After finishing at King’s College School, Sickert went into acting, heeding his father’s warning to stay away from painting if he wanted to make a living. Sickert scored several small yet meaningful victories in the beginning. He became a supernumerary—what today we’d call an “extra”—at the Lyceum, sharing the stage with the godlike Irving. He toured the English provinces with a traveling company under the pseudonym of Mr. Nemo—“Mr. Nobody.” Despite his best efforts, his career never took off. On the road or even backstage, he made sketches to fill the empty hours.
It was at the Lyceum—though not while he was performing there—that Sickert is said to have caught the attention of his second great guru, James McNeill Whistler, the American-born and London-based painter. Sickert had gone to watch a play one evening, and when it came time for the curtain call, he tossed a bouquet of flowers at Ellen Terry, Irving’s leading lady and the reigning doyenne of London theater. Sickert had weighted his loving missile with lead to ensure that it cleared the footlights, but he put too much force into the throw. The bundle overshot its mark and landed with an audible clunk beside Irving, who jumped in surprise. According to legend, Whistler was in the audience and had a laugh at the mishap, taking the trouble to learn who was responsible. Not long after, he and Sickert met.
By 1882, Sickert had given up on acting, though he would never abandon his love for dressing up and putting on a show for whoever would watch. After enrolling in—and then dropping out of—the Slade School of Art, he became a pupil and assistant to Whistler, brushing shoulders with the biggest names in bohemia at the avant-garde painter’s Tite Street studio. A polarizing figure, Whistler gave offense as quickly as he took it. In 1877, he had run afoul of the public for filing what many viewed as a frivolous libel suit against John Ruskin, eminent art critic and guardian of good taste. Ruskin had committed the unpardonable slight of giving Whistler a negative review. The painter won, but his victory was pyrrhic, as it came with ungodly legal expenses.
Despite his peccadillos, many of Whistler’s followers still stuck by him for a very simple reason: the guy was a genius. Whistler was a prima painter, meaning that he layered thin, wet paint on top of thin, wet paint. This technique required him to work at high speed, racing against the clock to complete the picture before the oil dried. He finished new works in a single sitting, which he sometimes termed a single “wet.” Because of the time pressure, prima painting demanded the utmost skill and self-possession. If an artist could pull it off—and Whistler could—the practice resulted in a picture with a freshness and smoothness of surface that was beautiful to behold. Whistler changed other aspects of his method depending on subject matter. He produced his quiet nocturnes, or nighttime scenes, from memory, having perfected the art of visual recall, while he painted landscapes and portraits from life. No matter what image covered his canvas in the end, Whistler insisted on creating art for art’s sake, without any pretense to high-minded moralizing.
Sickert soaked it all in. Much as he had followed Irving’s example as an aspiring actor, he modeled himself on Whistler as a fledgling painter. Sickert stood next to him in the open air, their canvases side-by-side and their oils on tables rather than palates, as Whistler preferred, painting what they saw in the bustling streets of Chelsea.
Sickert was a student of Whistler’s, yes, but he was also a bit of an errand boy as well. It was in that capacity that he made the acquaintance of his third role model, Edgar Degas. In 1883, Whistler sent Sickert to Paris to deliver his Portrait of the Artist’s Mother for exhibition at the Salon. During this journey, Sickert called on Degas, Whistler having furnished him with a letter of introduction. The Frenchman’s methods differed from those of the American. Degas didn’t paint prima, nor from life. Instead, he drew sketches of his subject, painting from those drawings inside a studio. Furthermore, Degas drew inspiration from quotidian people and places—for instance, the performers and audience members inside musical establishments known as cafés-chantant. Sickert and Degas became fast friends, and the former adopted aspects of the latter’s philosophy. With time, Sickert placed him on the pedestal that Whistler had previously occupied. Reflecting on his visits to Degas’s Parisian home, Sickert later described his mentor’s apartment as “the lighthouse of my existence.”
After several years of learning from the best, Sickert gathered up the teachings that appealed to him most and dispensed with the rest. He held onto Whistler’s insistence on art for art’s sake while taking up Degas’s preference for painting from sketches. He also saw the merit in the Frenchman’s painting everyday places like the café-chantant. Soon, Sickert landed on what would become a lasting source of inspiration, one that dovetailed with his love of live performance, and one that would allow him to savor the sweetness of notoriety for the first time: the music hall.
The Music Hall Man
The English music hall emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century, and by the 1880s, more than 300 had opened their doors in London alone. Quaint as it may seem from a modern perspective, this institution had generated fierce controversy from its inception. An evening’s entertainment typically included a series of brief acts. In each, a new performer—or pair of performers—sang songs. These were often racy and may have featured erotically charged lyrics and choreography. More risqué still, they sometimes included gender-bending, with female performers taking the stage in men’s breeches and thereby defying contemporary standards of femininity. Smoke filled the air as audience members, mostly male and working-class, puffed on pipes or cigars. The average crowd was awash in drink, because (unlike playhouses) music halls also served alcohol. Spectators inevitably grew rowdy and heckled, applauded, or catcalled performers without inhibition. The talent, in turn, gloried in the plaudits or countered boos with a barbed riposte. Meanwhile, prostitutes made the rounds among the audience, sporting red hats that announced their profession. For all these reasons, the music hall did not sit well with many in the middle-classes, the self-appointed arbiters of what constituted “morality,” and many observers denounced these places as dens of iniquity. Sickert visited music halls nightly, making sketches and painting from those back at his studio.
It was a picture of a hall that earned him a reputation as a provocateur. In 1887, he became a member of the New English Art Club, which styled itself as a radical counterpoint to the Royal Academy. In April 1888, Sickert appalled critics with his creation, Gatti’s Hungerford Palace of Varieties: Second Turn of Miss Katie Lawrence. The exact painting that hung in the Club has gotten lost, probably destroyed. Two other versions have come down to us, however, and one of them is featured on the website. Looking at it today, I’m amazed by what critics considered grounds for outrage. The painting shows a music hall’s darkened auditorium full of male spectators, most of them with their back to us, while celebrated serio-comic Katie Lawrence performs onstage, her primrose smock and skirt illuminated by gaslight. According to a review published in the Artist, the picture represented “the aggressive squalor which pervades to a greater or lesser extent the whole of modern existence.”
Part of critics’ objections had to do with the establishment Sickert painted. In 1867, Italian immigrant and restauranteur Carlo Gatti procured a license to open his Hungerford music hall. After refurbishment in 1886, the venue reopened freshly painted, plastered, gilded, and upholstered—not that that you would know it based on the painting, which deals primarily in gritty browns, blacks, and grays. Patrons paid two shillings for a red plush seat in the stalls near the stage, while sixpence was good for a table farther back. Because of its location in Central London, right near the Strand, Trafalgar Square, and Charring Cross Station, Gatti’s Hungerford attracted a more socio-economically diverse clientele than other halls. Sickert gestures toward this variety in the painting, but you have to pay attention to what men have—or don’t have—on their heads to pick up on it. As Sickert expert Anna Robins notes, gentlemen wear top hats while the fashionable dandies—known as “mashers”—opt for bowlers. Less moneyed spectators wear no hat at all. It was the embrace of this kind of social mingling that made Gatti’s Hungerford—and by extension, Sickert’s painting—disreputable in the eyes of more snobbish observers.
Then there was Sickert’s portrayal of Lawrence. Pale as a wraith and as wooden as a puppet, she hardly seems alive at all. Disgusted, a critic for Land and Water characterizes Sickert’s Lawrence as a “hideously malformed creature.”
This painting showcased two qualities that would make much—though far from all—of Sickert’s art controversial, two qualities moreover that would render him suspect to the minds of Ripper hunters. First, Sickert gravitated toward scenes of low life. Second, he had an uncanny habit of portraying women who almost appeared to be dead. Both had offended critics of the NEAC’s exhibition, but there’s no such thing as bad publicity. In fact, the furor Sickert engendered won him more recognition than he’d hitherto enjoyed, and Sickert loved being the center of attention. Over the years, he’d be charged with graver misdeeds than offending good taste.
The Autumn of Terror
Serial murder would be one example. For what it’s worth, Sickert looked like a Jack the Ripper, or at least he did at the time of the killings. He went on holiday to France in early August 1888, before Polly Nichols had met her end, and when he returned in mid-October, he found the British capital in the vice-grip of panic. Four of the five canonical victims had fallen at this point, and the trade name “Jack the Ripper” was on the lips of virtually everyone in London. The drama of the moment thrilled Sickert, a true-crime enthusiast through and through, and one night he found himself mistaken for the villain. According to Robert Emmons, Sickert’s friend and early biographer, the painter resumed his nightly outings to music halls after returning from France, heading home on foot in the dead of night. On one such occasion, he wore a loud checkered coat reaching down to his ankles, his sketches tucked carefully into a bag at his side. A gaggle of young women on Copenhagen Street took one look at him and ran for their lives, screaming “Jack the Ripper, Jack the Ripper!” This was only the first time that accusation would be made.
The First of Several Final Solutions
The history of how Sickert took his place in the modern suspect lineup is lengthy and outlandish. It all starts with a story that Sickert himself is said to have told about his own involvement in the Whitechapel bloodbath. In 1973, thirty-one years after Sickert’s passing, a smalltime painter named Joseph Gorman came forward claiming to be Sickert’s illegitimate son. In Goreman’s telling, his father had taken him aside as a fourteen-year-old and unfurled a tale so incredible it hardly seemed possible.
Gorman’s narrative came to the attention of journalist Stephen Knight. Make a mental note of his name because it will come back in the following episode. In 1976, after checking up on Gorman’s account and deeming it believable, Knight published perhaps the most influential—and controversial—book on the Whitechapel horror story, Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. In it, Knight walks the reader through Gorman’s revelations step by step, and no wonder it flew off the shelves when it came out. This is a tale of star-crossed lovers. But there’s political intrigue, too, with a conspiracy theory that makes Watergate look tame. At its core, the story revolves around a prince who strays too far from his palace, a prince whose name is familiar to us already. He is none other than Albert Victor, affectionately known as Eddy to his friends and family, and second in line to the British throne. What follows is a readers-digest version of Goreman’s yarn, as reported by Knight.
In the early 1880s, Eddy’s mother, Princess Alexandra, worried about her son’s emotional and intellectual development. He’d shown an affinity for the arts, so she contacted painter Walter Sickert to ask if he’d take the prince under his wing, hoping that such an apprenticeship would enrich and expand Eddy’s inner life. Sickert agreed, all too eager to curry favor with the royals. Eddy grew fond of his instructor, so fond in fact that he began shirking his schoolwork and sneaking out to visit him. Unbeknownst to his mother, father, and nearly everybody else, Eddy left home in a carriage emblazoned with the royal crest only to switch into a run-of-the-mill coach. Then, he would proceed to Sickert’s brick-fronted studio at 15 Cleveland Street. In 1884, Sickert introduced his pupil to a young woman named Anne Elizabeth Crook, who worked for a tobacconist up the street and occasionally modeled for Sickert. Passion swept Eddy and Anne off their feet and carried them into the heavens. The two were mad—but not made—for each other. A shop-girl and a prince? That was no match. Worse still, Anne was a Catholic at a time when anti-Catholic sentiment permeated the realm. Queen and country would never stand for this coupling. Still, the couple conceived a child, a baby girl baptized as Alice Margaret, after which the prince and his consort married in secret. Two witnesses watched them solemnize their union. One of them was Sickert, and none of Knight’s readers could have guessed the other. She had assisted Crook at the tobacconist’s and nursed little Alice whenever necessary, so it made sense for her to attend the clandestine nuptials. She called herself Mary Jane Kelly, and one day she would die as the Ripper’s fifth and final canonical victim.
Few things travel faster than word of a royal scandal, and soon the illicit coupling had become known to Queen Victoria as well as her Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury. Knight reminds us that at this time the monarchy stood in a precarious position, partly because a socialist uprising seemed possible, and Salisbury feared that Eddy’s explosive romantic indiscretion could deal a blow so devastating as to topple the throne entirely. It looked that bad for them, and drastic measures were called for. Prime Minister Salisbury ordered a raid on the newlyweds’ Cleveland Street love nest, at which time the prince and his paramour were tragically torn apart, never to set eyes on each other again. Eddy received little more than a stern reprimand. By comparison, Crook suffered a more horrendous fate. She endured a confinement of 156 days in St. Guy’s hospital, during which time she underwent a ghastly surgery—some kind of lobotomy—which shattered her mind. After her release, she drifted from one workhouse to another until finally perishing thirty-two years later—penniless and insane.
Splitting up the lovebirds hadn’t solved all of Salisbury’s problems. Quite by chance, Sickert had witnessed the Cleveland Street raid and worked out more or less what had transpired. Meanwhile, Mary Jane Kelly had escaped with baby Alice. She left the infant in the care of the painter, who in turn placed Alice in a foster home. Kelly moved to the East End, where she befriended three women whose names we know well: Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, and Elisabeth Stride. Hard-up for money, they hatched a daring plot to blackmail the royal family and put it into action, threatening to go public about Eddy’s sexual misadventure in addition to the tainted fruit it had yielded. Yet again Salisbury feared for the Crown’s future. If his anxieties were any indication, four anonymous Whitechapel women who had never tasted power in their unforgiving lives now stood poised to bring the world’s mightiest monarchy to its very knees. Salisbury rejected the idea of paying the extortionists. Instead, he turned to Sir William Gull, Queen Victoria’s Physician in Ordinary, enlisting him to neutralize the threat. Gull joined forces with a coachman, John Netley, and Sir Robert Anderson, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, the very official tasked with leading the Ripper investigation. Netley drove them all around town in a carriage as they searched for the blackmailers. When they closed in on one of their targets, they lured her into the vehicle, where Sir William Gull fed her poisoned grapes, killing her. Then, aided by his rarefied medical knowledge, Gull mutilated her body while his accomplices looked on. Afterward, Netley conveyed the corpse to the spot where it was eventually discovered. One by one, they dispatched the five canonical victims. Hitting a snag along the way, the unholy trinity murdered Catherine Eddowes having mistaken her for Kelly, and circled back later to destroy the intended target. With his mission accomplished, Prime Minister Salisbury organized an elaborate cover-up to conceal the conspiracy from the public.
Remember, Walter Sickert is claimed to have told all this to Goreman. So with all these bodies piling up, how did he live to tell the tale? According to Goreman, Sickert somehow knew about the murders as they were happening, and somehow Lord Salisbury knew that he knew. Far from ordering Sickert assassinated, the prime minister offered him hush money instead, which the painter accepted.
Years later, Sickert and Alice Margaret, Eddy and Anee’s illegitimate child, reunited, giving way to a torrid love affair. (Married three times, Sickert was a prolific philanderer in actuality and is known to have slept around throughout much of his life.) Alice eventually bore him a child, a boy named Joseph—Gorman, that is. He would not hear the extraordinary saga of how his mother and father met until he was fourteen, at which time he would also discover that royal blood was coursing through his veins. After all, Prince Eddy had fathered his mother.
Given the yards’ worth of yarn he’d spun, Gorman clearly had a gift for storytelling. But then, so did Knight. He concludes The Final Solution with a twist ending that’ll give you whiplash. In the last chapter, dramatically entitled “The Third Man,” Knight casts doubt on part of Sickert’s story, as relayed by Gorman, namely the claim that Assistant Commissioner Sir Robert Anderson had acted as an accomplice to Sir William Gull. How could Sickert have known so much about this conspiratorial scheme, as well as what had gone on inside the carriage—the offering of grapes and the subsequent carnage—unless . . . could it be? . . . unless Walter Sickert had been the third man. This possibility had never occurred to Gorman, and it figuratively gutted him—his own father, party to the most egregious of crimes! Finding solace in a belief that his father must have participated under duress, afraid that he or Alice would come to harm if he refused, Gorman writes in an afterword to Knight’s book, “None of this justifies, but it might begin to explain why an essentially good man would do what it seems my father did.”
Two episodes ago, we heard from Richard Wallace about how Lewis Carroll felt compelled to disclose his involvement in the Whitechapel murders, burying confessions in his writing in the form of anagrams. In a similar vein, Knight contends that Sickert, not unlike da Vinci in a later page-turner, planted clues about his complicity in his painting.
By way of example, Knight points to Sickert’s 1906 work, La Hollandaise, held by the Tate Modern in London. Here we find another of his domestic interiors, dark and dumpy as Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom. A plump woman lounges, naked, on a bedstead, her left leg crossed over the other. As if lost in thought, she rests her chin on her right hand. Eerily, shadow obscures her facial features—she almost seems not to have any at all. Unquestionably disquieting, the picture is also far from flattering.
That’s what makes this painting important—to art historians, that is. According to Sickert expert Richard Shone, female nudes were nothing new in turn-of-the-century British painting. Yet artists tended to mythologize or beautify nudity to make it more palatable. Sickert never endeavored to idealize nakedness. Rather, as in the case of La Hollandaise, he depicts the human body with uncompromising frankness. To quote from Shone, Sickert played the part of a “dispassionate observer selecting his subjects with a ruthless, cold eye.”
Stephen Knight offers a different perspective. Sickert was not painting the female anatomy with a disinterested eye; he was painting a memory of Mary Jane Kelly at the scene of her murder. Knight shudders at the woman in La Hollandaise, calling her “an abomination.” To his mind, she evokes Kelly’s eviscerated body, lying in her bed at 13 Miller’s Court. We do know what the awful sight looked like, by the way. Police took two pictures of Kelly’s corpse as it was discovered in her rundown hovel—the only time the authorities photographed a crime scene while pursuing the Ripper. Knight likens La Hollandiase’s distorted countenance to Kelly’s unrecognizably disfigured face, as depicted in the aforesaid photograph.
According to Knight, Sickert had done more than give us dark recollections of the bloodshed he witnessed. He had dropped hints about the Ripper’s identity.
He’d concealed one of them in his best-known picture, Ennui, held by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It depicts a man and a woman, both middle-aged, in a domestic interior. Its wallpaper looks like the color of bile. The man gazes off toward the right-hand side, seated at a table with an empty glass before him and a cigar between his teeth, not wanting to stir unless absolutely necessary. Standing behind him and leaning her elbows on a yellow chest of drawers, the woman turns her eyes in the opposite direction, staring at a wall as if there were nothing better to look at. There are adornments in the room, but she pays them no mind. A picture on the back wall shows Queen Victoria in white with something perched on her shoulder—the something is indistinct and difficult to make out—while a glass dome filled with stuffed birds and butterflies sits on top of the chest of drawers.
Before cracking the code, why not consult another art historian about what Sickert was trying to achieve with this picture and why it’s made such a lasting impression? According to Wendy Baron, an authority on such matters, Ennui marks the dazzling climax of a technical experiment Sickert had been running. It was as if he’d drawn up a set of compositional guidelines. Prior to completing Ennui, he painted a series of works, each of which includes two figures—one man, one woman, one seated, the other standing—in a domestic environment. Sickert arranged and rearranged his subjects, altering their placement, posture, facial expression, and so forth. This might sound rather dry and superficial, but in conducting these tests Sickert was searching for the most potent way to convey what lay beneath the surface of his figures. Based almost entirely on how he oriented their bodies, Sickert sought to imply a sense of psychological tension. With Ennui, he’d executed a tour-de-force. Virginia Woolf captures the emotional gulf between the man and woman in this painting in a 1934 essay, which I’m going to quote now because let’s be honest, pretty much nobody can improve on Woolf’s prose. Referring to the two figures, Woolf writes, “It’s all over with them, one feels. The accumulated weariness of innumerable days has discharged its burden on them. They are buried under an avalanche of rubbish.” She goes on to remark, “The grimness of that situation lies in the fact that there is no crisis; dull minutes are mounting, old matches are accumulating and dirty glasses and dead cigars; still on they must go, up they must get.”
As far as Stephen Knight is concerned, the man and woman are of no significance. Contrary to Woolf’s essay, moreover, there is a crisis in the painting, or at least a whiff of one that had nearly torn the royal family asunder. Knight asks viewers to take a harder look at the picture within the picture, the portrait of Queen Victoria on the back wall. That figure on her shoulder is a bird, he explains, and that bird is a gull—as in Sir William Gull, the monarch’s Physician in Ordinary who had wielded the scalpel in the conspiratorial killings. That’s right, people, Sickert had revealed the identity of the world’s most notorious serial killer by means of a visual pun.
The Final Solution Foiled
The Final Solution achieved commercial success. Nevertheless, many of Knight’s readers weren’t buying what he was selling. Almost every key detail in his narrative has been called into question if not debunked. Indeed, it was Joseph Gorman, the source of Knight’s story, who would man the wrecking ball that demolished his book. In 1978, Gorman gave an interview to The Sunday Times, in which he called the narrative that Sickert supposedly told him “a hoax . . . a whopping fib.” There isn’t even evidence to confirm that Sickert sired Gorman. His testimony had served as the basis of Knight’s entire argument, and with its foundation cut from underneath it, the journalist’s “final solution” collapses in on itself.
Still, many of Knight’s claims have shaped retellings of the Ripper killings in popular culture. His book inspired Alan Moore’s graphic novel, From Hell, which was serialized from 1989-98, as well as the 2001 film adaptation of the same title, directed by Albert and Allen Hughes and starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham. Knight’s influence can also be felt in the 1988 two-part miniseries, Jack the Ripper, directed by David Wickes and starring Michael Caine, which unmasks Gull as the man with the blade. As I mentioned at the start of this episode, Marie Belloc Lawdnes’s The Lodger and Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation stem from a story Sickert told about a mysterious veterinary student. Bizarrely , these later portrayals of Jack the Ripper likewise lead back to what Sickert said—or at least was said to have said—about the murders.
Sickert’s alleged complicity in the crimes wouldn’t end with Stephen Knight. In fact, the accusations against him would only grow graver with time.
From Accomplice to Lone Killer
In 1990, Sickert went from accomplice to lone killer. This theory originates in a book by Jean Overton Fuller, Sickert and the Ripper Crimes. In the opening pages, Fuller recounts a breathless exchange between herself and her mother. It centered on a conversation that Fuller’s mother had had years earlier with the artist, Florence Pash. An intimate of Sickert’s, Pash had accompanied him to music halls to make drawings back in the day. At some point in their friendship, he’d surprised her by hinting that he knew the identity of Jack the Ripper. Sickert had much to share, and according to Pash, he had left clues about the killer in his work and furthermore painted the slain victims from memory—he’d apparently set eye on every last one of their bodies. It was this last point that sounded iffiest to Fuller. Maybe Sickert could have stumbled across a single victim’s corpse in the street by chance, Fuller thought out loud in response to her mother’s story, but every single one? “All of them make him the Ripper.” “Yes,” her mother replied, wide-eyed. From that point onward, mother and daughter suspected that Sickert had committed the murders.
According to Fuller, this dialogue took place long before Stephen Knight had published Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution—long before anyone had linked Sickert’s name with the homicides, in other words. Say what you will about the case for Sickert, this is kind of weird. Not only has a second author forged a connection between him and the crimes, but that connection is based yet again on a story said to have come from the painter’s own mouth. Fuller was dumbfounded when she first cracked open Knight’s book, precisely because parts of it resonated with what she had heard from her mother. In Sickert and the Ripper Crimes, Fuller trashes the idea of a bloodthirsty threesome hunting their quarry in a horse-drawn carriage along with several others Knight puts forward. That being said, she does reiterate many of his arguments, returning to the same paintings—and others—to tease out clues. In the final analysis, she doesn’t add much to what The Final Solution offered. The most important takeaway is that Fuller was the first writer to finger Sickert as the sole perpetrator of the Ripper crimes.
Sickert’s Second Accuser
American crime writer Patricia Cornwell came second. The parallels between her fiction, on the one hand, and her Ripper-hunting, on the other, have not escaped notice. Cornwell has made millions writing novels about Virginian medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, and they’ve sold so well partly for their detailed forays into the realities of forensic science. In 2002, Cornwell herself became the central sleuth in Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed. A second edition was published in 2017, Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert. Thanks in large part to her status as a bestselling author, her books have made a much bigger splash than Fuller’s ever did.
In Cornwell’s view, Sickert was a manipulative woman-hater and cunning sexual psychopath traumatized by invasive childhood surgeries. According to her, these procedures were meant to cure a fistula on his penis and might have left him impotent for life, filling him with rage over his compromised manhood.
Putting it mildly, Sickert scholars have bristled at Cornwell’s take on the painter's personality, which they deem misleading in every respect. With a mixture of embarrassment and indignation, they furthermore add that the evidence suggests that Sickert suffered from an anal fistula, not a penile one. Claims of Sickert’s impotence certainly do not comport with his well-established reputation as a womanizer.
Apart from proffering a psychological profile of her suspect and in true Scarpetta fashion, Cornwell has also brought—or attempted to bring—modern forensic science to bear on the Whitechapel nightmare, comparing traces of DNA evidence left on various Ripper letters to those recovered from pieces of Sickert’s private correspondence. For more than one reason, the results are inconclusive.
Of greatest relevance for our purposes, Cornwell eyes several aspects of Sickert’s professional life—both as a failed actor and as a painter—with suspicion.
To begin with, she subscribes to the disguise hypothesis. Cornwell does so most straightforwardly in the case of Martha Tabram, the non-canonical victim whose murder many identify as possibly the Ripper’s first. As we mentioned briefly in episode 2, Tabram and an acquaintance named Pearly Poll are said to have taken drinks with a pair of soldiers on the night of August 6, 1888. In a statement to the police, Pearly Poll testified that shortly before midnight, the four of them had divided into pairs—one man and one woman in each—and gone their separate ways, presumably for sex. At 2 a.m., a PC Barrett was patrolling the vicinity of the George Yard Buildings, where Tabram’s body was eventually discovered bearing thirty-nine stab wounds, when he came upon a solitary uniformed guardsman. As far as Barrett could tell, the bewhiskered young man belonged to a regiment known for the white bands they wore around their caps. Barrett questioned him, whereupon the private explained that he was “waiting for a chum who had gone with a girl.” Was this guy’s chum a fellow soldier, perhaps even the one who left the pub in Tabram’s company? If so, had he murdered Martha Tabram?
Cornwell seems to think so, but she has her doubts about whether the culprit was actually a soldier. She implies that Sickert may have have been masquerading as one when he did the foul deed. There’s no evidence whatever connecting Sickert to the crime, but Cornwell stresses that he did engage with martial themes throughout his career. In 1880, under the stage name of Mr. Nemo, Sickert delivered a scintillating performance as a French warrior in Shakespeare’s history play, Henry V. More than three decades later, Sickert painted battle scenes during the Great War, and his morbid fascination with the toll it took on those in the trenches prompted him to contact the Red Cross, asking the charity if it would provide him with uniforms of wounded or dying servicemen. At one point, an acquaintance of Sickert’s recalled seeing piles of rifles and soldiers’ apparel in one of his disorderly studios.
Yet Cornwell goes farther, applying the disguise hypothesis to the Ripper correspondence. Not only could the killer slip into military garb to keep authorities off his trail, but he could alter his handwriting while signing, “Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.” Unlike many who take on the case, Cornwell believes a good deal of the Ripper letters to be genuine. She’s especially interested in missives that were decorated with artistic illustrations, which compares to Sickert’s drawings. The letters she examines appear to have been written in dozens of different hands. Nevertheless, Cornwell implies that Sickert could have generated all of them thanks to his artistic training. He could sign his name backwards in cursive, so there’s no question about his skill with a pen. Whether he could invent and reinvent his handwriting so many times for so many letters is another matter, however.
The Camden Town Murder
Cornwell offers more of note than this new extension of the disguise hypothesis. Many Ripper hunters take pains to account for why the slayings came to an end after the murder of Mary Jane Kelly on November 9, 1888. Not so for Cornwell. Her candidate enjoyed a longer career of killing than any other we’ve heard about thus far.
In her estimation, Sickert was still ripping in 1907, one year before he debuted another flashpoint-painting. Held by Yale Center for British Art, the picture is titled The Camden Town Murder (or, alternatively, What Shall We Do for the Rent?). It depicts one of Sickert’s gloomy domestic interiors. A naked woman is lying on an iron bedstead with a fully clothed man seated at her feet, his head lowered. The painting’s title invites you to conclude that the male has murdered her, the clenched hands in his lap perhaps evocative of strangulation, but then it isn’t clear whether the woman’s dead at all. If not, are we to assume that he’s going to kill her? Sickert was notorious for making mischief with nomenclature, for giving his paintings provocative names that may not have been relevant to the subject matter. More than likely, that’s what he’s done here, as if to get a kick out of making you second-guess yourself. At any rate, not for the first time, Sickert was asking for trouble. Though struck by his technical skill, a critic for the Daily Telegraph nevertheless considered “his choice of subject matter more worthy of the ‘Police News’ [that is, a gory crime rag and a sensationalism-buffet] than a picture gallery of high rank.”
Whatever tricks Sickert might have been pulling with his title, it certainly refers to a real-life homicide. On the morning of September 12, 1907, railway laborer Bertram Shaw headed home from the train station. He lived at 29 St. Paul’s Road in Camden Town, London, with a woman by the name of Emily Dimmock. They’d talked about getting married but never gone through with it. Shaw had been expecting a visit from his mother, but he was surprised to find her waiting outside their rooms. Nobody had answered when she knocked at the door. He didn’t have a key, so the two were locked out. Dimmock had known his mother was coming, making him wonder if she might have gone out to receive her at the train station, and the two had simply missed each other. As time wore on, he must have sensed that something was off, because he called on his landlady, Mrs. Strocks, asking for a spare key, which she obligingly handed over. After finally making it into his residence, Shaw discovered the doors leading to Dimmock’s bedroom locked. He forced his way in, rushed to the bed, pulled back the covers, and recoiled at what he saw. Dimmock lay naked, flat on her stomach, the sheets crimson with her blood. She helped pay rent by selling sex, and it was surmised that a customer had slashed her throat while she slept.
The events that followed were no less sensational than the discovery of Dimmock’s body. The day of her murder, she had received a postcard, signed “Bertie.” The message on it read, “Meet at the Eagle [a pub in the neighborhood] at 8 o’clock tonight.” Newspapers printed facsimiles of the postcard in the hope that readers might recognize the handwriting, and one of them did. This was a woman named Ruby Young, and the writing resembled that of her lover, Robert Wood. Not only that, he went by “Bertie.” Wood stood trial, and a spectacular courtroom drama ensued. London marveled at Wood’s lawyer, Edward Marshall Hall, an oratorical sorcerer hailed as “The Great Defender.” Sharpened by his theatrical flair, Hall’s cross-examination poked hole after hole in the prosecution. Despite this star turn, an acquittal was far from a foregone conclusion. When Wood took the stand, his lawyer opened with a straightforward question: “Robert Wood, did you kill Emily Dimmock?” Hall had anticipated a resolute “No,” but instead the defendant remained awkwardly silent for a moment, looking more than a little suss. Partly because of this blatant misstep, it was presumed that the right honorable judge, Mr. Justice Grantham, would side with the prosecution. Midway through summing up, however, he blindsided the court with a dramatic reversal, more or less advising the jury to acquit. After a mere fifteen minutes of deliberation, they did.
They reached the right verdict, or so Patricia Cornwell would have us believe, because Walter Sickert had committed the murder. If she could try her suspect in a court of law, something tells me the painter would go free. Cornwell builds her case on circumstantial evidence, and she’s the first person to point out its flimsiness. In trying to connect Sickert with the Camden Town murder, she highlights an article in the Evening Standard, printed November 29, 1937, thirty years after the tragedy took place. It claims that Sickert “was permitted to enter the house where the murder was committed and did several sketches of the murdered woman’s body.” There would have been a narrow window of opportunity to view Dimmock’s body between the time of its discovery and its removal from the premises, Cornwell reasons, and she considers it highly unlikely that Sickert would have found the crime scene by chance. He knew where to look because he’d killed her. Yet as Cornwell concedes in the second edition of her book, the story about Sickert’s visit to Dimmock’s domicile may be untrue. She also raises questions about a letter from the painter to an American correspondent, Nan Hudson, in which he regales her with a truly bizarre tale. While he was living at 6 Mornington Crescent in Camden Town, not too far from the scene of the crime, a downstairs neighbor burst into his room “with her whole head ablaze like a torch, from a celluloid comb. I put her out by shampooing her with my hands so quickly that I didn’t burn myself at all.” The incident left her bald, but apart from that, she was just fine. Ever the oddball, Sickert has more than likely embellished—if not entirely invented —this emergency, and for this reason it sets off alarms for Cornwell: “I was left to wonder if it might be possible that Sickert fabricated the incident with his downstairs neighbor because it might have occurred the same night or early morning of Emily Dimmock’s murder, and Sickert was making sure someone knew he was home.” On the very next page, Cornwell admits that Sickert hadn’t dated this missive, making it impossible to say when it was written in relation to the murder. Consider this evidence inadmissible.
Mired in Swampland
With three authors linking Sickert to the Whitechapel horrors over a span of nearly fifty years, two of whom name him as the sole perpetrator, the painter has received greater consideration as a Ripper candidate than any other artist profiled this season. His permanent place in the suspect line-up has angered his descendants as well as art historians who have dedicated their lives to the study of his work. In their eyes, he’s better-known now as an alleged serial murderer than the unqualified master of his craft that he was. They certainly haven’t stayed silent about the matter. In his excellent biography, Walter Sickert: A Life, published three years after the first edition of Cornwell’s book, Matthew Sturgis attacks the issue in a postscript. The opening sentence makes his stance plain enough: “Walter Sickert was not Jack the Ripper.” He then carries out a systematic excoriation of the various cases made against Sickert over the years, starting with Gorman and working his way up to Cornwell. Let’s just say I winced a lot reading it. Sturgis disputes a number of contentions about the painter’s alleged connection with the killings, but like others, he stresses that Sickert was on vacation in France when the murders of Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, and Catherine Eddowes took place, ruling him out as a suspect. (Cornwell attempts to refute this claim in Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert, as have others who believe the painter to have committed the murders.) After laying down his battle axe, Sturgis admits to having fought for a lost cause: “[B]y a quirk of fate, he [Sickert] has been dragged into the swamp of Ripperology, and once enmired it is impossible to escape.” In other words, nothing Sturgis—or anyone else—argues can free him from the miasma.
But what would Sickert have to say—Sickert, the eccentric who welcomed attention and even notoriety throughout his whole life, who relished true crime, who thrilled in the sensationalism of the Whitechapel homicides, who recounted stories about living in what might have been the murderer’s digs, who ostensibly painted the Ripper inside his bedroom, and who may have cracked a smile when that bevy of young women took flight at the sight of him on Copenhagen Street, screaming “Jack the Ripper!” at the top of their lungs? How would he feel about getting himself mired in the morass of Ripperology? I’ll let Sturgis have the last word: “That such posthumous celebrity should fall on Sickert is certainly a curiosity. No less certainly, it is a curiosity that Sickert would have enjoyed.”
Next episode, we’ll hear about the most sprawling conspiracy theory yet. It all revolves around a Victorian pop star who also played organ for the secretive fraternity known as the Freemasons.