Walter Sickert: Was He Jack the Ripper?

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Walter Sickert, photograph by George Charles Beresford, 1911

Was Walter Sickert really Jack the Ripper? Patricia Cornwell did extensive research which demonstrates that he could have been the Ripper.

Walter Sickert, born May 31, 1860 in Munich, Germany, and died January 22, 1942, was an English painter who was the son of a Danish cartoonist and landscape artist, Oswald Adalbert Sickert , and an Irish dancer, who was the illegitimate daughter of Richard Sheepshanks, a British astronomer. Oswald’s father, Johann Sickert, was court portraitist to Frederick VII of Denmark. Walter emerged from a long line of artistic people.

Early Art Career

Sickert’s mentor was James Whistler and from Whistler he learned to paint alla prima and produced art work from nature very quickly. He developed a personal version of impressionism, favoring muted, somber colors. His earliest works were of the “unfortunates” who thronged the London streets of the Victorian period and of music halls. He was considered second only to Turner in artistic importance in the impressionism of the Victorian era. Perhaps his most famous work was a painting entitled “Ennui” depicting a portly man smoking a cigar with a glass in front of him while his female companion behind him stares at a bell jar of stuffed birds.

Location of Studios

His studio was located close to his subjects. Sickert acquired studios in the Cumberland market area of London and then later in Camden Town. London’s poorer areas became the scene of brutal murders of prostitutes, notably the Jack the Ripper murders in the Fall of 1888 and later, the Camden town murder. Sickert was resident in the less desirable parts of London. Sickert was fascinated with the Jack the Ripper murders. He once wrote a friend to state that he was living in the same building as Jack the Ripper.

Patricia Cornwell’s Theories

Several authors, most recently Patricia Cornwell in her book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper: Case Closed believe that Sickert was indeed Jack the Ripper. Cornwell states that Sickert’s work first caused her to conclude that he was the Whitechapel killer known as Jack the Ripper. The Sickert sketch entitled Venetian Studies resembles one of the Ripper victims, Mary Ann Nichols, and the painting entitled Putana a Casa suggests the face of Catherine Eddows according to Cornwell. Sickert also did a sketch which he called He Killed His Father showing a man stabbing a prone person on a bed. In 1908, he painted a work entitled Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom. After a similar horrific murder in the Camden town area, Sickert produced a painting, circa 1908, initially entitled How Will We Do for the Rent? which was subsequently renamed the Camden Town Murder. He also did a sketch called Persuasion which depicts a male figure appearing to throttle a prone female. So if art follows the personality of the artist, Sickert clearly was enamored by violence and was, possibly, violent himself. However, the tendency for violence wouldn’t necessarily identify him as Jack the Ripper.

Scotland Yard Files Researched by Cornwell

Ms. Cornwell states in her book that she obtained access to Scotland Yard files containing the letters that the Ripper wrote to the police, taunting them to catch him. Ms. Cornwell argues that Sickert was a psychopath who needed power over people and, as well, she obtained DNA from the envelopes containing the letters. She claims that she was able to match the Ripper DNA to Sickert’s closely enough to rule out all but 1% of the population.

She also had the handwriting analyzed and states that the expert indicated that Sickert was a possible author of the letters. However, many people have regarded the Ripper letters as hoaxes.

Disbelief in Art Circles

There are some art lovers who are outraged that Sickert could be identified as a candidate for the identity of Jack the Ripper. Many devotees of Sickert’s art have simply labeled Cornwell’s work as ridiculous. He was known to be fascinated with the Ripper but there are many Jack the Ripper crime buffs. His interest in painting theater and music hall scenes was not unlike one of his artistic mentors, Degas or for that matter, Toulouse Lautrec. One can say that she is passionate in her belief that Sickert is the real identity of the Ripper. However, if true, the fact that Walter Sickert was a misogynist or had violent themes in art is greatly attenuated from the violent killings attributed to Jack the Ripper. We can assert that Walter Sickert is considered as one of many suspects modernly as having been Jack the Ripper.

Sources:

  1. Jack the Ripper; Portrait of a Killer: Case Closed by Patricia Cornwell, 2002
  2. Casebook: Jack the Ripper by Stephen P. Ryder and Johnno
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