Readers of the thrillers of the American writer Patricia Cornwell will find elements of her new book familiar but others oddly different. Her novels are fiction closely based on fact; Portrait of a Killer purports to be a work of fact but is founded on fiction. It supposedly unravels the mystery of Jack the Ripper, a name given by the press to the most notorious serial murderer in Britain, about whom virtually nothing is known. Cornwell squarely lays these atrocious murders of East End women in 1888 at the door of the painter Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942). When this story first broke on US television late last year, Cornwell said that if she were to be proved wrong ‘not only will I feel horrible about it, but I will look terrible’. These may well be prophetic words.
I have no intention of defending Sickert on the grounds that he is untouchable on account of his having long been accepted as the leading artist of his period in Britain. Cornwell pits this high-celebrity profile against the grim, anonymous lives of the Ripper’s victims – poor, casual prostitutes who needed ‘someone to care about them for once’. This is both sentimental and not to the point in a murder investigation. But I do have a long knowledge of Sickert’s work and of his complex life and character that leads me, assisted by other writers on Sickert, to put forward biographical evidence and a reading of Sickert’s paintings that frequently contradict Cornwell’s findings.
How did Cornwell choose Sickert in the first place? He was not one of the suspects investigated at the time and his name does not occur in the literature devoted to the Ripper until over 80 years after the crimes. The connection was made by Stephen Knight in a book called Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976), in which Sickert was implicated as an accessory to the murders on the testimony of Joseph Gormon Sickert, who says he is the painter’s illegitimate son, born in October 1925 when Sickert was 65. His story, as told to him by his ‘father’, included references to the Danish royal family, the Duke of Clarence (Joseph’s ‘grandfather’), William Gull, physician to Queen Victoria, and many other lurid details. Following the publication of Knight’s book, Joseph Sickert retracted much of his tale, although not his presumed royal status (he still styles himself HRH in the London telephone book). Nevertheless, the bomb continued to tick.
A farrago of supposition and wishful thinking began to emerge, fed by Sickert and the Ripper Crimes, published in 1990, by Jean Overton Fuller. Her evidence connecting the painter and the killer came from her mother, who had been a friend of Florence Pash, an artist who had known Sickert well from the 1890s to the early 1920s. In her old age she had apparently imparted to Overton Fuller’s mother an extraordinary story of – yet again – royalty, prostitution, bastardy and Sickert’s almost certain guilt.
Prompted by Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Grieve of Scotland Yard (her book’s dedicatee), Cornwell uses several ‘leads’ found in these two (unacknowledged) publications. She proceeds to construct a character for Sickert as a violent psychopath, someone suited to her idea of the murderer. This is, of course, a ploy common to all Ripper theorists over the years and Cornwell’s book is only the latest contribution to a long line of so-called solutions. From the beginning she calls Sickert ‘one of the most dangerous and confounding killers of all times’. In order to make herself and her readers believe this she draws assumptions, plays fast and loose with facts, misinterprets language and makes fanciful readings of Sickert’s paintings, while presenting her research (which is considerable) with a gloss of scientific respectability. She quotes evidence to support her view but ignores it when it doesn’t suit her case. She takes Sickert’s often ironic, joky and exaggerated style in his letters at face value; she unwittingly trusts statements by other writers on Sickert when she finds them to her purpose. She believes that the hundreds of letters (preserved in various public archives) sent to the police and others and signed Jack the Ripper are mostly from Sickert himself, that the crude drawings in some of them are by a skilful artist and that many contain words and phrases Sickert used in his writings.
A vivid but baseless early chapter presents Sickert as physically scarred and emotionally traumatised in childhood, this being a major factor in his later frenzied outburts against women. It is devoted to the operations he underwent as a boy for a fistula which she maintains was of the penile rather than the rectal variety. There is no proof as to which kind of fistula it was. A living relation of Sickert’s by marriage, who was only an infant when the artist died, presumed it had been penile but has since said that this was only family hearsay and that he was not at all sure. If it was penile it certainly does not seem to have affected Sickert’s many subsequent relations with women and he later declared he had been completely cured at the time.
But what of the overriding question, much more important than her portrait of Sickert as a chilling psychopath? Where exactly was he when the six murders took place between 7 August and 9 November 1888? At the time of the first of these (Martha Tabram), Sickert was almost certainly in London: there is a drawing dated 4 August made at a Hammersmith music- hall. No further London drawings occur until 4 October. It has long been known that Sickert was abroad that summer, following his annual custom of being in or near Dieppe, a town that the Sickert family knew well and where they had many friends. The second murder (31 August, Mary Ann Nichols) and the third (8 September, Annie Chapman) took place when Sickert, his mother and his brother Bernhard were at St ValZry-en-Caux along the coast west of Dieppe. On 6 September Mrs Sickert wrote to a friend in England from St ValZry saying that her sons Walter and Bernhard were there swimming and painting (a letter unknown to Cornwell). At some point (probably August) Sickert wrote from St ValZry to the French painter Jacques-Emile Blanche telling him he had come to ‘this nice little place’ for a rest.
According to Cornwell this is the only evidence she could find that Sickert was abroad during these two months. But on 17 September Blanche wrote to his father that he had visited Walter and his family at St ValZry on the day before (16 September). In support of Sickert’s being in England rather than France, Cornwell quotes a letter signed by the Ripper, also dated 17 September; this is a highly suspect document which came to light only in the 1980s and should not be used as evidence for anything until its authenticity as a document of 1888 has been tested. On 21 September Sickert’s wife Ellen, in London, wrote to her brother-in-law that Sickert was in France for some weeks with ‘his people’. Cornwell quotes this letter, doubts the truth of it and interprets the phrase ‘his people’ as Sickert’s artist and writer cronies in Dieppe who came and went through the summer season, rather than giving it its common contemporary meaning, i.e. his family. From this misreading, she believes Sickert had a carefully planned alibi, allowing him to be free of his own family circle (the opposite of the truth) and enabling him to be at his murderous business in London, his comings and goings unchecked by the shifting seasonal visitors to Dieppe.
On 30 September the Ripper caused a terrible sensation when the bodies of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes were found, murdered within hours of each other. A day or two later Sickert painted (or finished) ‘The October Sun’ showing a shop-front in St ValZry. By the 4 October he was back in London. A postscript to this holiday abroad occurs in the diary of Daniel HalZvy, a friend of Degas and the Sickerts, who wrote on 28 October, ‘This summer Sickert came to see Mama’ (almost certainly visiting her in Paris). On 9 November the last and most horrific of the Ripper’s attacks occurred (Mary Jane Kelly). I
am convinced that when four of the six murders took place Sickert was abroad. Cornwell denies this or suggests that he was abroad for a short time only; even if he were, he could have travelled back to London, done his deeds and swiftly returned. This was possible if one worked out a tight schedule of trains and ferries, and Sickert would also have had to come up with, at the least, two excuses for absenting himself from the family holiday.
Cornwell has many such elasticated explanations throughout her book as well as further spectacular revelations. Sickert’s famous painting ‘The Camden Town Murder’ of 1909 is, she believes, not only a re-creation of the killing of a prostitute, Emily Dimmock, on 11 September 1907 but one based on personal observation: Sickert had murdered her himself (nearly 20 years after the Ripper series he was ‘back in business’) and, as part of his alibi, had gone to sketch Dimmock’s body in her bedroom an hour or two after she was found. This grisly morsel comes from a report in the Evening Standard (to this day, famously inaccurate on matters of art) for 29 November 1937. Leaving aside the fact that Sickert was almost certainly in France at the time of the murder, Cornwell’s deductions show a complete misunderstanding of Sickert’s art and his method of working. Menacing though the ‘Murder’ painting and related works may be, they cannot be read literally as scene-of-the-crime illustrations. Sickert’s chosen title was opportunistic – he was always terrific at publicity but never, I believe, at the expense of his integrity as an artist. But this is a concept foreign to Cornwell in her pursuit of his integrity as possibly ‘the most original and creative killer to ever have come along’.
Many lives when probed retrospectively are full of gaps, inconsistencies and puzzles. These are increased in Sickert’s case by his often erratic and impulsive behaviour and his need for solitude within a hugely busy social life. While such duality fuels Cornwell’s picture of him as a man leading a double life, it provides no shred of proof that he was a hardened serial killer. Her fabulously expensive DNA tests in several areas have led to nothing save an unworkable connection between Sickert and one of the Jack the Ripper letters. But even if Sickert had written all those letters, it would not prove his guilt. To attribute those murders to any person without cast-iron evidence or due regard for what is known rather than what is speculative, as Cornwell has attempted, is an act of irresponsible cruelty. Ironically, her book may well have a value in years to come for its few new facts on Walter Sickert rather than as the definite solution to an unsolvable mystery.