Saturday 6 September 2008

Walter Sickert

Walter Sickert was an excellent painter (in my opinion) but he has the misfortune to be best known nowadays as the suspect whom Patricia D. Cornwell identified as Jack the Ripper. I confess that I haven't read her book, though I did catch a few minutes of the associated tv programme and found the arguments less than compelling. I have to say it’s a theory which strikes me as fanciful, to say the least. Reportedly, the best-selling author spent two million dollars researching her theory, which doesn’t really strike me as the best of investments – though, in fairness, her book about the case did sell in large numbers.

My agent Mandy Little has an office which is a stone’s throw from the house where Sickert lived. It is in Mornington Crescent, not far from the Tube station. The house is privately owned, and I think it’s been divided up into flats, but the building bears one of those blue plaques for which London is renowned.

Sickert was a curious fellow, and his Camden Town Nudes are spooky as well as melancholic paintings. But was he Jack the Ripper? I can’t believe it.


Juliet said...

I don't either. I have read and listened to debate about Cornwells' book (though, I confess, have not read it myself) and it seems on the face of it to be a theory with almost no evidential basis. The only explanation for her 'investment' is her obsession to prove a theory, rather than an obession to uncover the truth. All rather bizarre.

Philip Amos said...

Cornwell got herself into considerable difficulty with this book by claiming in pre-publication interviews and other publicity that she had conclusive DNA evidence that Sickert was Jack. Her publication book tour seemed to come to an abrupt end when it became known that her 'evidence' was, in fact, wholly inconclusive. I read the book and found the DNA material tucked away on a few pages in the middle of what was otherwise a breathless, incoherent and utterly derivative retelling of the Ripper saga. It was, really, a bit of a con by an author who at the time came across as decidedly egomaniacal, though that may have stemmed from the bipolar disorder which she has since discussed in public. Some of those interviews were a touch confrontational.

But what was most notably missing from her rehash of secondary sources was a book by one Stephen Knight -- Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. That was published in 1976 and last republished in 2000, two years before Cornwell's book appeared. Knight argues that the killings were committed by Sir William Gull, the Queen's physician, at the request of Victoria and Lord Salisbury, and with the assistance of numerous freemasons, in order to cover up the marriage of Prince Albert to a Catholic shopgirl and the birth of a daughter to them. The Ripper's victims, you see, knew about the marriage and were blackmailing the Queen and the Government. Ahem. And how did Knight find out all this? From someone who heard it from Walter Sickert, who was in on the conspiracy. The thing that struck me about Knight's book when I read it thirty years ago, apart from the sheer looniness of it, was that his 'evidence' should have lead him to argue that Sickert himself may have been the killer rather than poor old Gull, quite apart from the fact that Gull was crippled by a stroke at the time of the killings. I think that Knight's book was the unacknowledged source of Cornwell's notion, so I think she got up to another bit of no good there.

The last time I looked at Cornwell's bio she was Associate Director of Applied Forensic Science at the National Forensic Institute of the University of Tennessee, which just goes to show that a B.A. in English and telling porkies about DNA evidence can take you further than you might suppose in the justice system of the U.S.

Anonymous said...

I am not the expert that Philip clearly is, but I've certainly read in several independent articles that Cornwell's theory is unconvincing. I don't think anyone believes it, but as you point out, Martin, she's crying all the way to the bank.

Part 2: Lord Lucan is really D B C Pierre.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments. I don't for a moment suggest that Patricia Cornwell didn't believe in her theory - in fact, when I met her at the start of her writing career, she struck me as a very genuine and pleasant person - but I do get the impression that the Sickert idea became a bit of an idee fixe, and that she under-estimated the strength of the reasons often cited why he is such an unlikely culprit.

Anonymous said...

I thought that Cornwell exposition was a laugh. For a far better arguement, read Jean Overten Fuller's book on Sickert and the Ripper. It has been documented that Sickert was in France at the time of one of the murders.
If you are in London, visit the Docklands to see the Jack the Ripper and the East End exhibition. I went last Sunday, and I enjoyed it very much. Coming from the East End myself, I knew a fair bit about the historical social deprevations, it was very well presented(No, I wasn't around at the time but have written on Saucey Jack).

As to who the Whitehcapel Murderer was - I doubt we'll never know. Suggesting William Gull is as laughable as putting up the Duke of Clarence and Sickert as suspects. Was it Chapman, Druitt, Kominsky et al? If we ever found out, it would be like finding Nessie - the mystery will cease to hold our attention, and the money making machine would grind to a halt. I reckon that it was the work of a derranged soul, that after committing the horrendous abuse on Mary Jane Kelly finally snapped, and either committed suicide or was institutionalised. But for now the saga continues.

JohnGammon said...

I've just watched the BBC documentary about Cornwell's investigations, and am reading her book. I feel she has worked hard and has built up an interesting circumstantial case against Sickert. She has probably proved that Sickert wrote the letters that are claimed to be from the Ripper, but before you can apportion guilt there has to be a connection made between these letters and the murderer. It could be that Sickert was the Ripper - I can't see any clear evidence that he wasn't. He definitely was interested or obsessed with violent, sexual murder, but then so were plenty of people in 1888, not to mention all the people reading this.

Henry Page said...

I heard on Radio 4 recently that a writer had bought a shawl worn by the last victim of The Ripper and that DNA on the shawl gave an evidence trail to a Polish immigrant:

Aaron Kosminski (born Aron Mordke KozmiƄski; 11 September 1865 – 24 March 1919) was a suspect in the Jack the Ripper case. In September 2014, author Russell Edwards claimed to have proved Kosminski's guilt using mitochondrial DNA evidence, though this claim has not been published or verified by the peer-review process.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Henry. Coincidentally, I'm researching the Ripper case right now for a short story I'm writing.