painter, art critic, and one of the persons suggested as Jack the
Ripper. Walter Sickert was a dominant figure in 19th-century British
Impressionism. For much of Walter
Sickert's career he painted in a shadowy naturalistic way. Sickert's
most famous works include the "Camden Town" paintings, which present the
grim, seedy side of urban life. A member of the Camden Town Group,
Sickert was a cosmopolitan and eccentric who favored ordinary people and
urban scenes as his subjects.
Walter Richard Sickert was born in Munich on May 31, 1860 into a Danish-German family. His father, Oswald Adalbert Sickert, was an artist. With others he contributed to the satiric magazine Die fliegenden Blätter. Sickert's mother, Eleanor Louisa Moravia, on account of the money she received from one of her relatives, was in practice the financial mainstay of the family.
Sickert's sister, Helena, became later a champion of women's rights and published a book of memoirs in 1935. In 1868 the family settled in England. The young Walter Sickert was sent to University College School from 1870-1871 before transferring to King's College School, Wimbledon, where he studied until the age of 18. Though Walter Sickert was the son and grandson of painters, he at first sought a career as an actor. Walter Sickert appeared in small parts in Sir Henry Irving's company, before taking up the study of art as assistant to James McNeill Whistler. Sickert's early works were signed "pupil of Whistler".
Walter Sickert later went to Paris and met Edgar Degas, whose use of pictorial space and emphasis on drawing would have a powerful effect on Sickert's own work. Later he described the elder master as having a "rollicking and somewhat bear like sense of fun, half regarded and half affected to regard me, erroneously I fear, as the typical and undoubted Englishman". Walter Sickert developed a personal version of Impressionism, favoring somber coloration. Following Degas' advice, Sickert painted in the studio, working from drawings and memory as an escape from "the tyranny of nature".
Walter Sickert's earliest major works were portrayals of scenes in London music halls, often depicted from complex and ambiguous points of view, so that the spatial relationship between the audience, performer and orchestra becomes confused, as figures gesture into space and others are reflected in mirrors. The isolated rhetorical gestures of singers and actors seem to reach out to no-one in particular, and audience members are portrayed stretching and peering to see things that lie beyond the visible space. This theme of confused or failed communication between people appears frequently in his art.
Walter Sickertt lived in Dieppe and spent some time in Venice. When Oscar Wilde was released from prison, he fled the ostracism of London for France, where he met Sickert and Aubrey Beardsley. They, however, were not happy to see him. In 1885 Sickert married Ellen Melicent Ashburner Cobden, the daughter of the influential Liberal politician Richard Cobden. Born in 1848, she was much older that Sickert. The marriage was childless, and apparently unhappy. According to some sources, Walter Sickert had an affair with an attractive artist's model named Annie Crook, who gave birth to Joseph "Hobo" Sickert.
Sickert spent much of his time away from home, afraid that his infidelity would be made public. Officially Ellen divorced him in 1899. Back in London in 1905, Walter Sickert set up a studio in Soho and took rooms in Camden Town. His output was now almost exclusively music hall scenes and the faded life around him. Walter Sickert taught at the Westminster Institute, started a school for etching, and held shows at London and Paris galleries. In 1911 Sickert founded the Camden Town Group, enlarged and renamed the London Group three years later. It was influenced by Post-Impressionism and Expressionism, but concentrated on scenes of often drab suburban life; Sickert himself said he preferred the kitchen to the drawing room as a scene for paintings.
Walter Sickert had studios in the East End, a working-class section of London, where between August and November 1888 five prostitutes were murdered. In 1909, Sickert produced a series of paintings, known as the Camden Town Murders, which were based on these killings. The killer was given the nickname "Jack the Ripper". It came from the flow of letters, signed "Yours truly, Jack the Ripper". Sickert was interested in the Jack the Ripper crime and believed that he had lodged in the room used by the infamous serial killer, having been told this by his landlady, who suspected a previous lodger.
Walter Sickert painted the room, entitling it "Jack the Ripper's bedroom," (shown here) portraying it as a dark, brooding, almost unintelligible space. In 1976, Stephen Knight's Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution contended that Sickert had been forced to take part as an accomplice in the Ripper murders. His information was derived from Joseph Gorman, who claimed to be one of Sickert's illegitimate children. From this developed a popular conspiracy theory, which accuses royalty and freemasonry of complicity in the crimes. Jean Overton Fuller, in Sickert and the Ripper Crimes , claimed that Sickert was the actual killer.
In 2002, crime novelist Patricia Cornwell, in "Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed", presented her theory that Walter Sickert was responsible for the murders, one of the motivating factors being an alleged defect in his penis. Cornwell purchased 31 of Sickert's paintings and it is claimed that she destroyed one or more of them searching for his DNA. She said eventually she was able to scientifically prove that the DNA on a letter attributed to the Ripper and one written by Sickert belong to one per cent of the population. Sickert specialists and Ripperologists view Cornwell's theory with derision.