From New York Times bestselling author Patricia Cornwell comes Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert, a comprehensive and intriguing exposé of one of the world's most chilling cases of serial murder - and the police force that failed to solve it. Vain and charismatic Walter Sickert made a name for himself as a painter in Victorian London. But the ghoulish nature of his art - as well as extensive evidence - points to another name, one that's left its bloody mark on the pages of history: Jack the Ripper. Cornwell has collected never-before-seen archival material - including a rare mortuary photo, personal correspondence and a will with a mysterious autopsy clause - and applied cutting-edge forensic science to open an old crime to new scrutiny. Incorporating material from Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed, this new edition has been revised and expanded to include eight new chapters.
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I’m not a true crime aficionado, nor am I a “Ripperologist.” I read this book for one reason, and that is because the author believes a painter was Jack the Ripper.
Cornwell is known to be an intrepid researcher, but her understanding of working artists seems abysmally thin. This annoyed me in so many ways that I am going to list them.
From the beginning, she makes circumstantial connections with Sickert and the Jack the Ripper letters to the police based on artistic practices she appears to think are distinctive to the artist.
For example, one letter was from “Mathematicus.” She implies that Sickert possessed a particularly mathematical frame of mind because he squared up his drawings and spoke frequently about angles, lines, and proportions.
All classically trained artists learn in this way. Even the most brilliant draftsmen frequently employed squaring up in preparation for painting. And many, many masters would speak “mathematically” about composition and proportion, especially for figure painters. They still do.
“Sickert used newspaper and string to wrap up his drawings” and newspaper was present on some of the corpses or at the crime scenes. Newspaper and string! How rarefied these materials must have been in Victorian London! To think one would have carried about a paper package tied up with string! Please.
“Sickert is known to have drawn, etched, and painted only what he saw. Without exception this seems to be true.” This assertion becomes problematic throughout the book, but Cornwell doesn’t make the connection. (See Sickert's artwork online).
Cornwell remarks about how Sickert seemed to value his sketches more than his paintings. Had she spoken with even a few artists, she might have discovered this is true for so many artists that it is sort of a joke. We sell paintings but sketchbooks must be taken by force. Sickert lived at a time before “art journals” and so much public sharing. In a way, a sketchbook is a diary, a private thing.
That said, Cornwell also has a problem with Sickert’s sketching of body parts, implying that he “may have been improving his technique” with life drawings, but more or less accusing him of using sketches to “relive” his murderous activities.
Anyone who’s done a life class knows it is easy to accumulate a lot of drawings of body parts: a whole page of hands, or faces from multiple angles. Because feet are so difficult to draw, I have sketchbooks with pages of feet in them. But I do not have a foot fetish, nor have I ever cut off anyone’s feet. Repetitive drawing to explore and really know a subject is one reason sketching is an essential daily practice.
Cornwell continually sees what she wants to see in drawings and paintings. Some of her conclusions strike me as untenable and even bizarre, but perhaps all of this is in the eye of the beholder.
I was a bit surprised that Cornwell wrote of artists in general, after saying how very eccentric and weird we are, “It’s not unusual if they’re egocentric and selfish or completely devoid of empathy.” What an ignorant generalization to make!
Through Cornwell’s eyes, we see Sickert as a classic narcissist: “He victimized people only when he had the advantage. He preyed on people when they were weak. It was all about power. It was all about who had it.” Sickert's nearly perpetual boredom is another feature of narcissism.
Also, “The past meant nothing to Sickert, and he had no loyalty to people no longer of use to him.” His explotation of his “friends” was narcissistic and on an almost Wagnerian scale: was it not a privilege to financially support his artistic genius? (No wonder he said Dickens’ “Bleak House” was his favorite: with his emotionally arrested development and manipulations, he was Harold Skimpole with a paintbox).
Artwork is not the only thing in which Cornwell sees what she wants to see. Without having evidence to back up her assertion, Cornwell says that murder victim Emily Dimmock’s facial skin shows eruptions from a sexually transmitted disease. On the other hand, she does not connect Sickert’s frequent health problems, which included urinary tract issues as well as “periodic suffering from boils and absesses that would send him to bed” being linked to his possibly having a sexually transmitted disease.
Again without any documentary evidence, Cornwell insists that Sickert’s childhood operation was on his genitalia, despite the fact that the doctor for the third surgery was a specialist in other types of fistula. She insists that Sickert was damaged and deformed from these surgeries, again with no evidence. It does not seem to occur to her that he might have been functional and to have not only been able to have sex normally and frequently, and in doing so to have acquired a sexually transmitted disease himself. I mean, if we’re going to make wild speculations, why not make that one?
It goes without saying that many children have to suffer unspeakable medical conditions and procedures. Were all of them to grow up wanting to wreak revenge on society to compensate for their sufferings, we'd be experiencing the greatest population decimation since the Black Death.
Throughout the book, Cornwell attempts to tie the canonical Ripper murders (and countless others) to Sickert with the flimsiest of threads. They do not hold.
Circumstantial is one thing; tenuous is another. Certainly if one wishes to see things a certain way, there are things which might be tantalizing. But most of these things are really banal. To possess a red neckerchief, to live within several blocks of a murder scene, to have a few eccentric twists...at the end of the day, are these things significant? Having unpleasant ways or strange proclivities, drawing odd things and being compulsive about secrecy...do these things make a murderer? If the answer to these questions is yes, I need a lot more evidence than Cornwell presents.
Despite her comments about the tragic fates of those unjustly condemned for crimes they did not commit, Cornwell may very well be participating in the same actions she disdains.
I’m no fan of Sickert, nor of his paintings. There is every reason to believe he was a textbook narcissist with all that brings with it. But that doesn't make him a murderer, not based on such insignificant "evidence."
The narration was so bad, I switched to the print book on Kindle Unlimited. It was so beautifully formatted, filled with photos and maps. However, there was not a single footnote for the immense quantity of allegations that Cornwell makes. I would've liked to see some references.
Having finished the book, I was left with the image of Cornwell as a woman with a fixed idea and Sickert as a childish prankster who's led her a very expensive dance. I could almost hear him laughing from the grave at the thought of anyone believing he was Jack the Ripper, delighted at all the attention from people who’d never so much as heard of him obsessing over his life. How a narcissist would love that!