Artist: Jack the Ripper (supposedly)

“We like a good murder,” said Walter Sickert, the great British artist regularly touted as a top suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders.

He’s right. French artists paint beauty; we paint depravity. Prostitution, disease and murder are often the subject of our top artists. This is true of leading artists ranging from Hogarth (who I will blog about at a later date because he’s superb) to the crowd-splitting Tracey Emin.

But back to Sickert. His London was brutal, and he loved it. His aversion to gentility manifested in some brash and squalid nudes. These were not the figures of painters past; there were no soft-featured goddesses in his images. He focussed on women, some prostitutes, bearing all on cheap iron beds in dirty, early 1900s Camden.

He used his images to hint at a story, allowing the mind of the viewer to run wild with morbid fascination. A dressed and contemplative man sat on the cheap iron bed of a prostitute could mean any number of things – an imaginative freedom afforded to the viewer by the artist. It is said Sickert enjoyed social scandal to the point of fuelling it - perhaps a continuation of his distaste for the upper crust.

I went on a Jack the Ripper walking tour the other night and inevitably, Sickert came up. The tour leader said Sickert revelled in the mystery of the murders and, crucially, was a member of the highly suspect Freemasons. Patricia Cornwell has flirted with obsession in her opinion that Sickert himself was Jack the Ripper (though this is a theory largely discredited by the fragmented truths of Sickert’s son).

Do I think Sickert was Jack the Ripper? No, probably not; but his unapologetic appetite for depravity represents a truer reflection of British interests than a still life painter. Who said we were all stiff-upper-lip?


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