Patricia Cornwell is one of the highest paid writers in the world. Her novels - featuring Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a forensic detective who hunts down serial killers - regularly become huge bestsellers; she earns an advance of over 9 million dollars per book. She lives royally in Connecticut and other salubrious places. She calls Diane Sawyer a neighbor and when in New York dines with the likes of Lesley Stahl. On a recent visit to London, she was invited to tour Scotland Yard with Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Grieve - an expert on Jack the Ripper.
The outcome of that tour has been just been published. Portrait of a Killer, subtitled Jack the Ripper: Case Closed, has been not so much reviewed as marketed by the two leading cultural arbiters in the English speaking world. BBC Television recently aired a documentary about the writing of the book co-produced by Cornwell herself (The Learning Channel here in the United States will show it on December 9). In place of a review in the Sunday Books section, the New York Times offered its readers a Monday interview with the author that would not have been out of place in her publisher's press release kit.
Criticism of her fictional work is clearly beside the point, but it is not out of place to challenge her findings when she undertakes a journalistic investigation of one of the most infamous serial killer cases of the 19th century. In 1888, a man calling himself Jack the Ripper killed at least six women in the East End of London over a two-month period. He was never captured and to this day his identity is unknown.
Cornwell, on the basis of her expertise in forensic detective work, was convinced that she could prove conclusively that Walter Sickert, a British painter, was the Ripper by comparing the DNA evidence secured from the letters that Jack the Ripper allegedly sent to Scotland Yard at the time of the murders with DNA from Sickert's paintings and other personal effects.
Six million dollars later, what has Cornwell bought and wrought? Expensive DNA tests and the expertise of teams of scientists, researchers, art historians, curators and conservation experts. She was given access to Ripper materials in public archives. More importantly, she purchased paintings and personal effects of Sickert that she scoured for DNA. (She denies last year's reports that she was ripping up the paintings looking for DNA.) One problem here is that there is no proof the letters sent to Scotland Yard are actually by Jack the Ripper. This didn't seem to bother Cornwell a bit.
But as will become clear to any reader of this book, there is no solid evidence that Walter Sickert was the Ripper. The DNA evidence is inconclusive, to put it mildly. Cornwell concludes in the book that she has but a 'cautious indicator' that the Sickert and Ripper DNA sequences may have come from the same person. According to Cornwell, only 1 in 100 people share the sequences that were recovered from mitochondrial DNA, which is distinct from and less unique than the chromosomal DNA in our genetic code. David Cohen in Slate tried to verify this figure and ended up with a guesstimate that the sequences could be found in anywhere from one-tenth to one-thousandth of the general population. Whoever is right, in 1880s London there would have been many thousands of potential writers of the letters.
Cornwell believes what is most evil in the world is the abuse of power and that the most evil things happen when someone with great power uses it to abuse someone who is powerless. A great detective has the obligation of the righting of the wrongs of crimes. The unfortunate women who Jack the Ripper murdered were powerless. Cornwell goes to great lengths to memorialize his victims in this book. Well and good. But what Cornwell has come up is hardly conclusive of anything except her tenacity and single-mindedness in following out her hunch whatever the costs to the reputation of a man and artist long dead.
Why Walter Sickert? He was the leading English painter of his time (1860-1942). He came from a family of painters, started out to be an actor, but was encouraged to paint by James Whistler, to whom Sickert became an apprentice. He met Edouard Manet and was befriended by Edgar Degas, with whom he remained friends until Degas' death in 1917. Under the influence of Whistler, he learned to paint from life; Degas taught him to compose in his studio. Both mentors taught Sickert that art was "transformation" not transcription.
From the French he learned what it meant to be a "painter of modern life" - i.e. a walker and watcher in the great metropolitan centers, who frequented music halls and brothels and had a taste for lowlife pursuits. He had a long and productive career as a painter and writer, culminating in the great honor for a living artist of an exhibit at the National Gallery in 1941.
In one of his exemplary pieces for Time, Robert Hughes noted that Sickert's "virile, demotic way of painting" strongly influenced the work of British figurative artists such as Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon and R.B. Kitaj.
But the big problem with demotic painting is that the demos, the plebs, the hoi polloi can sometimes be vile and do revolting things. Sickert's "pictures of seedy domestic boredom, violence and the aftermath of murder" have troubled some viewers since they were painted. In 1907, a blond prostitute was found with her throat cut in a rented room in Camden Town. This killing, close to Sickert's London lodgings, gave him a subject. Through 1908-09, he painted a series of harsh, dark images of a naked woman on a bed and a clothed man glaring down at her. These are the paintings that first convinced Cornwell of that Sickert was her man.
I began to wonder about Sickert, writes Cornwell, when I was flipping through a book of his art. The first plate I landed on was an 1887 painting of the well known Victorian performer Ada Lundberg... She is supposed to be singing but looks as if she is screaming as the leering meancing men look on. I am sure there are artistic explanations for all of Sickert's works. But what I see when I look at them is morbidity, violence and a hatred of women.
Unnoticed and unmentioned by the eye of Cornwell, these works show the continuing influence of Degas (and of early Cezanne paintings such as The Murder and The Abduction as well). In a painting alternatively called Interior and The Rape, Degas painted a giant menacing man barring the door of a small room while a woman sits cowering on the other side of the room. This is one of Degas' strongest paintings, as anyone who has seen it in Philadelphia or on tour will know. The suitcase in the middle of the picture glooms with an unearthly light.
You wonder why Cornwell doesn't accuse Degas or Cezanne of being the Ripper. The reason is simple. These artists are as invulnerable to Cornwell's investigations as Cornwell is invulnerable to my criticism. Poor Walter Sickert is not.
Sickert also wrote witty and truthful art criticism that Robert Hughes found worthy of George Bernard Shaw at times. Which reminds me that Nicholas Meyer, author of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, wrote a second Sherlock Holmes novel about a serial killer that was populated with all the superstars of the period: Shaw, Whistler, Wilde, Ellen Terry, Gilbert and Sullivan, Bram Stoker, Henry James, et al. Try to find a copy of Myers' The West End Horror. There's a mystery novel that deserves to be better known.
You can see many examples of Walter Sickert's work, as well as that of other members of the Camden Town Group, by going to their respective pages on the Artcyclopedia. While many of his paintings are in museums with fine websites like the Tate, the National Gallery of Canada and the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University, the works are largely restricted for copyright reasons. The heirs of Walter Sickert are certainly not doing his memory any good.
This article is copyrighted 2002. Please do not republish any portion of this article without written permission.
Joseph Phelan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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