Walter Sickert – murderous monster or sly self-promoter?

    I have only ever retraced the footsteps of one murderer in my life. But I now see that this short journey could prove extremely useful, because an exhibition has turned up in London devoted to exactly this murder. So, whereas I am usually just your art critic, on this particular occasion, I am also a bit of a witness.

    On the night of September 11, 1907, a part-time prostitute called Emily Dimmock left The Eagle pub on Royal College Street in Camden, north London, in the company of a man. She lived just round the corner, in St Paul’s Road, or Agar Grove as it is now called. The walk would have taken her six minutes. The next morning, she was dead, her throat slit from ear to ear. The killer had had sex with her and then murdered her while she slept, before calmly washing off the blood in her basin and leaving the next morning. He was never caught.

    The press dubbed this savage slaying “the Camden Town murder”. It was the McCann mystery of its time: in the papers every day, the source of constant fruity speculation. But it wasn’t until a century later that the spiky British painter Walter Sickert was finally suspected of doing it. In 2002, the American crime writer Patricia Cornwell brought out a silly book called Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed, in which, for spectacularly circumstantial reasons, she named Sickert as the Ripper. Not a word of it was convincing. But it made it possible to suspect him also of being the Camden Town murderer.

    You need to know all this if you are to get the most out of a spooky little show that has arrived at the Courtauld Gallery in London devoted to the melancholy nudes disporting themselves on grubby north London beds that Sickert was painting before, after and at the time of the murder. Four of the pictures, the four most notorious ones, are actually called The Camden Town Murder. They are Sickert’s most controversial contribution to British art. Some people, however, also see them as admissions of guilt.

    I became involved in these peculiar events while making a film about Sickert’s rivalry with John Singer Sargent, the other artistic giant of the Edwardian era. They were as different as two painters living at the same time could be. Sargent painted rich society ladies in plush Chelsea salons, while Sickert painted Dimmock types in gloomy Camden bedrooms. While researching the film, I came across a book on the Camden Town murder by a marvellous local character called John Barber, a London geezer of the old school, whose extraordinary resemblance to Arthur Mullard drew me straight to him when we met at The Eagle on the anniversary of Dimmock’s death. He showed me the only known photograph of her: a plain brunette with horsey features, dressed, perversely, in a sailor’s uniform.

    Dimmock’s father ran a pub in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. But something happened between them, and she left home at 16 and began working as a servant in north London. As the jobs got lowlier, so she moved nearer and nearer to King’s Cross, then, as now, a favourite London location for low-level prostitutes. By 1906, she was living in Agar Grove with a man called Bert Shaw, who worked on the railways as a cook. Shaw usually did the night shift. What he didn’t know was that while he was gone, Dimmock would take clients back to Agar Grove. It was the only way she knew to supplement their income. On the night of the murder, Bert was away in Derby. He, at least, had a cast-iron alibi.

    So, it’s a grubby little story. But the Courtauld show includes a double-page spread from The Illustrated Police Budget that reveals how the British press transformed it. In the huge central illustration, Emily Dimmock has become a beautiful blonde bombshell, a Lady Di lookalike, with masses of flying hair, splayed dramatically across the bed. A sordid little murder in Camden Town has been turned into a scene from a Puccini opera.

    I reckon the chief reason why this particular murder had such a fierce impact on the public imagination is not because the slaying itself was so dramatic, but because Dimmock’s lifestyle appeared so carnal and transgressive. The image of her taking blokes back to her house while poor, loyal Bert slogged away on the railways sent the Edwardian mind into a sexual frenzy. In fact, Sickert had been painting sad urban nudes for several years before the murder. And the Courtauld show opens with a lovely selection of them.

    According to Cornwell, these dark paintings of naked working girls slumped across crumpled beds allowed Sickert’s murderous instincts to erupt into his art. But from his own comments on the subject, we learn that he was merely being rebellious. Appalled by the fluffy and fanciful nudes that his contemporaries were coming up with, Sickert set out deliberately to paint nudes as they really were. “The modern flood of representations of vacuous images dignified by the name of ‘the nude’ represents an artistic and intellectual bankruptcy,” he spat. What we see here isn’t cruelty, or incipient murderousness, but an appetite for reality.

    Because they are glimpsed in the dark, behind guiltily drawn curtains, you never see enough of these forlorn nudes to identify them as actual people. An illuminated breast here; a flash of thigh there; half a face in the gloom.

    You, the viewer, seem always to be looking down on these half-seen strangers, like a client who has paid up and is about to leave. This powerful sense of Walter Sickert: The Camden Town Nudes, Courtauld Gallery, WC2, until January 20 complicity gives the paintings an unusually personal charge.

    Cornwell claims Sickert became Jack the Ripper because he was impotent: an operation as a boy left him with a disfigured penis, so he took out his rages on working girls. Leaving aside the fact that the youthful operation was actually on his anus, not his penis, there is plenty of evidence that, far from being impotent, Sickert was an unusually busy lover, who probably fathered at least three children. More convincing even than the painter’s biology is his vision. Any man who has ever sneaked out from a guilty liaison will surely recognise the postcoital tristesseSickert captures here so vividly.

    But I see nothing cruel or murderous in the paintings. The notorious Camden Town Murder series, brought together for the first time in one show, differs only from the preceding nudes in including a male figure in the room. Previously, his presence was implied. This time, Sickert actually paints him. Sometimes slumped at the end of the bed. Sometimes sitting in an armchair, watching. And, in the most dramatic of the paintings, standing above the woman, looking sadly down at her.

    Whenever you read descriptions of the Camden Town Murder series, these attendant men are always described as “brutish” or “threatening”. But on the evidence of the actual pictures, I would vigorously dispute that. They’re not brutish or threatening, but glum and lost in thought. The only reason, I contend, that anyone has ever found danger and murderousness in these portrayals of hastily snatched afternoon snatch is because the titles lead you to expect murderousness.

    Why did Sickert call them The Camden Town Murder? Actually, he didn’t. Three of the images were originally exhibited with other titles. The sad painting of the chap at the end of the bed was originally called What Shall We Do for the Rent? – a far more appropriate title – while the first in the sequence was shown as Summer Afternoon. A case, I think, of Sickert being sarcastic. He added the murder title much later. And I think he did it deliberately, to bring his art to the public’s attention. What he is actually painting here is not the murder of Emily Dimmock but the way of life she was forced by her times to lead: the furtive afternoon bashes to pay the rent, the small betrayals of Shaw’s trust. But seeing how the newspapers had gone crazy over the Camden Town murder, this clever, sneaky observer of human foibles saw a way to get his art noticed.

    Alas, the move backfired. Yes, the paintings were noticed. But their curse is to be associated for ever with a murderous mood that simply isn’t there. By calling his pictures The Camden Town Murder, Sickert, stupidly, misdirected his audience, got himself mistaken for a murderer and sabotaged his own art.