Recently I read two very different biographies of Walter Sickert. The first was completed in 1942 by one of his students, Robert Emmons, whilst Sickert was still alive. The other was released this year and is essentially an update of Patricia Cornwell’s 2003 study. Emmons describes an arrogant and eccentric but likeable character with poor interpersonal skills and a complete lack of financial acumen. Cornwell remains convinced that Sickert was a psychopath and serial killer. Who is right? The contemporary associate or the modern crime-writer?
Emmons’ work, although a little erudite, is more professional in structure and tone. He frequently uses Sickert’s own words and oral testimony from his peers, as well as other primary sources. Cornwell studied a wide range of material and opinions but tells us more about herself than her subject. She began with the notion that she had identified Jack the Ripper and sought to prove it. Many others have taken this road and none have reached the end, but this is not without merit. Amongst her endless, and often irrelevant, speculation is convincing evidence that some of the letters allegedly written by the Ripper were written by Walter Sickert.
We know that, like many others, Sickert had an unhealthy interest in the Ripper murders. Emmons recounts how a group of girls taunted him with the Ripper’s name when out walking one night. Sickert told stories about lodging in Jack the Ripper’s old rooms and some of his paintings were inspired by murders. Then there is the discredited tale of the royal conspiracy, told by Joseph Gorman Sickert who claimed to be Walter’s illegitimate child and changed his surname by deed pool. Cornwell regarded Joseph as a crank but discovered that a literary agent accepted his claim to be Sickert’s true heir.
Emmons describes the real Walter Sickert and there is no reason to doubt his portrayal. Cornwell is to be congratulated for applying modern forensic techniques to the investigation of a historic case but her findings sit awkwardly and inconclusively beside pre-conceived ideas erroneously presented as fact.