It’s been 125 years since the Jack the Ripper murders terrorized East London and the grisly mystery is alive and well in pop culture.
There’s a 125th Anniversary Jack the Ripper Conference in London in November; a comedic play about the brutal murders in China; a “Jack the Ripper” musical starring South Korean pop star Sungmin in Japan; a 62-stop lecture tour in England by former London murder squad detective and Ripper investigator Trevor Marriott; a BBC America show called “Ripper Street”; and authors Patricia Cornwell and Donald Rumbelow both have plans to release updated versions of their books on the Ripper case this year.
If you’re intrigued by the Victorian serial murder mystery you may be interested in a curious, little-known connection that Boston has to the unsolved case: One of Britain’s finest painters, a man who studied under James Abbott McNeill Whistler and was strongly influenced by Edgar Degas, but who was also suspected by Cornwell in a 2005 book of actually being Jack the Ripper, has 194 works at the Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard Art Museums. All of them were in storage up until this week when the MFA planned to put one of the paintings, “Les Petites Belges,” on display to complement another painting in its European art gallery.
Cornwell’s accusation aside, Walter Richard Sickert has been widely dismissed by Ripper investigators and art experts as a suspect. But there is no denying his intense interest in the case. And what most do agree on is that Sickert, who lived in London at the time of the murders (1888) and died in 1942 at 82, was fascinated with the murders and used them to promote his own work.
One of his paintings is called “Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom” and four nudes he painted are called “The Camden Town Murder”: Some of the drawings, etchings, and prints of the latter are owned by the MFA and Harvard.
“My instinct is to say he sometimes changed the titles of his works or selected titles for his works because he was a great publicist. He knew exactly how to capitalize on this sort of frisson,” said Emily Beeny, assistant curator of paintings in the Art of Europe department at the MFA. Although Sickert had no problem capitalizing on the Ripper mystique, the MFA has no plans to do so because the museum, as a rule, does not focus on hypothetical situations, MFA spokeswoman Karen Frascona said.
None of the museum’s four Sickert oil paintings have been connected to the Ripper mystery and there are no plans to put any of the 102 prints and drawings it owns on display, although they can be viewed by making an appointment, Frascona said.
Beeny said she is not a Sickert expert and relies on the research of renowned Sickert scholar Wendy Baron. Baron, in a 2007 interview with the British newspaper The Independent, dismissed Cornwell’s 2002 nonfiction book, “Portrait of a Killer, Jack the Ripper Case Closed,” as “an interesting novel.”
The MFA came by its vast collection of 106 works by Sickert through acquisitions and donations made over the last 81 years, according to Beeny. Cornwell, who lives in Boston’s North End, donated 82 Sickert works to Harvard five years ago after she studied them as part of her investigation. Harvard now has 88 works by Sickert.
The works at Harvard can’t be seen at this time because of a massive renovation and expansion project of the Fogg Museum of Art, the Busch-Reisinger Museum, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum that won’t be complete until at least 2014.
Cornwell is said to have spent as much as $6 million on an investigation for her book, and she insists Sickert was doing more than just promoting his art when he named or created works based on the murders. With no conclusive forensic evidence, Cornwell in her book relies on psychological profiles of psychopaths to help connect Sickert with the crimes. She claims that Sickert, like most psychopaths, believed he was smarter than everyone else and was proving this by leaving clues in the names of his works, by posing some of his subjects in the same way some of the Ripper’s victims’ bodies were found, and by painting people who looked like some of the victims.
Those who believe Sickert was the Ripper contend that the subject of one of his works, “Putana a Casa,” has a face disfigured with dark brush strokes that resembles a morgue photograph of Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes, whose face was disfigured with a knife. They also contend that Eddowes is in another of his paintings, “Le Journal,” which is privately owned and shows a woman with her head thrown back as she reads a newspaper held over her head. The awkward framing of the woman is similar to the framing of Eddowes with her throat slashed in another morgue photo.Continued...