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Miriam Howells : The Ripper ?

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  • Miriam Howells : The Ripper ?

    The article eventually gets to the Miriam Howells-as-Ripper part.

    Nina and I recently put together an article for our column in the Rip on female wannabes...I had never seen this theory as follows :

    "Walter Sickert: The Camden Town Nudes"
    Author(s): Christie Davies
    Source: New Criterion. 26.6 (Feb. 2008): p49. From Literature Resource Center.

    "Walter Sickert: The Camden Town Nudes" Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London. October 25, 2007-January 20, 2008

    Walter Sickert (1860-1942), pupil of Whistler, close friend of Degas, was a talented British artist who blended impressionism and realism in distinctive and disturbing ways. When Sickert turned to doing nudes for the first rime in the Edwardian period, he denounced the idealized nude women painted by his contemporaries as "obscene monsters" sugary Venuses, and frothy nymphs churned out by artists who had lost touch with life. He set up his London studio in Camden Town, a working-class area of seedy lodging houses; in this respect it had not changed when I lived there seventy years later. In his studio he created a sparse bleak room with an old iron bedstead and invited his models, far from young and perfect, many recruited from the local whores, to sprawl on them. The whores made good models because they had no qualms about stripping off and being arranged in ungainly and unladylike postures, a quality less common than it is today. In his pictures they looked the part, lumpy anonymous bodies on beds, resting between customers, and that was how the pictures were perceived. Sickert used great painterly skill in his use of light, texture, and position to emphasize this.

    In 1907 a prostitute named Emily Dimmock was murdered in Camden Town; the crime was given enormous publicity in the popular press. Everyone remembered the murders in Whitechapel twenty years earlier, when between five and eleven prostitutes had been murdered and mutilated by a serial killer who became known as Jack the Ripper. Hundreds of letters purporting to come from the murderer had been sent to the press and to the police, giving gruesome details of the crime, and of crimes to come, and baiting the police for their failure to solve the murders. The unsolved Jack the Ripper murders continue to obsess the public in Australia and America as well as Britain, and there are international conferences of "Ripperologists" to discuss new clues and even to finger new suspects. A good new solution to the identity of the Ripper is still a guaranteed bestseller. Even the Metropolitan Police in London have a website called "The Enduring Mystery of Jack the Ripper."

    Sickert was fascinated by the murder in Camden, and after 1907 gave his nude paintings the title "The Camden Town Murder Series." There is no murder, no violence, no bloodshed in any of these later paintings; all he has done is to introduce the ambiguous, possibly sinister figure of a fully clothed man into the room who sits or stands alongside the naked woman on the bed. The pictures led to Sickert's being suspected not only of killing Emily Dimmock, but also of being Jack the Ripper himself and of planting indirect hints and clues of his guilt in the paintings. I looked hard at the "Camden Town Nudes" at a recent exhibition at the Courtauld, and I have to say that you would need a very vivid imagination indeed to infer that the artist was a murderer and that these are representations of his victims. In any case, at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders the French-speaking Sickert was living in Dieppe with his mistress Mme. Augustine Villain, a fish-mongeress, possibly also the mother of his illegitimate son. It is very unlikely that he would have made several long and seasick journeys to Whitechapel and back to kill prostitutes when he could have done so much more easily in Paris, Europe's great center of sex-tourism.

    Nonetheless, her suspicions did lead Patricia Cornwell to examine the letters signed by Jack the Ripper that discuss his crimes and to compare them with letters written by Sickert around the same time. The two sets of paper not only have the same watermark but, judging from the way they are cut, also seem to have come from the same batch. This is in keeping with Sickert's love of pranks, acting, and anonymous letter writing, his fascination with murder stories, and his hatred of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren, whom he would have wanted to see humiliated. Those who write taunting letters about crimes are not necessarily the actual murderer.

    What in fact we saw in the "Camden Town Nudes" at the Courtauld was once again Sickert the trickster, Sickert the skilled master of ambiguity whose pictures are enigmatic. Indeed he loved giving his pictures alternative and incompatible titles. One of the paintings called The Camden Town Murder , in which a distraught, fully clothed man sits at the end of the iron bedstead on which a naked woman lies, is also called What Shall We Do About the Rent? (1908). Another has as its second title Summer Afternoon . In 1915, during World War I, he renamed a Camden Town Murder picture left over from 1912 The Prussians in Belgium . It was not a cynical attempt to push up the price but a measure of Sickert's fascination with and willingness to play with whatever happened to be the popular excitement and indignation of the day.

    So who was Jack the Ripper? According to my great-grandmother, it was a Mrs. Miriam Howells of Pant-y-Dwr, Glanbrydan Avenue, Penrhiwceiber, the sturdily built wife and daughter of Welsh coal miners, whose son had gone missing in Whitechapel after visiting a prostitute. She would go up to London from Cardiff on the Great Western Railway's speed-breaking train, The Red Dragon, commit the murder, and return early in the morning on the Rodney Express. She may also, like many Welsh miners' wives, have dabbled in sketching with coal on white cardboard, but so far as I know she had no connection with Sickert. She did, though, have a criminal conviction for writing a threatening "Ripper" letter.
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