30 April 2014 at 11.07am | 7 Comments
In the morning of 12 September 1907, the naked body of Emily Dimmock was discovered in her house on St Paul's Road in Camden by her common-law husband Bertram Shaw. Her throat had been cut ear-to-ear. The murderer had washed his hands, drying them on Dimmock's petticoats, and left, locking the door behind him.
Newspapers found a voracious audience eager for speculations over this real-life murder mystery, quickly dubbed the Camden Town Murder. Memories of the brutal unsolved Whitechapel murders by Jack the Ripper in 1888 were invoked, despite numerous dissimilarities. The trial of the only suspect, the young artist Robert Wood, was followed by an avid and mounting readership. On the day of the verdict on 18 December crowds of between seven and ten thousand flocked to the Old Bailey, bringing traffic to a halt. Wood's acquittal precipitated yet more rampant speculation as to the killer's identity.
The artist Walter Sickert had spent the summer of 1907 working at studios in Mornington Crescent, just a mile from the site of the murder. His nude models may have known Dimmock, or even met her murderer. Sickert may have seen Dimmock himself, on one of his regular trips to the local vaudeville theatres. The murder's proximity – and no less the frantic public interest it aroused – reignited his long-standing fascination with Jack the Ripper.
Sickert produced a set of paintings that allude to the Camden Town Murder, such as The Camden Town Murder or What Shall We Do about the Rent?. There continues to be dissent over which paintings can be included in the set, due to an innate ambiguity in many of Sickert's paintings of this period. Those included depict a naked woman with a clothed man, in the grim setting of a squalid bedsit. But this description can also be applied to some of Sickert's more innocuously titled works, such as The Studio: the Painting of a Nude. Sickert uses his titles to create a story, suggesting a sinister reading for scenes that might have been ambiguous. The foreshortened perspective and peculiar play of light add to a sense of fantasy, or of nightmare.
Long after Sickert's death, his fascination with murder inspired an enduringly popular conspiracy theory: Joseph Gordon, who claimed to be Sickert's illegitimate son, suggested that Queen Victoria's notoriously dissolute grandson Prince Albert Victor had gone among the lower classes disguised as 'Eddy', with Sickert as his companion. 'Eddy' had secretly married Annie Crook and had a child by her. The Queen responded by sending a figure – perhaps her Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury – to sort out the mess before it became a scandal. Crook was sent to an asylum and designated as mad; five of her friends, who knew the secret, were brutally murdered. And the child, rightful heir to the throne? Well, she became Gordon's mother. Though Gordon has been entirely discredited, his theory has entered popular mythology on Jack the Ripper – a fact that Sickert might have found as fascinating as his contemporaries' reactions to the murders.
Liam Scarlett's Sweet Violets makes actual the world of Sickert's paintings. Aided by John Macfarlane's brilliant set design, Scarlett not only realizes the grungy squalor of Sickert's settings but also forces us inside Sickert's warped perspective, where everything is seen through a mirror or from the wings, interpreted through Sickert and Scarlett's vision. Like Sickert, Scarlett tells his story elliptically, through nightmarish vignettes in which reality and fantasy are confused – but where the psychological truth of his characters shines out. He explained, 'I loved getting into those characters and making steps that were meant to say something. It was like being a film director: you have to engage an audience, take them on a journey and make them feel as if they're in another world.'