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Walter Sickert and the Camden Town Murder: The inspiration for Liam Scarlett's Sweet Violets

The artist's fascination with a 1907 murder has fuelled a variety of conspiracy theories.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

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.'

The Royal Ballet’s mixed programme of SerenadeSweet Violets and DGV: Danse à grande vitesse ran from 14 to 26 May 2014. 

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

30 April 2014 at 11.07am

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged by Liam Scarlett, Camden Town Murder, Jack the Ripper, John MacFarlane, Liam Scarlett, Sweet Violets, Walter Sickert

This article has 7 comments

  1. Seamus Rea responded on 18 May 2014 at 5:00pm Reply

    Can you please publish a synopsis of Sweet Violets on the website? Everyone agrees that the plot is very complicated and, when I saw the piece a couple of years ago, I couldn't follow the plot at all.

    Many thanks

  2. r.a. responded on 25 May 2014 at 2:25am Reply

    I really enjoyed seeing Sweet Violets for the first time yesterday. I would like to ask the choreographer how he chose the title for the ballet.

    • Ellen West (Head of Creative Studios and Digital Products) responded on 25 May 2014 at 10:24pm

      Hi there

      We'll be sure to ask Liam the next time he is in the building!

      Best wishes


  3. Abby McFaul responded on 30 May 2014 at 1:39pm Reply

    Yes, I was just thinking the same thing - where does the name Sweet Violets come from?

  4. Agata Kreckova responded on 27 November 2016 at 9:17pm Reply

    I just recently found the video of a rehearsal of Sweet Violets and I was really intrigued by it. I also found out that the last time it was played was in 2014. I would like to know if there is any chance of buying a video recording of that ballet, because I would love to see it!
    Agata Kreckova

    • Rose Slavin (Former Assistant Content Producer) responded on 29 November 2016 at 11:28am

      Hi Agata,

      Thanks for your comment and I am pleased to hear you enjoyed the rehearsal footage. Unfortunately, the performance was not filmed and therefore there is no DVD. Do watch this space for updates though, we make all announcements of upcoming recordings on our website.
      Best wishes,

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