The Camden Town Murder is a title given to a group of four paintings by Walter Sickert painted in 1908. The paintings have specific titles, such as the problem picture What Shall We Do for the Rent or What Shall We Do to Pay the Rent.
The title of the group refers to the "Camden Town Murder" case of 1907. On 11 September Emily Dimmock, a part-time prostitute cheating on her partner, was murdered in her home at Agar Grove (then St Paul's Road), Camden, having gone there from The Eagle public house, Royal College Street. After sex, the man had slit her throat open while she was asleep, then left in the morning. The murder became an ongoing source of prurient sensationalism in the press. For several years Sickert had already been painting lugubrious female nudes on beds, and continued to do so, deliberately challenging the conventional approach to life painting—"The modern flood of representations of vacuous images dignified by the name of 'the nude' represents an artistic and intellectual bankruptcy"—giving four of them, which included a male figure, the title, The Camden Town Murder, and causing a controversy, which ensured attention for his work. These paintings do not show violence, however, but a sad thoughtfulness, explained by the fact that three of them were originally exhibited with completely different titles, one more appropriately being What Shall We Do for the Rent?, and the first in the series, Summer Afternoon.
The Camden Town Murder was (and remains) an unsolved crime. That was important, I think, to Sickert’s sense of it. He was an avid reader of Sherlock Holmes and had a large collection of books on crime. Detective fiction tells two stories: the story of the crime and the story of the investigation. The detective is at the centre of the crime novel from its inception with Edgar Allen Poe: through the ingenious interpretation of unconsidered details, he brings justice and narrative order to transgression and chaos. In one of the first detective stories – the ‘Mystery of Marie Rogêt’ (1842) – Poe’s hero, Auguste Dupin, solves the murder without leaving his study by reading the newspapers. During the Camden Town Murder investigation, newspapers specifically encouraged their readers to play detective and make sense of the clues that had emerged so far. Sociologically, accounts of the detective story suggest that the power of the detective as a literary prototype lay in his ability ‘to assuage the anxieties of a ... middle class audience’ through the application of ‘modern systems of scientific and rational enquiry’. (Watson describes Holmes as ‘the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen’.) Psychoanalytically, the detective is held to embody something more archaic. As Freud, a fan of detective fiction, first pointed out, the great attraction of the detective novel is that it replays the primal scene – the child’s first real or fantasised observation of sexual intercourse between the parents – at no risk to the viewer, with the curious child in us as the detective hero. But this socially or psychologically comforting sense of rational enquiry was scarcely borne out by the mass circulation newspapers. They fed an existing appetite for sensational stories while contributing to an attitude of social detachment. Sickert was true to this. As the Times critic commented in 1911 you ‘could not tell from his paintings of people whether he likes or dislikes them, whether he knows them well or has never seen them before’. There are no legible expressions or circumstantial clues; just an aura of menace in the composition and in passages of stabbing brushwork on the breasts and abdomen. With the title, these tease us into a narrative reading they do nothing to support. And this sense of the contingent and quotidian derives from the newspapers rather than literature, since murder in popular fiction was by this point an index of moral decay. (This is also what distances Sickert from the Lustmord theme as it was taken up in the 1920s in Weimar Germany, by artists fascinated by Jack the Ripper, for example Otto Dix and George Grosz.)
The Camden Town Murder, 1908
Whenever you read descriptions of the Camden Town Murder series, these attendant men are always described as “brutish” or “threatening”. But on the evidence of the actual pictures, I would vigorously dispute that. They’re not brutish or threatening, but glum and lost in thought. The only reason, I contend, that anyone has ever found danger and murderousness in these portrayals of hastily snatched afternoon snatch is because the titles lead you to expect murderousness.
Why did Sickert call them The Camden Town Murder? Actually, he didn’t. Three of the images were originally exhibited with other titles. The sad painting of the chap at the end of the bed was originally called What Shall We Do for the Rent? – a far more appropriate title – while the first in the sequence was shown as Summer Afternoon. A case, I think, of Sickert being sarcastic. He added the murder title much later. And I think he did it deliberately, to bring his art to the public’s attention. What he is actually painting here is not the murder of Emily Dimmock but the way of life she was forced by her times to lead: the furtive afternoon bashes to pay the rent, the small betrayals of Shaw’s trust. But seeing how the newspapers had gone crazy over the Camden Town murder, this clever, sneaky observer of human foibles saw a way to get his art noticed.
Alas, the move backfired. Yes, the paintings were noticed. But their curse is to be associated for ever with a murderous mood that simply isn’t there. By calling his pictures The Camden Town Murder, Sickert, stupidly, misdirected his audience, got himself mistaken for a murderer and sabotaged his own art.
Sickert was interested in the Ripper, but he had a more immediate crime in mind. In 1907, in the middle of this series of nudes, a prostitute was murdered in Camden; it became a famous case. After that, Sickert gave some of the pictures titles like The Camden Town Murder, L'Affaire de Camden Town, The Camden Town Murder Series No 1 and No 2.
It is always pictures with a clothed man present that get these titles. But the point to notice is that the titles can vary. On other occasions, Sickert exhibited the same paintings with different names, carrying quite different implications - the social realist What Shall We Do for the Rent?, the lyrical or perhaps ironic-lyrical Summer Afternoon. And the pictures can take these alternative titles. There is nothing to identify them unequivocally as crime scenes. The encounter between naked woman and clothed man can be read as despairing or idyllic or murderous. Sickert is playing with the inherent dumbness of pictures and his own painterly obscurities. Only L'Affaire de Camden Town kept that title alone. The man stands "dangerously" over the woman. The woman "flinches". Well, maybe. But then again, maybe not.
Now, one shouldn't expect a work of art to be single-minded. Any half-decent work is likely to have a lot of things going on in it, and what's more, a lot of simply disparate things that can't be resolved into an overall agenda. But still, Sickert's Camden Town Nudes really are all over the place. They're abruptly torn between incompatible priorities - between nude study, documentary realism, pure painting, subtle story-telling, horror thrills, and doing some paintbrush sex and violence of their own. This isn't complexity. It's a big mix-up.
You can see Sickert as a very detached artist, an operator, who treats painting as a repertoire of possibilities that can be mobilised at whim, because none of it really means anything to him. Or you can see him as an artist who's not in control of himself, who just puts whatever excites him into the pot. Nowadays, of course, we like our art not to make sense. Sickert's time may at last have come.