In her book Portrait of a Killer, Jack the Ripper: Case Closed the American author Patricia Cornwell claims that Jack the Ripper had been none other than the artist, Walter Sickert, a dominant figure in the school of British Impressionism in the nineteenth century.
Having amassed a fortune with her Kay Scarpetta novels Cornwell spent £2,000,000 buying several of Sickert's paintings, along with some letters and his desk. With these pieces of evidence she hoped to prove the artist's guilt and connection with the Whitechapel crimes by linking Sickert's DNA with that extracted from letters penned in the name of Jack the Ripper. In her efforts to secure forensic proof she cut up one of Sickert's paintings - an act of destruction that came to result in nothing more conclusive than public outrage and derision.
She did however succeed in matching the watermark on Sickert's personal stationery with that used by the author of the Ripper letters. But, as those letters were considered as hoaxes such determined detective work only proved that Sickert may have been a perverted trickster.
Prince 'Eddy', The Duke of Clarence
However, before you condemn her as mad, Cornwell was by no means the first to link Sickert to the Whitechapel murders. Others - tipped off by none less than the artist's illegitimate son, Joseph, suggested that Sickert was involved in the slayings as part of an elaborate hoax to protect Queen Victoria's dissolute grandson, 'Eddy' the Duke of Clarence from a scandal that was breaking out regarding his involvement with a prostitute. The working girl, called Annie, became pregnant with the prince's child and may even have secretly married him - until Eddy was hauled back home again, dying two year later, with Annie kept quiet by being confined in a lunatic asylum. Who knows what was really going on!
Cornwell's theory was more directly inspired by looking at the artist's work and it is true that Sickert's depictions of the female nude were bold, provocative and disturbing scenes where human flesh is viewed as meat; mottled, pale and drained of blood.
In 1908 Sickert produced a series of four paintings said to be based on the murder of a Camden prostitute called Emily Dimmock, along with the man who may or may not have been her killer. In these studies Cornwell claims that the pose of the bodies have eerie similarities with the Ripper's victims. She also points out that in later paintings, even when the subjects are clearly alive, those images are brutal and voyeuristic, full of aggressive tension.
What is most certainly true is the fact that in earlier years Sickert developed something of an obsessional interest with the Whitechapel crimes, and around the time of those murders he rented a studio in East London, insisting that his lodgings had been previously used by no other than Jack the Ripper himself - though how he could ever know such a thing when the murderer's identity had not been exposed remains another puzzle.
But Sickert said he knew, claiming to have written the name on some paper which was then placed 'for safe keeping' between the covers of an edition of 'Casanova' - an ironic choice of book, and one that was later mysteriously burned!
Even so, some 'proof' of the link remains with Sickert's painting of that very room being extremely dark and sinister, and perhaps the pink slash upon the floor is meant to suggest something more visceral than an innocent shaft of falling light.
And now the mystery rises again with Liam Scarlett, the Royal Ballet's choreographer, having recently created a daring new dance after having been obsessed for years with the Sickert/Ripper enigma.
The ballet opens up at the Royal Opera House on April 5th 2012. It is 50 minutes long, and rather than being presented as a logical narrative, it will be a series of 'canvases' blurring real life and art - much as Mr Sickert may have done.
Essie Fox is the author of The Somnambulist: A Victorian gothic mystery.