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Walter Richard Sickert, 1860–1942
The Camden Town Murder, or What Shall We Do for the Rent?
Former Title(s):

The Camden Town Murder

The Camden Town Murder (also known as What Shall We Do about the Rent?) [1998, This Other Eden: Paintings from the Yale Center for British Art, exhibition catalogue]
ca. 1908
Materials & Techniques:
Oil on canvas
10 1/16 × 14 inches (25.6 × 35.6 cm), Frame: 17 1/8 × 21 × 3 inches (43.5 × 53.3 × 7.6 cm)

Signed, lower right: "Sickert"

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund
Copyright Status:
Copyright Undetermined
Accession Number:
Paintings and Sculpture
Subject Terms:
bed | brushstrokes | costume | death | historical subject | Impressionist | interior | man | murder | nude | prostitute | wallpaper | woman
Associated Places:
Camden | Camden Town | England | Greater London | United Kingdom
Not on view
IIIF Manifest:

This is one of several paintings Walter Sickert made in response to a gruesome murder of a prostitute that took place in Camden, North London, in September 1907. Sickert, who had worked in the area for several years, was intrigued by the unsolved case, using the title The Camden Town Murder for a group of paintings between 1908 and 1909. None of these works depict an actual murder, with the woman in this painting popularly supposed to be sleeping rather than dead. Sickert's use of the alternative title in parentheses—a wry parody of Victorian narrative paintings—confirms the artist’s refusal to confirm a single meaning for this enigmatic picture. What is never in doubt, however, is Sickert’s commitment to subject matter that many of his contemporaries would have seen as sordid, rendered in a markedly modern style.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2016

On September 12, 1907, the London prostitute Emily Dimmock was brutally murdered in Camden Town, a seedy working-class district of rented rooms, pubs, and music halls in North London. Sickert had his studio in Camden Town, and titled at least three of his paintings from around this time-all showing an ungainly nude woman and a clothed man sitting on or standing by her bed in a shabby daytime interior-The Camden Town Murder. It is unlikely, however, that he intended them as a literal portrayal of the crime, though he was fascinated by the blanket press coverage of the trial, in which a wan defendant was successfully defended by the great advocate Marshall Hall. There are no signs of violence in Sickert's Camden Town Murder paintings, and later he inscribed a drawing of the same composition with the more mundane but equally bleak title of "What shall we do about the rent?"

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2005
This is the kind of painting for which Sickert is best known, its subject from the life of London's working class, its technique fittingly rough and earthy, its tone one of caustic realism, in this case treating the grand artistic tradition of the female nude with a kind of cockney cheek. The Camden Town Murder was his primary title for this and at least two other paintings of 1908-9, all of them showing an ungainly nude woman with a clothed man on a bed in a shabby interior. On some level he probably intended this as a jokey reference to the paintings as aesthetic murders, perpetrated as they were in Camden Town, in which accepted ideas of good art and good taste were bloodily savaged. In a more literal sense, however, the title refers to the murder of a prostitute named Emily Dimmock, which took place in the early hours of September 12, 1907. The victim lived and died in Camden Town, which was a seedy district of rented rooms, pubs, eating houses, and music halls in north London. She was found in bed with her throat cut, having apparently been killed in her sleep. The police arrested Robert Wood, a commercial artist; he was tried and acquitted, however, and the crime was never solved. The story was widely reported and discussed, even sensationally illustrated in the popular press, and for a time Camden Town and murder were inseparable in the public mind.
Sickert had a studio on Mornington Crescent in Camden Town and had been painting nudes there, from models who may well have been prostitutes like Dimmock, just a few weeks before the murder took place. When he began painting more nudes in the following year, now in the company of clothed men, the possible implication of such subjects in connection with the murder would have occurred to him and his viewers inevitably. The murder may even have moved him to try such subjects in the first place, and it has been pointed out that his male character in them bears some resemblance to the chief suspect in the Dimmock case, Robert Wood. But the idea that this or either of the other paintings directly represents the murder seems unlikely. Though strangely awkward, the woman's position on the bed is quite unlike Dimmock's as she was found, and there is no blood or any other definite sign of violence about the scene.
Like both of the other paintings called The Camden Town Murder, the present work has also been known as What shall we do about the rent? (sometimes with "for" instead of "about"). Sickert used the latter title, albeit some twenty years later, when he wrote an inscription on a preparatory sketch.1 With its suggestion of worries and tensions over money, this puts an altogether more humdrum construction upon the relation of the man and woman; the question might be a line from one of the music-hall songs that Sickert so enjoyed, dealing as they did in the daily pleasures and tribulations of working-class life. On the other hand, since the answer to the question for women in Camden Town was so often going "on the game," it does evoke much the same sordid world-though in less lurid form-as the story of the Camden Town Murder. Both of Sickert's titles enhance his painting's atmosphere of poverty, squalor, and crime, but he surely never intended us to take them at face value. They are part clues to his meaning, part teases aimed at the suggestible viewer. Small, intense, almost furtive, his painting has us looking through a keyhole, getting a glimpse into the intimate lives of people we know nothing about, and speculating as to what kind of story, whether sensational or mundane, they might be living out before us.

Malcolm Warner

Malcolm Warner, This other Eden, paintings from the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, p. 174, no. 71, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA)

Walter Sickert (Tate Britain, 2022-04-25 - 2022-09-18) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Edwardian Opulence (Yale Center for British Art, 2013-02-28 - 2013-06-02) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

The Camden Town Group (Tate Britain) (Tate Britain, 2008-02-13 - 2008-05-05) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Walter Sickert - The Camden Town Nudes (The Courtauld Gallery, 2007-10-25 - 2008-01-20) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Revisiting Traditions [BAC 20th century painting & sculpture] (Yale Center for British Art, 2002-04-30 - 2005-05-18) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Bloomsbury Contemporaries (Yale Center for British Art, 2000-05-20 - 2000-09-03) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

20th Century Paintings and Sculpture (Yale Center for British Art, 2000-01-27 - 2000-04-30) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Art Gallery of South Australia, 1998-09-16 - 1998-11-15) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Queensland Art Gallery, 1998-07-15 - 1998-09-06) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1998-05-01 - 1998-07-05) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

Walter Richard Sickert (RA) (Royal Academy of Arts, 1992-11-18 - 1993-02-14) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Twentieth Century British Art Featuring Twenty Artists (Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., 1990-11-10 - 1991-01-05) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

British Painters and Sculptors 1905 to 1930 (Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., 1987-11-14 - 1988-01-09) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Acquisitions : The First Decade 1977-1986, Yale Center for British Art , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1986, pp. 9, 19, no. 51, fig. 11, N590.2 A7 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Brian Allen, Towards a modern art world, Vol. 1, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, New Haven, 1995, fig. 34, N6420 T68 1995 (YCBA) [YCBA]

W. Archer, Walter Sickert: The High and the Low, Apollo, Vol. 104, No.173, July 1976, pp. 73-74, N1 A54 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

Wendy Baron, Sickert Paintings, Royal Academy of Arts, London & New Haven, 1992, no. 69, NJ18 Si12 B372 1992 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Wendy Baron, Sickert, Phaidon, London, 1973, pp. 108, 348, no. 269, fig. 192, NJ18 Si12 +B37 Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

Wendy Baron, The Camden Town Group, Scholar Press, London, 1979, pp. 278-79, 281, no. 106, ND468.5 C35 B376 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

John Baskett, Paul Mellon's Legacy: a Passion for British Art: Masterpieces from the Yale Center for British Art, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, p. 32, fig. 5, N5220 M552 P38 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

David Bindman, The History of British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2008, pp. 85-86 (v.3), fig. 54, N6761 +H57 2008 Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

British Modernist art, 1905-1930, November 14, 1987-January 9, 1988. , Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., New York, N.Y., 1987, pp. 8-9, 43, no. 37, N6768.5 M63 B75 1987 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Emma Chambers, Walter Sickert, Tate Publishing, London, p. 172, fig. 123, NJ18.Si12 A12 2022+ (YCBA) [YCBA]

D. Corbett, Gross Material Facts: Sexuality, Identity and the City in Walter Sickert, Art History, v. 21, March 1998, pp. 45-64, N1 A75 (YCBA) Also available online (Orbis). [YCBA]

Richard Cork, The Very Painting of Our Fear, Walter Sickert's short-lived obsession with death and the "gross-material facts" , TLS, the Times Literary Supplement, Issue no. 5293, September 10, 2004, p. 17, Film S748 (SML) Also Available Online in TLS Historical Archive [ORBIS]

Malcolm Cormack, Concise Catalogue of Paintings in the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1985, pp. 202-203, N590.2 A83 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Rebecca Daniels, Walter Sickert and Urban Realism, Ordinary Life and Tragedy in Camden Town , British Art Journal, vol. 3, no. 2, Spring 2002, pp. 58-69, N6761 B74 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

Rebecca Daniels, Walter Sickert: London, Burlington Magazine, vol. 150, January 2008, p. 45-6, N1 B87 + (YCBA) Available online through JSTOR [YCBA]

Charles Harrison, English art and modernism, 1900-1939, Allen Lane, London Indiana University Press, 1981, p. 351, no. 21, N6768 H37 1981 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Luke Herrmann, Nineteenth century British painting, Giles de la Mare, London, 2000, p. 391, no. 237, ND467 H47 2000 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Timothy Hyman, Sickert's Evasive Blur, from the fudged feature to a weird discovery , TLS, the Times Literary Supplement, Issue no. 4683, January 1, 1983, p. 14, Film S748 (SML) Also Available Online in TLS Historical Archive [ORBIS]

Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden : Paintings from the Yale Center for British Art, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, p. 174, no. 71, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA) [YCBA]

James Merlin Ingli, London and Amsterdam Sickert, Burlington Magazine, v. 135,n0.1080, March 1993, pp. 231-33, N1 B87 + (YCBA) Available online in JSTOR. [YCBA]

Paul Mellon's Legacy : a passion for British art [large print labels], , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, v. 1, N5220 M552 P381 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Lucy Merello Peterson, The women who Inspired London Art: The Avico Sisters and Other Models of the Early 20th Century, Pen and Sword Books, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, p. 66, N7574.5.G7 P47 2018 (LC) (YCBA) [YCBA]

Lucien Pissarro, Lucien Pissarro et le post-impressionisme anglais, Harold Gilman, Spencer F. Gore, Lucien Pissarro, Walter R. Sickert : Musâee de Pontoise, 28 novembre 1998-7 mars 1999, Chãateau-Musâee de Dieppe, 27 mars 1999-6 juin 1999 , Musée de Pontoise, Pontoise, France, 1998, NJ18 P681 L83 1008 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Duncan Robinson, Acquisitions : The First Decade 1977 - 1986, , Burlington Magazine, vol. 128, October 1986, pp. 9, 19, no. 51, fig. 11, N1 B87 128:3 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Samuel Shaw, Narrative and Anti-Narrative [Website], Accessed March 2, 2016, p. 7 of 13, Available Online http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/in-focus/the-dolls-house-william-rothenstein/narrative-and-anti-narrative [Website]

Jon Shirland, The Pill in the Jam of Modern Art, Masculinity, Visual Pleasure and Social Positioning in Walter Sickert's Camden Town Murder Series , Object, no. 2, 1999/2000, p. 58, fig. 7, N7475 )35 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Richard Shone, Walter Sickert, Phaidon, Oxford, 1988, pl. 38, NJ18 Si12 S56 (YCBA) [YCBA]

The Courtauld Gallery, Walter Sickert, The Camden Town nudes , London, 2007, pp. 45-52, 86-7, cat. no. 15, , NJ18 Si12 A12 2007 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Lisa Tickner, Modern life & modern subjects, British art in the early twentieth century , Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2000, no. 8, ND468 T53 2000 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Angus Trumble, Edwardian opulence, British art at the dawn of the twentieth century , Yale University Press, New Haven, 2013, p. 357, cat. no. 95, N6768 .E39 2013 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Robert Upstone, Modern painters, the Camden Town Group , Tate Publishing, London, 2008, no. 68, ND468.5.C35 M63 2008 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

Colin Wiggins, Post-impressionism, Dorling Kindersley, London New York, 1993, p. 51, ND547.5 P6 W54 1993 (YCBA) [YCBA]

John Wilmerding, Essays in honor of Paul Mellon, collector and benefactor, Essays , National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC & Hanover, NH, 1986, p. 264, fig. 5, N7442.2 M455 1986 (YCBA) [YCBA]

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