Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group: Room guide, Sensation

On 11 September 1907 Emily Dimmock, a part-time prostitute, was murdered in her bedsit in Camden Town. A newspaper-led campaign to find her killer resulted in the arrest of Robert Wood, who admitted being Dimmock’s secret lover but not her murderer. At his trial he impressed the court and public with his apparent sincerity and good character. To overwhelming public approval Wood was acquitted.

The mixture of sex, crime and media manhunt was compelling, but the case revealed a picture of urban dislocation, laying bare a sordid underside of London and modern metropolitan existence. Sickert was gripped by the lurid newspaper reports. With his flair for publicity, he painted a sequence of pictures with the collective title ‘The Camden Town Murder’ which caused a sensation. Two appeared in the first Camden Town exhibition. Each picture shows a naked woman and a clothed man in a shabby bedroom, raising questions as to what moment in the murder story is being depicted. The answer is ambiguous with nothing to suggest past or future violence. Sickert understood the powerful psychological reaction to combining figures in this way, knowing that they would be read as prostitute and client.

Daily Mirror Front Covers charting the Camden Town Murder trial, December 1907. Courtesy Daily Mirror Archive