The Painted Woman

by Sophia Harvey


The Iron Bedstead, c. 1906, Oil on canvas, 39.5 x 50 cm. Earl and Countess of Harewood. © Estate of Walter R. Sickert/DACS 2007 

Inspired by the story of Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel Murders

A heavy rusted hook hung from the ceiling, supporting the oil lamp – the only light source in the modest room. It burned diligently next to his canvas. Medical books and religious texts occupied most of the floor space. They were all madly read, although a distinct difference could be observed in the care of keeping given to the medical texts as opposed to the religious ones, which were in a poor and tattered state. The books were stacked against the walls, preventing any access to the one small window. The air was heavy and hot. The wet stench of East End in August lingered in every crevice.

He sat alone on a rough stool in the middle of the clutter. There was a creeping pain in his spine from his cramped position, but he paid it no mind. The look in his eyes was one of lust. Rolling the wooden brush between his thumb and forefinger, he felt the rough texture of chipped paint on sweaty metal. Mind racing with flashes of brief and bitter ecstasy; he lived in the paint. Each stroke was careful and precise, yet it’s outcome was violent. The pallet in his lap was overwhelmed with messy dabs of grey and brown and black. He scorned his “contemporaries” who needed more, who abused their canvases with oranges and greens, who did not truly understand form. Weak “artists” relying on decorative color to mask their lack of perception. They could never know the power of the shadow. Heused his yellows sparingly.

Extending a calloused finger, he touched the thighs of his creation. They were pale and smooth. Resting, docile, on the wrinkled sheets of pigment. A body born from cherished recollection. Reborn. A body stripped of its lurid dressings and captured in its sin forever.

Taking up his brush again, his sable eyes traced the lines of the canvass – her shoulders, her torso, her wide, fleshy hips. He found joy in his disgust. Lucid memories dictated his work, but one thing eluded him. The face. Her face. Although he had watched it writhe and twist, he could no longer see its features. Perhaps he could not remember because it had lacked beauty. He refused to see those things that lacked beauty. The painted woman once had an obscene form that he found horrifyingly exquisite. Her face had no such feature. No, he would not paint an undeserving face. This was an excuse he’d made before and it never gratified him for long. These thoughts frustrated him and he became feverish.

Casting down his brush, he rose from the stool and thrust his rude hands between the piles of books, extracting an old wooden cigar box. Sitting directly on the mangled floorboards, he caressed the sides of the case, feeling its tangibility. He opened it slowly, as if it were a chest of gold, and removed a leather belt. He was shirtless, due to the heat, and his pallid arm welcomed the supple security of the tourniquet. The moments slowed and his fever subsided. Lying back, he extended his legs and let the box fall to the side.

A sense of lightness wrapped itself around his limbs and slipped inward. Rays of color beneath his skin were beating at the surface and roaring out of his pores. His stillness raced in his veins. His eyelids fell shut and the painted woman appeared before him, delivered from all her sins. She lay with him on the floor, a cleansed soul, no longer the monstrosity of his memory. She stroked and played with his lightness, the vines of his flora holding him pliant to her touch. Placing upon her head his rotting bowler hat, she laughed a noiseless laugh of affection. He watched her beauty from deep within himself, silent and motionless. She moved in echoes and he knew that he belonged to her.

With the force of all his muscles, he extended his arm and stole the hat, wearing it, enjoying its closeness to his temples. He rose slowly, the woman fading back into memory. He examined himself in the smudged glass leaning against his easel. He saw a man at once much older and much younger than his present age. Wisps of grey among his blackened tendrils suggested a flirtation with middle age. He searched his face as he had the woman’s naked body, finding a similar repulsive exultation. It was relatively free of lines; he attributed that to a life free of worry. His cheeks were caving below his fearsome bones. They had a slight yellow cast to them that suggested his enraptured state.

A white shirt was draped over the latch on the door. From a distance it had the appearance and smell of cleanness. He touched the cool cotton, pressing it between his hands. In slow methodic motions, he placed one arm through a sleeve, and then the other, and pulled it down around him, feeling as if he was entering a cocoon. He took great care not to upset the hat. Each button had its place in a hole; slowly, he tightened the cloth across his shoulders. He had been sleeping on his black cloak at night, and he found it balled in a corner. It was heavy and hot, but necessary. Donning the garment, he looked again to the glass, this time seeing an unassuming, mild mannered man – ready for the night.

Once out on Walden Street, the air was cooler, but wetter. His senses were overcome with the smell of sewage and death. Nearby there sat crumpled together, five or six young children, all in various stages of suffering. He was fascinated by their huddled torment. How slow and crude were the hands of Cholera compared to the precision of a blade. The humidity made the odor palpable, and he swam in it slowly. He could feel each cobblestone beneath his step.

After some time, he reached Whitechapel Road. It was late – a time when respectable men go home to their wives, and London’s refuse rule the streets. The mantle of his calm began to lift, but his excitement never showed itself. There was the slightest tingling in his fingertips. He tensed and relaxed his hands steadily beneath his coverings.

She was there, across the street, beckoning and crooning to passers by. He wondered how someone could be so simultaneously fat and sickly. This was her usual haunt at this time of night. Men often came to Whitechapel for the many vices it offered and satiated. He had been carried here more and more frequently in recent nights. She enticed and repulsed him. The hems of her scarlet skirts were muddied from the street, despite her habitual lifting of them. She leaned and coaxed, comfortable in her sin. Inspiring filthy lust and bringing others to her level, soliciting companions for a future of hellfire. As he moved closer, his presence attracted her summons.

“Good evening Madame – “

Standing there before him was his next model, ready to be primed.