Walter Sickert
Walter Richard Sickert (31 May 186022 January 1942), born in Munich
Munich The city's motto is "" . Before 2006, it was "Weltstadt mit Herz" . Its native name, , is derived from the Old High German Munichen, meaning "by the monks' place". The city's name derives from the monks of the Benedictine order who founded the city; hence the monk depicted on the city's coat...

, Germany, was a painter who was a member of the Camden Town Group
Camden Town Group
The Camden Town Group was a group of English Post-Impressionist artists active 1911-1913. They gathered frequently at the studio of painter Walter Sickert in the Camden Town area of London.-History:...

 in London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

. He was an important influence on distinctively British styles of avant-garde art in the 20th century.

Sickert was a cosmopolitan and eccentric who often favoured ordinary people and urban scenes as his subjects. His oeuvre also included portraits of well-known personalities and images derived from press photographs. He is considered a prominent figure in the transition from Impressionism
Impressionism was a 19th-century art movement that originated with a group of Paris-based artists whose independent exhibitions brought them to prominence during the 1870s and 1880s...

 to Modernism
Modernism, in its broadest definition, is modern thought, character, or practice. More specifically, the term describes the modernist movement, its set of cultural tendencies and array of associated cultural movements, originally arising from wide-scale and far-reaching changes to Western society...


Life and work

Sickert's father, Oswald Sickert
Oswald Sickert
Oswald Adalbert Sickert was a Danish-German artist, considered a painter of dramatic genre, landscapes and an engraver from the English school.-Early life:...

, was a Danish-German
Danish minority of Southern Schleswig
The Danish ethnic minority in Southern Schleswig, Germany, has existed by this name since 1920, when the Schleswig Plebiscite split German-ruled Schleswig into two parts: Northern Schleswig, with a Danish majority and a German minority was united with Denmark, while Southern Schleswig remained a...

 artist. His mother, Eleanor Louisa Henry, was an illegitimate daughter of the British astronomer Richard Sheepshanks
Richard Sheepshanks
Richard Sheepshanks was an English astronomer.He graduated from Trinity College of Cambridge University in 1816...


The family had left Munich
Munich The city's motto is "" . Before 2006, it was "Weltstadt mit Herz" . Its native name, , is derived from the Old High German Munichen, meaning "by the monks' place". The city's name derives from the monks of the Benedictine order who founded the city; hence the monk depicted on the city's coat...

 to settle in Britain at the time of the Great Exhibition
The Great Exhibition
The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations or The Great Exhibition, sometimes referred to as the Crystal Palace Exhibition in reference to the temporary structure in which it was held, was an international exhibition that took place in Hyde Park, London, from 1 May to 15 October...

, Oswald's work having been recommended by Freiherrin Rebecca von Kreusser to Ralph Nicholson Wornum, who was Keeper of the National Gallery at the time. The young Sickert was sent to University College School
University College School
University College School, generally known as UCS, is an Independent school charity situated in Hampstead, north west London, England. The school was founded in 1830 by University College London and inherited many of that institution's progressive and secular views...

 from 1870-1871, before transferring to King's College School
King's College School
King's College School, commonly referred to as KCS, King's, or KCS Wimbledon, is an independent school for day pupils in Wimbledon in south-west London. The school was founded as the junior department of King's College London and occupied part of its premises in Strand, before relocating to...

, Wimbledon
Wimbledon, London
Wimbledon is a district in the south west area of London, England, located south of Wandsworth, and east of Kingston upon Thames. It is situated within Greater London. It is home to the Wimbledon Tennis Championships and New Wimbledon Theatre, and contains Wimbledon Common, one of the largest areas...

, where he studied until the age of 18. Though he was the son and grandson of painters, he first sought a career as an actor; he appeared in small parts in Sir Henry Irving
Henry Irving
Sir Henry Irving , born John Henry Brodribb, was an English stage actor in the Victorian era, known as an actor-manager because he took complete responsibility for season after season at the Lyceum Theatre, establishing himself and his company as...

's company, before taking up the study of art as assistant to James Abbott McNeill Whistler. He later went to Paris and met Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas[p] , born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas, was a French artist famous for his work in painting, sculpture, printmaking and drawing. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism although he rejected the term, and preferred to be called a realist...

, whose use of pictorial space and emphasis on drawing would have a powerful effect on Sickert's own work.

He developed a personal version of Impressionism
Impressionism was a 19th-century art movement that originated with a group of Paris-based artists whose independent exhibitions brought them to prominence during the 1870s and 1880s...

, favouring sombre colouration. Following Degas' advice, Sickert painted in the studio, working from drawings and memory as an escape from "the tyranny of nature". Sickert's earliest major works, dating from the late 1880s, were portrayals of scenes in London music hall
Music hall
Music Hall is a type of British theatrical entertainment which was popular between 1850 and 1960. The term can refer to:# A particular form of variety entertainment involving a mixture of popular song, comedy and speciality acts...

s, often depicted from complex and ambiguous points of view, so that the spatial relationship between the audience, performer and orchestra becomes confused, as figures gesture into space and others are reflected in mirrors. The isolated rhetorical gestures of singers and actors seem to reach out to no-one in particular, and audience members are portrayed stretching and peering to see things that lie beyond the visible space. This theme of confused or failed communication between people appears frequently in his art. The music hall pictures also announced what would be a recurring interest in sexually provocative themes. Female performers were popularly viewed as morally akin to prostitutes, and Sickert's painting Katie Lawrence at Gatti's, which portrayed a well known music hall singer of the era, incited controversy "more heated than any other surrounding an English painting in the late 19th century."

By emphasising the patterns of wallpaper and architectural decorations, Sickert created abstract decorative arabesque
The arabesque is a form of artistic decoration consisting of "surface decorations based on rhythmic linear patterns of scrolling and interlacing foliage, tendrils" or plain lines, often combined with other elements...

s and flattened the three-dimensional space. His music hall pictures, like Degas' paintings of dancers and café-concert entertainers, connect the artificiality of art itself to the conventions of theatrical performance and painted backdrops. Many of these works were exhibited at the New English Art Club
New English Art Club
The New English Art Club was founded in London in 1885 as an alternate venue to the Royal Academy.-History:Young English artists returning from studying art in Paris mounted the first exhibition of the New English Art Club in April 1886...

, a group of French
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

-influenced realist
Realism (arts)
Realism in the visual arts and literature refers to the general attempt to depict subjects "in accordance with secular, empirical rules", as they are considered to exist in third person objective reality, without embellishment or interpretation...

 artists with which Sickert was associated. At this period Sickert spent much of his time in France, especially in Dieppe
Dieppe, Seine-Maritime
Dieppe is a commune in the Seine-Maritime department in France. In 1999, the population of the whole Dieppe urban area was 81,419.A port on the English Channel, famous for its scallops, and with a regular ferry service from the Gare Maritime to Newhaven in England, Dieppe also has a popular pebbled...

, which he first visited in the summer of 1885, and where his mistress, and possibly his illegitimate son, lived. Between 1894 and 1904 Sickert made a series of visits to Venice
Venice is a city in northern Italy which is renowned for the beauty of its setting, its architecture and its artworks. It is the capital of the Veneto region...

, initially focussing on the city's topography; it was during his last painting trip in 1903-04 that, forced indoors by inclement weather, he developed a distinctive approach to the multiple figure tableau that he would further explore on his return to Britain. The models for many of the Venetian paintings are believed to have been prostitutes, with whom Sickert may have had physical relations.
Sickert's fascination with hardscrabble urban culture accounted for his acquisition of studios in working-class sections of London, first in Cumberland Market
Cumberland Market
Cumberland Market was a London market between Regent's Park and Euston railway station. It was built in the early 19th century and was London's hay and straw market for a hundred years until the late 1920s. An arm of the Regent's Canal was built to the market. The market was surrounded by modest...

 in the 1890s, then in Camden Town
Camden Town
-Economy:In recent years, entertainment-related businesses and a Holiday Inn have moved into the area. A number of retail and food chain outlets have replaced independent shops driven out by high rents and redevelopment. Restaurants have thrived, with the variety of culinary traditions found in...

 in 1905. The latter location provided an event that would secure Sickert's prominence in the realist movement in Britain. On 11 September 1907, Emily Dimmock, a prostitute cheating on her partner, was murdered in her home at Agar Grove (then St Paul's Road), Camden. After sexual intercourse the man had slit her throat open while she was asleep, then left in the morning. The "Camden Town murder
Camden Town Murder
The Camden Town Murder was a murder which took place in Camden Town, London in 1907. Robert Wood, an artist, was tried for the murder of Emily Dimmock, a prostitute and acquitted after a brilliant defence by Edward Marshall Hall....

" 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
The Camden Town Murder
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....

, 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.

While the painterly handling of the works inspired comparison to Impressionism, and the emotional tone suggested a narrative more akin to genre painting, specifically Degas's Interior
Interior (Degas)
Interior , also known as The Rape , is an oil painting on canvas by Edgar Degas , painted in 1868–1869. Described as "the most puzzling of Degas's major works", it depicts a tense confrontation by lamplight between a man and a partially undressed woman...

, the documentary realism of the Camden Town paintings was without precedent in British art. These and other works were painted in heavy impasto
In English, the borrowed Italian word impasto most commonly refers to a technique used in painting, where paint is laid on an area of the surface very thickly, usually thickly enough that the brush or painting-knife strokes are visible. Paint can also be mixed right on the canvas...

 and narrow tonal range. Many other obese nudes were painted at this time, in which the fleshiness of the figures is connected to the thickness of the paint, devices that were later adapted by Lucian Freud
Lucian Freud
Lucian Michael Freud, OM, CH was a British painter. Known chiefly for his thickly impasted portrait and figure paintings, he was widely considered the pre-eminent British artist of his time...

. The influence of these paintings on successive generations of British artists has been noted in the works of Freud, David Bomberg
David Bomberg
David Garshen Bomberg was an English painter, and one of the Whitechapel Boys.Bomberg was one of the most audacious of the exceptional generation of artists who studied at the Slade School of Art under Henry Tonks, and which included Mark Gertler, Stanley Spencer, C.R.W. Nevinson and Dora Carrington...

, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach
Frank Auerbach
Frank Helmut Auerbach is a painter born in Germany although he has been a naturalised British citizen since 1947.-Biography:Auerbach was born in Berlin, the son of Max Auerbach, a patent lawyer, and Charlotte Nora Burchardt, who had trained as an artist...

, Howard Hodgkin
Howard Hodgkin
Sir Gordon Howard Eliot Hodgkin CH, CBE is a British painter and printmaker. His work is most often associated with abstraction.-Early life:...

, and Leon Kossoff
Leon Kossoff
Leon Kossoff is a British expressionist painter, known for portraits, life drawings and cityscapes of London, England....

Just before World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 he championed the avant-garde artists Lucien Pissarro
Lucien Pissarro
Lucien Pissarro was a landscape painter, printmaker, wood engraver and designer and printer of fine books. His landscape paintings employ techniques of Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism, but he also exhibited with Les XX. Apart from his landscapes he painted only a few still-lifes and family...

, Jacob Epstein
Jacob Epstein
Sir Jacob Epstein KBE was an American-born British sculptor who helped pioneer modern sculpture. He was born in the United States, and moved to Europe in 1902, becoming a British citizen in 1911. He often produced controversial works which challenged taboos on what was appropriate subject matter...

, Augustus John
Augustus John
Augustus Edwin John OM, RA, was a Welsh painter, draughtsman, and etcher. For a short time around 1910, he was an important exponent of Post-Impressionism in the United Kingdom....

 and Wyndham Lewis
Wyndham Lewis
Percy Wyndham Lewis was an English painter and author . He was a co-founder of the Vorticist movement in art, and edited the literary magazine of the Vorticists, BLAST...

. At the same time he founded, with other artists, the Camden Town Group
Camden Town Group
The Camden Town Group was a group of English Post-Impressionist artists active 1911-1913. They gathered frequently at the studio of painter Walter Sickert in the Camden Town area of London.-History:...

 of British painters, named from the district of London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

 in which he lived. This group had been meeting informally since 1905, but was officially established in 1911. It was influenced by Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism is the term coined by the British artist and art critic Roger Fry in 1910 to describe the development of French art since Manet. Fry used the term when he organized the 1910 exhibition Manet and Post-Impressionism...

 and Expressionism
Expressionism was a modernist movement, initially in poetry and painting, originating in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas...

, but concentrated on scenes of often drab suburb
The word suburb mostly refers to a residential area, either existing as part of a city or as a separate residential community within commuting distance of a city . Some suburbs have a degree of administrative autonomy, and most have lower population density than inner city neighborhoods...

an life; Sickert himself said he preferred the kitchen to the drawing room as a scene for paintings. From 1908-1912 and again from 1915-1918 Sickert was an influential teacher at Westminster School of Art
Westminster School of Art
The Westminster School of Art was an art school in Westminster, London. It was located at 18 Tufton Street, Deans Yard, Westminster, and was part of the old Architectural Museum.H. M. Bateman described it in 1903 as...

.He also briefly set up an art school in Manchester where he was to teach the artist Harry Rutherford who he later described as "my intellectual heir".

Sickert's interest in Victorian narrative genres also influenced his best known work, Ennui, in which a couple in a dingy interior gaze abstractedly into empty space, as though they can no longer communicate with each other. In his later work Sickert adapted illustrations by Victorian artists such as Georgie Bowers and John Gilbert
John Gilbert (painter)
Sir John Gilbert was an English artist, illustrator and engraver.-Biography:He was born in Blackheath, Surrey, and taught himself to paint. Skilled in several media, he gained the nickname, "the Scott of painting"...

, taking the scenes out of context and painting them in poster-like colours so that the narrative and spatial intelligibility partly dissolved. He called these paintings his "Echoes". Sickert also executed a number of works in the 1930s based on news photographs, squared up for enlargement, with their pencil grids plainly visible in the finished paintings. Seen by many of his contemporaries as evidence of the artist's decline, these works are also the artist's most forward-looking, seeming to prefigure the practices of Chuck Close
Chuck Close
Charles Thomas "Chuck" Close is an American painter and photographer who achieved fame as a photorealist, through his massive-scale portraits...

 and Gerhard Richter
Gerhard Richter
Gerhard Richter is a German visual artist. Richter has simultaneously produced abstract and photorealistic painted works, as well as photographs and glass pieces, thus undermining the concept of the artist’s obligation to maintain a single cohesive style.- Biography :Gerhard Richter was born in...


Artist Mark Wallinger
Mark Wallinger
Mark Wallinger is a British artist, best known for his sculpture for the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, Ecce Homo , and State Britain , a recreation at Tate Britain of Brian Haw's protest display outside parliament. He won the Turner Prize in 2007...

 conjectured that Sickert had known and seen his subject of Sick Doctor prior to death, and rendered from a photograph an image otherwise too macabre.

One of Sickert's closest friends and supporters was newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook
Max Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook
William Maxwell "Max" Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook, Bt, PC, was a Canadian-British business tycoon, politician, and writer.-Early career in Canada:...

, who accumulated the largest single collection of Sickert paintings in the world. This collection, with a private correspondence between Sickert and Beaverbook, is in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery
Beaverbrook Art Gallery
The Beaverbrook Art Gallery is a small art gallery on the southwest bank of the Saint John River at the edge of the central business district of Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada...

 in Fredericton, New Brunswick
New Brunswick
New Brunswick is one of Canada's three Maritime provinces and is the only province in the federation that is constitutionally bilingual . The provincial capital is Fredericton and Saint John is the most populous city. Greater Moncton is the largest Census Metropolitan Area...

, Canada
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...

. In addition to having painted Beaverbrook, Sickert painted portraits of notables including Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies
Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies
Dame Gwen Lucy Ffrangcon-Davies, DBE was a British actress and centenarian. She was born in London of a Welsh family; the name "Ffrangcon" originates from a valley in Snowdonia...

, Hugh Walpole
Hugh Walpole
Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole, CBE was an English novelist. A prolific writer, he published thirty-six novels, five volumes of short stories, two plays and three volumes of memoirs. His skill at scene-setting, his vivid plots, his high profile as a lecturer and his driving ambition brought him a large...

, Valentine Browne, 6th Earl of Kenmare
Valentine Browne, 6th Earl of Kenmare
Valentine Edward Charles Browne, 6th Earl of Kenmare , styled Viscount Castlerosse from 1905 to 1941, was the Earl of Kenmare and the son of Valentine Browne, 5th Earl of Kenmare....

, and less formal depictions of Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Vincent Beardsley was an English illustrator and author. His drawings, done in black ink and influenced by the style of Japanese woodcuts, emphasized the grotesque, the decadent, and the erotic. He was a leading figure in the Aesthetic movement which also included Oscar Wilde and James A....

, King George V, and Peggy Ashcroft
Peggy Ashcroft
Dame Peggy Ashcroft, DBE was an English actress.-Early years:Born as Edith Margaret Emily Ashcroft in Croydon, Ashcroft attended the Woodford School, Croydon and the Central School of Speech and Drama...


Sickert's sister was Helena Swanwick
Helena Swanwick
Helena Lucy Maria Swanwick, née Sickert CH was a British feminist and pacifist.-Life:Helena Sickert was the only daughter of the painter Oswald Sickert and the Englishwoman Eleanor Louisa Henry, an illegitimate daughter of astronomer...

, a feminist and pacifist active in the women's suffrage
Women's suffrage
Women's suffrage or woman suffrage is the right of women to vote and to run for office. The expression is also used for the economic and political reform movement aimed at extending these rights to women and without any restrictions or qualifications such as property ownership, payment of tax, or...


Sickert died in Bath, Somerset in 1942, at the age of 81. He had been married three times. His first wife, Ellen Cobden, was a daughter of Richard Cobden
Richard Cobden
Richard Cobden was a British manufacturer and Radical and Liberal statesman, associated with John Bright in the formation of the Anti-Corn Law League as well as with the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty...

. His third wife was the painter Thérèse Lessore.

Jack the Ripper

Sickert took a keen interest in the crimes of Jack the Ripper
Jack the Ripper
"Jack the Ripper" is the best-known name given to an unidentified serial killer who was active in the largely impoverished areas in and around the Whitechapel district of London in 1888. The name originated in a letter, written by someone claiming to be the murderer, that was disseminated in the...

 and believed he had lodged in a room used by the infamous serial killer
Serial killer
A serial killer, as typically defined, is an individual who has murdered three or more people over a period of more than a month, with down time between the murders, and whose motivation for killing is usually based on psychological gratification...

. He had been told this by his landlady, who suspected a previous lodger. Sickert did a painting of the room and titled it "Jack the Ripper's Bedroom." It shows a dark, melancholy room with most details obscured. This painting now resides in the Manchester City Art Gallery in Manchester
Manchester is a city and metropolitan borough in Greater Manchester, England. According to the Office for National Statistics, the 2010 mid-year population estimate for Manchester was 498,800. Manchester lies within one of the UK's largest metropolitan areas, the metropolitan county of Greater...


Three books have been published whose authors maintain that Sickert was Jack the Ripper or his accomplice.
  • In 1976, Stephen Knight, in his book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, maintained that Sickert had been forced to become an accomplice in the Ripper murders. Knight's information came from Joseph Gorman, who claimed to be Sickert's illegitimate son. Even though Gorman later admitted he had lied, Knight's book was responsible for a conspiracy theory  that accuses royalty and freemasonry
    Freemasonry is a fraternal organisation that arose from obscure origins in the late 16th to early 17th century. Freemasonry now exists in various forms all over the world, with a membership estimated at around six million, including approximately 150,000 under the jurisdictions of the Grand Lodge...

     of complicity in the Ripper murders.
  • In 1990, Jean Overton Fuller
    Jean Overton Fuller
    Jean Overton Fuller was a British author best known for her book Madeleine, the story of Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan, GC, MBE, CdG, an Indian heroine of World War II....

    , in her book Sickert and the Ripper Crimes, maintained that Sickert was the actual killer.
  • In 2002, crime novelist Patricia Cornwell
    Patricia Cornwell
    Patricia Cornwell is a contemporary American crime writer. She is widely known for writing a popular series of novels featuring the heroine Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a medical examiner.-Early life:...

    , in Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper--Case Closed, maintained that Sickert was Jack the Ripper. A psychological motivation for Sickert was said to be a congenital anomaly
    Congenital disorder
    A congenital disorder, or congenital disease, is a condition existing at birth and often before birth, or that develops during the first month of life , regardless of causation...

     of his penis. Cornwell purchased 31 of Sickert's paintings, and some persons in the arts world
    The arts
    The arts are a vast subdivision of culture, composed of many creative endeavors and disciplines. It is a broader term than "art", which as a description of a field usually means only the visual arts. The arts encompass visual arts, literary arts and the performing arts – music, theatre, dance and...

     have said that she destroyed one of them in a search for Sickert's DNA
    Deoxyribonucleic acid is a nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms . The DNA segments that carry this genetic information are called genes, but other DNA sequences have structural purposes, or are involved in...

    , but Cornwell denies having done this. Cornwell claimed she was able to scientifically prove that the DNA
    Deoxyribonucleic acid is a nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms . The DNA segments that carry this genetic information are called genes, but other DNA sequences have structural purposes, or are involved in...

     on a letter attributed to the Ripper and on a letter written by Sickert belong to only one percent of the population.

In 2004, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Dictionary of National Biography
The Dictionary of National Biography is a standard work of reference on notable figures from British history, published from 1885...

, in its article on Sickert, dismissed as "fantasy" any claim that he was the Jack the Ripper.

Personal papers

Walter Sickert's personal papers are held at Islington Local History Centre
Islington Local History Centre
Islington Local History Centre is a local studies centre and archive which holds material documenting the history of the London Borough of Islington.-History:Islington Local History Centre, which is located in Finsbury Library, was opened in 2003...

. Additional papers are held at several other archives, particularly the Tate
-Places:*Tate, Georgia, a town in the United States*Tate County, Mississippi, a county in the United States*Táté, the Hungarian name for Totoi village, Sântimbru Commune, Alba County, Romania*Tate, Filipino word for States...

 Gallery Archive.

External links

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