Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die, London

Though the show cashes in on the detective's enduring appeal with period bric-a-brac, a number of prints and paintings truly capture London's 19th-century atmosphere.

Written by:
Nicholas Marlowe
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When the first Sherlock Holmes story, "A Study in Scarlet," begins, the narrator, Dr. John H. Watson, is kicking his heels in London, having recently been invalided out of the army. Watson isn't very complimentary about the capital, calling it "that great cesspool into which all the loungers and the idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained." Whilst propping up the bar in the Criterion in Piccadilly he bumps into a former medical colleague, Stamford, who mentions that an acquaintance is looking for someone to share lodgings. Shortly afterward, Watson is introduced to this acquaintance — who, of course, is Sherlock Holmes — and one of the most celebrated partnerships in fiction is launched.

This show at the Museum of London cleverly cashes in on the enduring appeal of the stories featuring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective. The great majority of the 56 stories and four short novels are set in London, which Holmes knows like the back of his hand, giving him a huge tactical advantage over his opponents. Typically, he and the ever-faithful Watson set out from 221B Baker Street by foot or hansom cab (he never takes the omnibus, probably because it was too slow). And if they need to go further afield, it's only a quick train journey from a mainline station such as Charing Cross or Paddington to the scene of the crime, usually a large secluded mansion on the edge of the metropolis, where plots of intrigue and murder await resolution.

Several of the London sights mentioned in the stories and shown here in old photos and prints, including some of the grander hotels for example, failed to escape the attentions either of the Luftwaffe or later developers. Yet the great majority of the venues mentioned in the stories or associated with Holmes's creator have survived, and can still be followed quite easily either on foot or using London's sadly far-from-perfect public transport system.

To help bring Holmes's London to life the museum has assembled a vast amount of late Victorian and Edwardian bric-a-brac: music hall paraphernalia, fancy dress, service revolvers, early typewriters, codebreaking kits, and so on. This part of the exhibition is very useful if you want to know what now-obsolete items such as an "opera hat" or "dress boots" looked like. Some of exhibits, such as "Psycho," the whist-playing automaton built by the magician John Neville Maskelyne, which is used to illustrate Holmes's powers as a mind-reader, are a little off-topic, but they are interesting nonetheless.

Above all, though, this is a show about fog. The population of London, the New YorkTimes pointed out as early as 1871, was "periodically submerged in a fog the consistency of pea soup." Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, fog was a potential killer for anyone with respiratory problems, although it was hard to beat for creating atmosphere. The show features eerily atmospheric gaslit scenes by Atkinson Grimshaw, and some evocative night studies by two contemporary American artists, the celebrated painter James McNeill Whistler and the little-known Philadelphia-born printmaker Joseph Pennell (1857-1926). There's also a view of the Thames by the famous Impressionist Claude Monet, who was fascinated by the atmospheric effects of fog, and made a series of works in London between 1900 and 1903.

Why does Sherlock Holmes continue to enjoy such universal appeal? Because he represents the ultimate victory of brain over brawn; his ability to astonish us with his deductive reasoning means we forgive him his human frailties: the drugs, the misogyny, and so on. The character's potential for regeneration is endless. To older fans, Basil Rathbone remains the archetypal Holmes, although in my opinion it was Jeremy Brett who really nailed the character as envisaged by Conan Doyle, in the ATV series first screened in 1984. Recently there have been a string of adaptations, featuring actors as diverse as Rupert Everett, Robert Downey Jr. (not, of course, the first American to play the role) and Benedict Cumberbatch. The most recent is Jonny Lee Miller, in the New York-based incarnation "Elementary," in which not only is "Watson" a woman (Lucy Lui), but so too is Holmes's nemesis, "Jamie Moriarty" (Natalie Dormer)! I wonder what Holmes's creator would have made of that?

Nicholas Marlowe

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