Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die


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As long term readers of this blog will be VERY well aware of, I am a MASSIVE HUGE Sherlock Holmes fan. Always have been and always will be. I can’t remember when I first fell in love with Sherlock but I’m pretty sure that the Ladybird version of The Hound of the Baskervilles was involved. I’ve always been a total sucker for a bit of gothic creepiness and the classic tale of murder and iniquity in the wilds of Dartmoor ticks all the boxes as far as I’m concerned.

I’ve been thrilled over the decades by my hero’s continued popularity and indeed the fact that he seems to have become more feted than ever in the last few years thanks to the Robert Downey Jnr films (which I LOVE) and the hugely successful BBC television series starring Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s hardly surprising though – we’re living in an era where being a geek and just a little bit eccentric is celebrated and it has to be said that Sherlock Holmes is the most eccentric and geekiest geek of them all.

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It was with much excitement therefore that I traipsed off to the Museum of London last Thursday morning to attend the press preview of their wonderful new major exhibition devoted entirely to the great man himself in all his brilliant, eccentric and sartorially fabulous glory. It was a well attended event and it was clear that I wasn’t the only Holmes enthusiast in attendance as we all wandered about, our eyes bright with glee as they feasted on the treats that lay behind the false bookcase door of the exhibition. A suitably dramatic cloak and dagger entrance to what was to be a veritable treat for all fans of Conan Doyle’s iconic mysteries.

The exhibition opens with a series of film posters and then a look at the genesis and development of the books themselves, including one of Conan Doyle’s own notebooks, which he used to plot and plan his stories, in this case A Study in Scarlet, the first ever Holmes novel – the notes are so early in fact that Sherlock is still called Sherrinford, while poor old Watson labours under the inelegant monicker Ormond Sacker. There’s also two first edition copies of A Study in Scarlet, which was first published in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual as well as the the hand written 1903 manuscript of The Adventure of the Empty House, open at the point where Holmes, apparently risen from the dead after the events at the Reichenbach Falls, reveals to an astonished and completely overcome Watson that he is still alive.

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There’s also a lovely display of Sidney Paget illustrations from the original Strand Magazine stories, which to my mind really capture the quintessential Sherlock Holmes with all his unconventional genius and sartorial dash. It is perhaps not surprising that Conan Doyle was not entirely in favour of Paget’s iconic drawings but despite his reservations they have endured ever since as the most famous interpretations of Holmes’ appearance and, more importantly, distinctively eccentric style.

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I thoroughly enjoyed this insight into both Holmes and his creator and the process that drew them together. Although, like many writers with characters that seem to take on a life that threatens to overshadow their creators, Conan Doyle was not altogether enamoured with his great detective, as evidenced by his initial resistance to pleas that Holmes be brought back to life again after that apparently definitive and final plunge over the Reichenback Falls in The Final Problem, it’s also clear that he was proud of Holmes and not above telling little gestures like having the words ‘From Sherlock Holmes 1893‘ engraved on a silver cigarette case that he gave to Sidney Paget or sending his son Adrian a postcard of Dartmoor with the message ‘This is where the hounds used to run about in the story‘ scrawled on the back.

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The next part of the exhibition focuses on Sherlock Holmes’ London, the capital city being as much of a star character in the original stories and subsequent adaptations as Holmes himself – as is particularly emphasised in the contemporary Sherlock series, where London is much more than a mere colourful backdrop to Holmes’ detection but rather an important and integral part of the story. Yes, as Elementary has shown, you can set Sherlock Holmes elsewhere but it also proves that although you can take Holmes out of London, you can’t take the London out of Holmes.

In the original stories, although Holmes and Watson are based at the fictional 221B Baker Street and most of their adventures occur within the West End, they often find themselves out in the suburbs of the sprawling Victorian capital, which was in the process of being totally remodelled and altered to become the city familiar to us today. The ambience of the fog shrouded city, which would also add a shiver of atmospherically gothic delight to tellings of the more factual and contemporary to Holmes Ripper murders of 1888, also lends itself delightfully to those early tales of murder, scandal and iniquity, while at the same time creating a suitably mysterious and enigmatic backdrop. It’s a match made in heaven.

I really loved this part of the exhibition, which featured some wonderful Victorian depictions, both painted and photographic, of Holmes’ London – an industrial, gloomy, busy beast of a city with streets teaming with life and activity and the steady clip clop of the ever present hansom cabs, carts and carriages. There were some amazingly atmospheric photographs of the foggy streets of central London on display as well as some truly jaw droppingly dramatic paintings of the London sky line, such as John Crowther’s 1890 Panoramic View from the Top of the Monument, John O’Connor’s 1884 Pentonville Road, Looking West: Evening with its moody sunset sky and also John Anderson’s 1872 Westminster Bridge, Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey seen from the River, with its astonishingly ominous clouds swirling above those iconic towers.

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Also on display is Monet’s Pont de Londres (Charing Cross Bridge, London) of 1902, which is a truly wonderful piece that cleverly evokes the fog bound city of Holmes’ day – the fog, of course, acting as a convenient cover for all manner of nefarious and criminal activities as well as acting as an inspiration for artists – something that Holmes, that bohemian relative of the famous painter, Vernet, would certainly have appreciated.

Also impressive is a huge panoramic wood engraving of the Victorian city as it looked in 1884, apparently drawn in shifts by artists working from a balloon raised on the north bank of the Thames. It’s an amazing birds eye view across Holmes’ beloved city, hedged in by massive billowing clouds of smog and with a vibrant and energetic vigour spilling over into the streets from the factories and warehouses that border the river that flows through the centre of the picture. It’s an exciting piece that does much to evoke London as Holmes would have known it.

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This part of the exhibition was really impressive, with its many and varied depictions of the Victorian city, but the highlight for me were the videos of some of Holmes’ best known cab journeys replicated in the modern day with a dashboard mounted camera to show the hurtle through packed and busy London streets to full effect. It really is a brilliant evocation of those all important cab journeys as well as a reminder of how logistically accurate Holmes’ London was and how relatable it still is today despite the best efforts of war and the onward march of progress to completely change things. Let’s not forget either that although Watson on at least one occasion had to confess that he felt lost and disorientated in the city, Holmes himself was never at a loss and always knew where he was – a trait that is made much of in the series Sherlock where he has an astonishingly thorough knowledge of the intricacies of central London.

Perhaps the highlight of the exhibition for many people though is the next section, which takes a comprehensive look at the character of Holmes himself with particular reference to his well honed detection skills, his love of disguise, his personal eccentricities and that easily recognisable and now iconic sartorial dash. Passing through the door to 221B Baker Street, the visitor is now invited to enter Holmes’ personal world and properly acquaint themselves with Conan Doyle’s hero.

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Perhaps it would have astonished Conan Doyle if at one of his seances, he had been informed by the spirits that his unlikely hero would prove to have a seemingly deathless appeal for centuries to come and would still be fascinating and enthralling readers (and film and television audiences!) over a hundred years after his first inception in 1887. I could go on all day about why it is that Holmes, who was after all a supremely anti social man with a seeming distaste for all close personal relationships, should remain so popular even today, despite our contemporary marked relish for just the sort of hyper sociability and friend collecting that Holmes would probably have most despised.

A lot of it, I think, comes down to Holmes’ all too human complexities – he has a brilliant mind, yes, and is surprisingly agile as well as being, we are told, the greatest actor never to actually grace the stage, but at the same time, he is impatient, easily bored, occasionally brusque, often as dismissive of legalities as he is of social niceties and is prey to various addictions. He is, ultimately though, as Lestrade observes in Sherlock, a ‘great man’.

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The first thing you see as you step into this part of the exhibition is the iconic Belstaff coat worn by Benedict Cumberbatch while playing Sherlock Holmes, a 21st century reinterpretation of the late 19th century gentleman’s great coat – garment that manages at the same time to evoke both Holmes’ eccentricity and his practicality as well as subtly underlining the fact that despite his bohemian air, he is still at heart a member of the British establishment – perhaps not as overtly as his brother, Mycroft, who we are told ‘IS the British government’ but still, that allegiance is always there and his coat: discreetly well cut and expensive and suitable for any and all social situations, underlines this.

I found this part of the exhibition fascinating, with its various wonderful and well presented displays which utilise Victorian objects from the Museum of London’s own enormous collection to highlight different facets of Holmes’ personality, from a violin (which actually belonged to the 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham) placed carefully on a chair to a phrenological head to a collection of disguises and the theatrical hair pieces and make up to go with them. There was also a close look at Holmes’ detection technique – a combination of his own sharply analytical brain and the latest forensic methods, which he employs to examine evidence and create a picture of the likely culprit as well as working out what their motivation might have been. There’s a reminder too of Holmes’ less intellectual workings with the aforementioned disguises and also a selection of contemporary guns, such as might have been handled by Holmes during his cases.

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I actually think that is one of the reasons why I love Sherlock Holmes so much – while a lesser detective would content himself with the intellectual working out of the crime, he is never afraid to get his hands dirty and although his side kick Watson is frequently horrified by the lengths that Holmes will go to to solve a case (I particularly enjoyed it when he contrived to get engaged to Augustus Milverton’s maid, poor girl or when he camped out on the wilds of Dartmoor in the Hound of the Baskervilles), the reader is never less than thrilled by Holmes’ often grubby disguises and his clamberings over walls in the dead of night. Yes, perhaps it is at odds with his prevalent image of the ultimate ‘Gentleman Detective’ but it makes for a thrilling read, with much of the enjoyment, it must be said, being derived from Watson’s often flabbergasted response to Holmes’ stratagems.

Even nowadays, it is possible to imagine how devastated Holmes’ enormous contemporary fan base was by his apparent death in The Adventure of the Final Problem, tussling with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls in December 1893. It still makes for difficult reading today – even though WE have the benefit of knowing (spoilers!) that Holmes will survive and come back. However, as far as his creator, Conan Doyle, was concerned that really WAS the end for Sherlock – proud of his creation though he may have been, he considered him to be an inconvenient distraction from the more serious historical tomes that he thought were more worthy of his time and for which he actually wanted to be remembered for. He was WRONG of course and in 1901, Holmes had something of a posthumous and excitedly acclaimed come back with the first publication of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which acted as a precursor to his actual return from the dead in the 1903 Adventure of the Empty House. Ten years had passed since Holmes’ apparent death but the public appetite for his adventures had not diminished by one iota and so poor old Conan Doyle was forced to carry on writing them, keenly well aware that there was no way he would ever be permitted to kill his most celebrated creation off and perhaps now having an inkling of the suspicion that Holmes’ himself might very well prove to outlive his creator. One wonders how he might have felt if he had known that even today there are countless people who believe that Holmes was an actual living, breathing man and that some of them think that he is still alive as the mail sent to 105B Baker Street testifies.

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However, the exhibition ends with Turner’s evocative 1804 painting of the Reichenbach Falls, which may not have been the absolute ending to Holmes’ adventures but certainly make a more stirring one than his ultimate fate of keeping bees in the Sussex countryside, which of course makes a small part of me wonder if perhaps Conan Doyle was wrong to bring him back again after an ending of such apparent dramatic perfection. This famously botched ending is part of Holmes’ appeal though – despite being undoubtedly fictional, he still proved impossible to kill off, which elevates him to almost super hero level in the annals of great crime fiction and gives the reader even more faith in his powers, safe as we are in the knowledge that Holmes can never be beaten, even by his own creator, and was indeed the man who never lived and will never die.

Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die is on at the Museum of London until the 12th of April 2015 and is a DEFINITE MUST SEE for all fans of Sherlock Holmes. I would consider myself to be a pretty rabid hard core Holmes fan and I was absolutely enthralled by the wealth of objects on display. It’d be perfectly suitable for budding young Holmes fans as well as there’s lots to look at and talk about afterwards. I’d definitely recommend getting the accompanying book as well, which has great illustrations of the exhibits as well as some brilliant insights into Holmes and his enduring legend and appeal. Oh and don’t, I implore you, miss the gift shop at the end – they have all manner of Holmes related goodies on sale and I’m still gutted that I didn’t buy one of the Sherlock Christmas decorations to go with the Victoria and Albert hanging in my kitchen.

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Before I go, I have to tell you that there was a fire alarm while we were looking at the exhibits, but as the alarm sounded EXACTLY like a violin being very mournfully and badly played, my friend and I (who were currently engrossed in taking photos of ourselves in front of the 221B door) concluded that it was probably a part of the exhibition and ignored it. Only to be informed that no actually it was genuine and we were being evacuated from the museum! We later lamented that the alarm hadn’t been set up on purpose as it would have been really superb to return to the exhibits only to find that the Monet painting of London had vanished in our absence, to be replaced by a Sherlock yellow smiley sprayed on to the wall. Ah well!

The game is afoot!

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Set against the infamous Jack the Ripper murders of autumn 1888 and based on the author’s own family history, From Whitechapel is a dark and sumptuous tale of bittersweet love, friendship, loss and redemption and is available NOW from Amazon UK, Amazon US and Burning Eye.

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8 thoughts on “Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die

  • Renee

    Oh, Madame G! All those images and not a single one of Jeremy Brett’s Holmes?? Robert Downey Jr, but no Jeremy Brett??! Serious lapse!

  • Madame Guillotine Post author

    Hey, don’t have a go at me for not posting pictures of something that WASN’T EVEN THERE. It wasn’t that sort of operation! There were no pictures of Brett or Cumberbatch and the poster of Robert Downey Jnr was there to show the international appeal of Holmes today. It was more about contemporary objects and paintings than subsequent interpretations – although there were plenty of video screens showing clips from all the different Holmes over the eras, including Brett. :)

    However, I did slightly bemoan the lack of Jeremy Brett while there. I’d have been pleased as punch if they’d had his deerstalker or something on display as I loved him!

    • Renee

      Well, okay then — though I must wonder at the judgement of those in charge of the exhibit, showing the Downey poster rather than the man who brought back Holmes in such a big way! It does look like a fascinating exhibit, thank you for sharing it with us.

      • Madame Guillotine Post author

        Well, like I said, the Downey Jnr poster isn’t there because he’s their favourite Holmes but because it was part of a display of several Holmes film posters over the years and, I expect, was of special interest because it is in Japanese, which underlines Holmes’ international appeal. I didn’t get the impression that the curators favoured Downey Jnr’s ‘Holmes’ over any others as they all got featured in some way – the exhibition wasn’t about the way he has been portrayed but rather the character himself, how he came into being and his relationship with his own contemporary world.

  • Nancy N

    If you ever come to Connecticut, you have to go to Gillette Castle, the big stone PILE built by the American actor, William Gillette, a 19th century American stage actor who built his career on the interpretation of Holmes! It too is full of memorabilia of a long stage history.
    The Sherlock Bears made me laugh–when my husband, a NY actor, played Sherlock in the new play Sherlocks Last Case, I bought a little bear and made him a coat and little cap as his opening night present!
    Read all the Doyle stories the summer after I graduated college, and just loved them!
    Great reporting here, MG. Keep up the good work!
    Nancy N

  • Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

    Nancy, I too have been to Gillette’s castle and it is simply bonkers. I read somewhere that certain things that we think of as quintessentially Sherlockian, Gillette came up with. Doyle basically gave him carte blanche when he adapted the stories for the stage.

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