Monday, February 22, 2016

The Museum of London’s “Sherlock Holmes”

For five months in 2014-2015, the Museum of London hosted an exhibition about that most famous of all fictional detectives, Sherlock Holmes. Since the first Sherlock Holmes story appeared in the Strand Magazine in the early 1890s, the literary creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has been imitated, replicated, adored, borrowed wholesale by other authors, and filmed and recorded countless times in movies, radio, and television.

And his popularity endures. Consider Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, or the television series Elementary. The Museum of London’s exhibition, Sherlock Holmes under the Microscope, was an extraordinarily popular event.

For the exhibition, the Museum published a companion book, Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die, a collection of essays edited and compiled by Alex Werner, head of the museum’s History Collections. The museum wisely did not tie the book to the exhibition, and instead brought together six essays (and a considerable number of illustrations) that will stand the test of time and add to the literature about the famous detective.

The introductory essay, “A Case of [Mistaken?] Identity,” is by Sir David Cannadine, Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University. It is a fine contextual setting piece, placing Holmes in his historical context of late Victorian London and drawing a detailed picture of what London was like socially, politically, and culturally at the time, and how it influenced both Doyle and his detective.

John Stokes, Emeritus Professor of Modern British Literature at Kings College London, delves into “The ‘Bohemian Habits’ of Sherlock Holmes.” In 1980s London, “Bohemia” was both a specific place – embracing Covent Garden, the Strand, and Fleet Street – and a way of life.

In “Sherlock Holmes, Sidney Paget and the Strand Magazine,” the museum’s Werner introduces us to Sidney Paget, the illustrator who has as much to do with our picture of Sherlock Holmes as Doyle himself. It was Paget who gave Holmes many of his distinguishing features, including the famous deerstalker cap (which Doyle had never included). Werner also describes the Strand Magazine and the role it played, and how it achieved the popularity it did. (The book includes a complete reprint of an article published by the Strand in 1892, “A Day with Arthur Conan Doyle.”)

Pat Hardy, Curator of Paintings, Prints and Drawings at the Museum of London and the Sherlock Holmes exhibition’s curator, examines “The Art of Sherlock Holmes,” the art, photographs, drawings and prints of the period. He provides ample detail of those which included London’s famous fog (and includes some beautiful examples of photographs).

The Museum of London
Clare Pettet, Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature and Culture at Kings College London, looks at “Throwaway Holmes,” a discussion of communication methods in the 1890s and how new developments were fundamentally changing daily life (and how they were used in the Holmes stories).

The final essay, “Silent Sherlocks: Holmes and Early Cinema” by Nathalie Morris, Senior Curator of the British Film Institute’s National Archives Special Collections, consider the early forerunners to Benedict Cumberbatch (my words, not hers). American actor William Gillette essentially set the image of Holmes on screen for his own and future generations, and John Barrymore also played the detective in an early film.

The subtitle of the book, “The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die,” is a concise summary of the world’s fascination with Sherlock Holmes. It’s difficult to think of a fictional character who has had more of a pull on our imaginations than Sherlock Holmes. The Museum of London’s Sherlock Holmes goes a long way to explaining the “why” of that influence.

Note: The Sherlock Holmes exhibition ended in April of 2015, but the Museum of London is well worth a visit. Located in the Barbican Centre about three blocks north of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Museum has outstanding exhibits on pre-Roman and Roman London (including a view of a piece of the original Roman Wall still standing), Victorian London, and the Lord Mayor’s gilded coach, among many other exhibits.

Illustration: Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes in “Silver Blaze,” Strand Magazine, December 1892. Drawing by Sidney Paget.

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