The Museum of London will be holding an exhibition about the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes in the autumn of 2014, the first major temporary exhibition about the sleuth since the 1951 Festival of Britain. It will stress his links to the capital and the Victorian/Edwardian environment in which his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was writing. The big question is, however, can an author’s creation be classified as an iconic London personality?
The museum obviously thinks so and it would be surprising if the show was not a major success, given that Holmes is without doubt the most famous detective in the world, fictional or not. Museums are dedicated to him in London and Switzerland and there are a number of Sherlock Holmes societies around the world. So what were Conan Doyle’s links to London? Very few, as it turns out. Medically trained, he opened an eye clinic in 1891 in Upper Wimpole Street and lived in lodgings in nearby Montague Place. Ill health and a lack of patients forced him to move to Tennison Road, South Norwood (then actually in Surrey) later that same year, and it was here that he wrote many of the Sherlock Holmes stories. He left the London area for good in 1894 to take his ailing wife abroad and when they returned in 1897 it was to live in Hindhead, Surrey. He then spent the last 23 years of his life in Crowborough, Sussex.
But if Conan Doyle’s London credentials are few, Sherlock Holmes was a true Londoner stating “it is a hobby of mine to have an exact knowledge of London.” Although few biographical clues are given in the 56 Holmes’ stories and four novels, he seems to have spent all his working life in the city until retiring to become an apiarist in Sussex. As everyone knows, he lived in rented accommodation at 221B Baker Street, and Dr Watson, his friend and colleague, was taken in as a lodger to help pay the rent when Holmes’s early ‘consulting detective’ work failed to pay the bills. Conan Doyle’s medical practices never flourished which gave him time to write and research the stories for his most famous creation. As Dr Pat Hardy, co-curator of the exhibition and the Museum of London’s curator for paintings and prints, points out, “Conan Doyle is pretty accurate in his description of London. We checked the references to addresses he mentions and he seems to have consulted Kelly’s Post Office Directory for 1887. His train times are accurate too so he must have used Bradshaw’s railway timetables which he quotes in the stories.”
The exhibition has secured the loan of an oil painting of Conan Doyle by Sidney Paget which has never been on public display before in Britain. It depicts a man at the height of his powers, notebook in hand which he used in real life to jot down ideas as they came to him. Dating from 1897, the portrait was taken to Switzerland by Conan Doyle’s son Adrian and is currently undergoing conservation. The exhibition will also include original pages from Edgar Allen Poe’s manuscript of The Murders in the Rue Morgue (loaned by the Free Library of Philadelphia)which featured the amateur sleuth C. Auguste Dupin who solved the grisly crimes. “Its theme,” wrote Poe to a friend, “was the exercise of ingenuity in detecting a murderer” and Conan Doyle is known to have been an admirer of the three stories in which Dupin appeared. The Free Library has also loaned Conan Doyle’s own original manuscript of The Adventure of the Empty House (1903) which marked the return of Holmes after his apparent death at the Reichenbach Falls ten years earlier.
When the Holmes stories first appeared in The Strand monthly magazine in 1891 they were illustrated by Sidney Paget who shows the detective with deerstalker cap and Inverness cape, discussing a case with Dr Watson in a railway carriage. This image defined the character in the public mind and, at its height, the magazine was selling half a million copies a month to readers who could not wait to get their next fix of the great investigator. The actor William Gillette played Sherlock Holmes on stage many times, “and set the tone for the character we know today,” explained curator Alex Werner. “A 1916 film of him performing the role is sadly missing but Jeremy Brett went back to Gillette for some of the elements of his television Holmes with great success.” The exhibition will include film and television representations of Holmes and also a large selection of paintings and photographs evoking London at the height of the Victorian Empire. Dr Hardy says “artists came to London to paint as they were attracted by the unusual light conditions, a result of industrialisation and high pollution levels.”
These gave rise to such works as the American Joseph Pennell’s Dark Day on Embankment (1909) with its image of a fog-shrouded London which became the default Hollywood view of the capital, especially in the films featuring Basil Rathbone as Holmes. “Conan Doyle depicts London as the centre of a vast empire where calm ultimately prevailed,” explained Dr Hardy. “Perpetrators, often foreign, come to the city only to be out-thought and sometimes outfought by Holmes, who always succeeds in imposing rational order on otherwise chaotic events.” And if the conclusions often gave contemporary readers a sense of quiet satisfaction and reinforced their belief in Victorian supremacy against all comers, today there is still something inspiring about Holmesian deductive logic and its reassuring sense of infallibility in less certain times.