Monday 23 February 2015

SHERLOCK HOLMES (The man who never lived and will never die.)

Entering the Museum of London to see the Sherlock Holmes exhibition.

The first exhibition in London about Sherlock Holmes for over sixty years is at the Museum of London. It began last year on the 17th October and is due to finish on the 12th April 2015, this year. Marilyn, Abi and myself went to see it on Saturday 22nd of February.

This exhibition has been inspired by the continued interest in Sherlock Holmes and what he represents. The recent BBC’s series, Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as Dr Watson has given a modern twist to Conan Doyle’s original detective stories. However in recent years Hollywood has been fascinated by the exploits of the Victorian sleuth too. Robert Doherty in the modern day TV series, Elementary, set in New York and which relies on the concept of Sherlock Holmes, is one example. “Sherlock Holmes,” the 2009 film, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Jude Law as Watson and Robert Downey Junior as Sherlock was a smash hit at the box office worldwide. It was the 8th highest grossing film of 2009.

This exhibition covers not just the filmic and stage history of Sherlock Holmes. The London of Sherlock Holmes features in an inspirational way if not totally as a physical entity and includes the scientific and technological innovations of the time that Holmes employed in his search for answers. The city itself , its enormity, its mix of population, its extremes of poverty and wealth, its maze like structure, its smoke and dense fogs, its play on the dreams, real and imaginary, of the people of the time who were horrified almost equally by the fiction of Jekyll and Hyde and the reality of the Jack the Ripper murders. All this created a climate of possibilities in which Conan Doyle could set his great character to work.

 Benedict Cumberbatch playing Sherlock.

The origins of Holmes is also explored. Where did the concept of a super sleuth come from? A man who could use minute analysis in any situation to solve a mystery? Arthur Conan Doyle was a physician who had studied at the University of Edinburgh Medical School from 1876 to 1881. His tutor was a Dr Joseph Bell. Doyle worked for Bell as his assistant during this time. Dr Joseph Bell was renowned for his use of close observation. Bell had a theory that a person’s personality could be deduced from studying his face. Dr Bell, physically was tall and thin and had a hooked nose. Conan Doyle used Dr Bell not only for the appearance of Sherlock Holmes but also for his approach to forensic analysis.

The exhibition is advertised on a poster that shows a side view of Sherlock Holmes’s head wearing a deer stalker and smoking his pipe. It is an x-ray picture which reveals the brain inside his skull. The brain is diagrammatically drawn. It labels the functions of the various parts of the brain. This diagram is tailored to what we know about Sherlock Holmes. These brain diagrams really reveal the thoughts and ideas of the illustrator of the diagram rather than what the brain actually does. For instance you can find diagrams depicting the brain of a Labour party supporter let’s say or the brain of a Southampton football fan for instance. They are a joke nowadays.These brain diagrams can be taken to ridiculous lengths.The Victorians took this all much more seriously. Doctors believed in a system of understanding the brain called phrenology. This has been disproved nowadays. In The Hound of The Baskervilles Holmes's skull surprises Dr Mortimer who remarks,

 "I had hardly expected so dolichocephalic a skull or such  well marked supra orbital  development."

So for this exhibition we have the brain diagram of Sherlock Holmes. Some of the main areas show, reflectiveness and perceptiveness written large at the front of the brain. Traits such as domestic and aspiring come large at the back of the brain. Cautiousness and mirthfulness are written in small type, lost within the brains mass, amongst many other traits either written smaller or larger depending on the strength or weakness in the character of Sherlock Holmes. This has all been deduced analytically from the stories no doubt. 

The brain of Sherlock Holmes.

We entered the exhibition through a bookcase. A melodramatic way to enter. The lady at the entrance, directing people to the exhibition, suggested the best way to take a dramatic photograph. She has obviously has had a lot of experience at directing exhibition goers so. She opened the door in the bookcase ajar for us. Marilyn stood with her left arm raised and hand against the panel looking back at me. And so we entered the exhibition.

Marilyn entering the mysterious world of Sherlock Holmes!!!!

The first things that confront us are theatre and film posters for the likes of the TV series in which Jeremy Brett starred, and early film versions with Basil Rathbone, Arthur Wontner, John Barrymore and Ellie Norwood. The quintessential early Sherlock Holmes was played by William Gillette on stage primarily but he also starred in the first film of Sherlock Holmes. Gillettes physique, looks and manner became the publics, illustrators and dramatists personification of Sherlock Holmes. You immediately realise that Holmes is more than a character in a book devised by Conan Doyle. He has taken on a life of his own and is reinvented for each generation, hence the more recent adaptations I mentioned at the start of this article. We know that Conan Doyle attempted to kill off his character in a story, The Final Problem, published in The Strand Magazine in December 1893. Professor Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes plunge to their deaths at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. However, with strong popular demand from both English and American readers, Conan Doyle had to bring his character back. In 1901, Eight years after, The Final Problem, Doyle wrote The Hound of The Baskervilles. To get round the fact that he had killed Holmes off Doyle set the story in a time before the Reichenbach episode. However there were calls for Sherlock Holmes to be reincarnated. Conan Doyle had to bring him back in real time. Miraculously Holmes Conan Doyle ,"arranged," that he had survived his fall into the Reichenbach Falls. He had not in fact fallen over with Moriarty but had overcome his opponent using a Japanese martial arts technique called bartitsu.     He was able to hide his tracks thereafter.

 The death of Sherlock Holmes illustrated by Sidney Paget, Paget was Holmes's most famous illustrator creating some the most iconic images of Sherlock Holmes.

There are few other characters that have this sort of power in literature and fiction. In recent years I can only think of Dr Who and perhaps James Bond and maybe characters like Superman and Frankenstein that have this life which is indestructible. They live beyond their authors and even the demands of readers and fans. They exist in themselves in our consciousness. Maybe you can think of others yourself.
Some Bartitsu moves and other accomplishments of Sherlock Holmes.

The next part of the exhibition displayed maps of London, both road and rail and many original Victorian and Edwardian photographs depicting the London of Sherlock Holmes. The great rail stations, of Waterloo, Paddington and Kings Cross, feature.  The Grand hotels such as, The Langham, The Savoy, The Cecil, The Hyde Park Hotel and The Russell, in Russell Square are portrayed. These were the locations of some of Holmes’s mysteries.

A railway map of London in the exhibition.

The development of technology that was happening at the time, the telephone, the typewriter and the proliferation of steam trains as well as horse drawn hackney cabs are all displayed, some as objects, the telephone and typewriter and some as old photographs, the stations, the trains and hackney cabs. These forms of transport and the millions of inhabitants filled the bustling streets and stations of the metropolis. The new technologies were things that helped Sherlock Holmes in solving his crimes.

 An interesting point is made that Conan Doyle was not a Londoner in the way perhaps Dickens was. When you read the Conan Doyle stories it becomes evident that although he lists places in London that Watson and Holmes pass on their way to some station or  grand hotel, a list of places and streets is all he relates. There are no detailed descriptions and sense of place. He doesn’t have a feel for London as such. A lot of his stories may start in a room at 221B Baker Street, which incidentally, Conan Doyle asserted that he never visited and never travelled along, then the stories move invariably to some rural location outside of London, mostly to places in the South of England which Conan Doyle did know well.

However, the exhibition shows us that Conan Doyle does use London in one particular way. The fog creates an atmosphere. The massive void between rich and poor is a source of tensions. London as a world centre with embassies and foreign dignitaries from all over the world create situations where individuals are compromised. He uses London in what it does to people. The crimes and mysteries in Conan Doyle’s stories are those of individual human beings and their tragedies are brought about in a place where literally millions of people are thrown together.

Theatrical make up for creating disguises.

Sherlock Holmes in his quest for enlightenment and understanding resorts to all sorts of strategies. He calms his mind by playing the violin and of course his violin is displayed He smokes a pipe. He experiments with cocaine and morphine. As a personality he shows many traits of the addict. His behaviour is erratic. He has mood swings. He doesn't eat for long periods of time. Starvation can create a heightening of the senses. Some say that they detect elements of what we term now as autism in his personality. He had few friends and acquaintances beyond Dr Watson and Mrs Hudson who more often than not suffer his behaviour. In his quest to find answers and to aid his observation he often dresses up in various guises as vagrants, old ladies, clergymen and in fact whatever guise might help him melt unnoticed into his surroundings, to watch and observe unnoticed. This strong bohemian free thinking aspect to Holmes is important to who he is and creates a sort of frisson which was and is appealing.

Smoking implements that Sherlock Holmes would use..

One display shows all the equipment needed to create a disguise, wigs, make up and costumes. All the requirements of a Victorian theatre dressing room. Holmes was a consummate actor in the stories being able to trick even those close to him. Another shows all the accoutrements of the smoker, pipes, tobacco, match boxes and various contemporary adverts for smoking. One display shows a hypodermic syringe and glass files that contained morphine for Holmes’s use.

Then there are the display cases with the iconic clothing associated with Sherlock Holmes; an evening dress for the theatre, a tweed cape and deerstalker for the moors and an elaborate dressing gown for sitting in front of the coal fire upstairs at 221B Baker Street. In one case is displayed Benedict Cumberbatch’s, Holmes, overcoat. It is displayed on a dummy. It  easy to imagine Benedict Cumberbatch himself filling the void inside that coat. Unfortunately, for his numerous fans, he is not filling the inner space created by the coat but he does appear on the many video loops alongside all the other incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, acting out their part on screens set around the exhibition.

Dominic Cumberbatch's coat in Sherlock.

Eventually, long after having entered by the bookcase and been mesmerised throughout by the master himself we arrive at the final denouement. There we are with Professor Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes, perched at the top of the Reichenbach Falls. We enter the final room and find we too have jumped into the boiling surging waters of that waterfall too.We are surrounded by a floor to wall screen showing the spray and tumbling water of a large waterfall. We are immersed in it and enveloped by it. Will we survive miraculously too just as Sherlock Holmes does? Were we able to use bartitsu, a form of Japanese judo, to throw off our opponent as Holmes threw Moriarty to his death and escape into apparent oblivion? Let us use Holmes methods to ascertain a conclusion. The process of deduction Sherlock Holmes used was called abductive reasoning which is logical inference. You observe, Marilyn, Abi and I were at the top of the Reichenbach Falls. I am here writing this. The hypothesis must be that we live.  Oh well, something like that. It is all based on the strongest inference amongst other inferences.

Right at the end we too were confronted by the Reichenbach Falls.

Here is Sherlock Holmes explaining it all himself in,” The Mystery of The Dancing Men,”

 "You see, my dear Watson" -- he propped his test-tube in the rack, and began to lecture with the air of a professor addressing his class --"it is not really difficult to construct a series of inferences, each dependent upon its predecessor and each simple in itself. If, after doing so, one simply knocks out all the central inferences and presents one's audience with the starting-point and the conclusion, one may produce a startling, though possibly a meretricious, effect.”

You see. It’s simple!!!!!

I suppose I could have used the dancing men code itself to explain what happened to us. Here is the alphabet. Try constructing your own messages.

Conan Doyle explained Sherlock Holmes missing years by telling us that he travelled in the Far East. He was probably sharpening up his bartitsu skills no doubt.
One of the main points that this exhibition reveals and perhaps helps us understand is Sherlock Holmes’s continuing appeal to every generation. He has an ability to be incredibly adaptable. He looks for the unexpected. He uses forensic analysis. He acts quickly. The problems in this world with ISIS, Russian brinkmanship and the Arab unrest would be fertile ground for Conan Doyle’s creative imagination and Sherlock Holmes’s talents. So I think what this exhibition shows us is that Sherlock Holmes, “the man who was never born, will never die.” 

On the upper floor of The Sherlock Holmes pub next to Charing Cross station there is a reconstruction of Sherlock Holmes study in 221B Baker Street. The descriptions of the room  in Conan Doyles stories and novels were used to recreate it.

Sherlock Holmes study at 221B Baker Street (The Sherlock Holmes pub)


  1. Interesting post, Tony. I think the Jeremy Brett TV serialisations of the Sherlock Holmes stories (primarily in the 80s) were the best dramatisations.

    When we were in Switzerland two summers ago, we past Reichenbach Falls. We were travelling by train from Interlaken to Lucerne. Unfortunately we couldn't see the Falls; they are set back about one kilometre from the train tracks, which follow the River Aare.

    I was given a copy of "The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes" as a school prize in the mid-60s. It was the second of the collected volumes of the short stories. All of the stories had been previously published in "The Strand" magazine from 1892-1893. The last story in "The Memoirs ..." is called "The Final Bow"; it is the account of Holmes's demise in his struggle with Moriarty.

    Three more volumes were to follow, though - Arthur Conan Doyle wrote further Holmes' stories up until 1927.

  2. Tony, I haven't seen the movie with Robert Downey Jr, but will do so now. Though Benedict Cumberbatch is good, I'm not keen on modern-day Sherlocks. Must agree with Clive, the Jeremy Brett series was the best. Liked Basil Rathbone, but Jeremy Brett *was* Sherlock. Love the photo of Marilyn at the secret door (love secret doors!).

  3. Hi Clive I have checked out the stories.It gets complicated because Conan Doyle was persuaded to bring Holmes back to life after his apparent death at The Reichenbach Falls. Moriarty and Holmes fall to their deaths in a story called The Adventure of The Final Problem which is set in 1893. Then Doyle brought Holmes back into existance, retrospectively, with a full length novel,The Hound of The Baskervilles set in 1889, .After that Doyle started thirteen adventures under the title The Return of Sherlock Holmes. He then went to write a further eight stories under the title The Last Bow culminating in the final story called The Last Bow. Conan Doyle also wrote a further twelve stories under the title, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes set at earlier or similar dates to The Last Bow stories but published in the 1920's. He wrote four full length novels in all, A Study In Scarlet, The Sign of The Four, The Hound of The Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear.

  4. Speaking for myself, Jeremy Brett was the finest Holmes (We shared a Tobacconist for a while, his earlier works being the best. Towards the end, his health had let him down and he suffered appallingly whilst struggling to keep going. The films are usually remotely based on anything Arthur Doyle wrote and I won't bother with Television's recent incarnations. However, for fun, Basil Rathbone's ludicrous-yet-charming outings work for me, Robert Downey, Junior's offerings are great fun, if hopelessly divorced from the literary works and if you haven't seen The private life of Sherlock Holmes or The Seven Percent Solution, you have my pity. Finally, Young Sherlock Holmes is enormous fun for all ages and a Spielberg production at that.