London Art Reviews

Magazine of art press and reviews from London

A great Sherlock Holmes exhibition at the Museum of London.

David Franchi – Monday, 27th April 2015.

sherlock holmes exhibition Museum of London

Sherlock Holmes exhibition © Museum of London

Sherlock Holmes” was a very interesting exhibition, at the Museum of London. The exhibition at the Museum of London was part of the series of the relaunch of the Sherlock Holmes character, now in place for some years.

Sherlock Holmes – the man who never lived and will never die” has made a significant deepening of the Londoner character created by Sir. A. Conan Doyle. It was the largest of its kind for over 60 years. Displayed materials were drawn from all over the world.

The exhibitionSherlock Holmes” brought together many different objects, including a rare oil on canvas portrait of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle painted by Sidney Paget (1897), which has never been on public display in the UK; original pages from Edgar Allan Poe’s manuscript of The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) never before seen in the UK; the original manuscript of The Adventure of the Empty House (1903); original notebook of Conan Doyle were he started to write the first storylines; and the iconic Belstaff coat and the Derek Rose camel dressing gown worn by Benedict Cumberbatch, from the Sherlock BBC television series.

The show was captivating from the entrance, as it was beneath a false library. It was not difficult to guess, but gave immediately to the visitors the right and joyful atmosphere.

Sherlock Holmes is a global icon indelibly linked with London. Full of memorabilia, the Museum of London show proposed plenty of objects, with multimedia installations, many videos, books, original manuscripts, photos, postcards, footage, costumes, and all the paraphernalia of the most famous detective ever existed.

Detective Sherlock Holmes Watson Strand Museum of London

Detective Sherlock Holmes in a railway carriage with his companion Dr Watson. Original Artwork: Drawing from ‘Strand’ magazine in 1880. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) exhibition at Museum of London

The first room, “The genesis of Sherlock Holmes”, gave an idea on how Holmes was conceived and structured at the beginning. On display from original manuscripts to the first copies of The Strand magazine in 1891, it examines how the consulting detective has evolved from Conan Doyle’s early concepts.

Here on show is the notebook used by Conan Doyle between 1885 and 1889 while he practised medicine in Southsea that contains the germ of a detective story. In the book (on loan from the private library of Dr Constantine Rossakis M.D.) he plots out an initial dramatic storyline of ‘The terrified woman rushing up to the cabman’. The title, ‘A Tangled Skein’, is crossed out and replaced with, ‘A Study in Scarlet’ – the name of his first Holmes novel.

The book is one of three that Conan Doyle used to sketch out ideas and meditations – not just confined to Holmes. In the exhibition it appeared alongside a separate page of notes, last on public display in the 1951 Festival of Britain, where Conan Doyle refers to “Sherrinford Holmes” and “Ormond Sacker”, who would later become Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. The page is on loan from the heirs of Anna Conan Doyle, and its literary significance is compounded by a handwritten note accompanying the page by his son, Adrian Conan Doyle. It reads: “very precious, the original page on which my father originated the name Sherlock Holmes and the opening scene of A Study in Scarlet.”

sherlock holmes exhibition Museum of London

Blue Plaque Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221b Baker Street in London

Very fascinating were also the following sections “The London of Sherlock Holmes” and “Sherlock Holmes and the streets of London”. Here the point is Sherlock Holmes is probably the most famous Londoner – maybe a part from HM Queen Elizabeth II. The celebrity of the character was enhanced by the fame of the largest city of the world and capital of the biggest empire of that time – and vice versa.

The adventures of Sherlock Holmes were very often set in London, depicting a developed reality. Many people found it of significant, for the novelty of the issues, personalities and ideas. Holmes represented a new era, a society that was evolving into an industrialist dimension, where logic and reasoning took place of spontaneity and naturalness. In the late 1800s machinery, technology, and communication were changing the world. Conan Doyle gave his own contribution by proposing a new philosophy but also a different scientific approach which led to developments, for example of the forensic and crime investigation.

The Conan Doyle’s descriptions of the London environment were precise. The lives of the two bachelors, Holmes and Watson, dedicated to an innovative urban existence, engaged with a very original kind of job, were a new emerging life style.

The following room, “Fog and Sherlock Holmes”, focused on another common element in all the production of Sir A. Conan Doyle. Whether it is the countryside fog of Dartmoor or the city scenery of London, the fog has been a narrative element of Conan Doyle novels many times. His descriptions of the ‘London pea soup’ were so accurate to be used in the university to describe this particular phenomenon.

The next section, “Sherlock Holmes trains in the suburb”, was another major element that unites the detective and London. Holmes and Watson are often travelling using the new means of transport, such as hansom cab, tube, but above all the 19th century invention par excellence: the train. The new transports were able to quickly connect places, and mostly towns to the surrounding areas. The train has been, in fact, a significant progress that changed the world. The train represented a clear element of strong practical application of mathematic and engineering, so a new society that Holmes with his exasperation of the logic, once again well represented.

The penultimate room, “The many sides of Sherlock Holmes”, gave an idea of the multifaceted character; it can be a

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, from Sherlock, BBC series,  exhibition Museum of London

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, from Sherlock, BBC series, exhibition Museum of London

bohemian and a gentleman, a genius and an addict, Holmes was a man of many sides. These contradictory features have been at the heart of the diverse incarnations of Holmes for more than a century. Sherlock Holmes is a bohemian, but also a strong logician. He is the quintessence of the logic, putting aside irrationality. However, he has many illogical aspects, for example he uses drugs, cocaine normally. He has a great scientific mind, he able to use a laboratory, and for example a finest connoisseur of tobacco and related substances, like the ashes. But Holmes seems to have no emotions, which is an irrational behaviour. Similar to Conan Doyle who was very involved in spiritism and was a Freemason, despite been a doctor and coming from a scientific background.

Last section, “The immortal Sherlock Holmes”, is focused on the heritage of Holmes, and gives idea of why this famous fictional character, which has never lived, probably will never die. It reflects on the longevity of the creation, who continues to be reinterpreted and adapted. Conan Doyle actually wanted to kill off Sherlock Holmes soon after he had created him. But the character continues to be re-imagined, and the pipe, magnifying glass, and deerstalker prevail today, as the unforgettable symbols of Sherlock Holmes.

Leading UK’s law firm, Shepherd and Wedderburn were the sponsors of the exhibition and the technology partner is NEC.

Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die” exhibition was at the Museum of London from 17th October 2014 until 12th April 2015.

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