In all of British literature there are only two characters who have managed to escape from their books and take on a life of their own. Far beyond the intentions of their authors, they have been constantly reimagined, rewritten and rebooted through TV adaptations, films and homage novels by contemporary writers. Since their creation, every subsequent generation has found in them a modern hero just as suited to their era as to the one they originally belong, and able to triumph over the wrongs of the age. Their continued success resides in their very human ability to overcome their frailties, fallibility and oddities to defeat their enemies and protect Britain. These two men have blurred fiction and reality for decades, and they are James Bond and Sherlock Holmes.
London has enjoyed a number of Bond exhibitions in the last few years and with Bond in Motion running until December at the Film Museum our favourite spy will continue to draw the crowds. But the Museum of London’s new Sherlock Holmes exhibition is quite unique and a rare chance to see something of the genesis of the character within the context he was created and his later absorption into popular culture. You enter this exhibition through a secret door in a bookcase, more Batman than Holmes perhaps, but a nice introduction to the world of secrets and detection. Most appropriately you are immediately greeted by the public image, the filmed versions and their original posters that demonstrate Holmes’s appear from the birth of cinema to the modern BBC.
Then almost like walking through the illusion the exhibition takes you right back to Conan Doyle’s very first manuscripts and notes for a character he initially called Sherrinford Holmes with his sidekick Ormond Sacker. In this early section we then see the more recognisable Holmes and Watson take shape in a number of short stories printed in publications such as The Strand Magazine before launching a fuller length novel. Most interesting is the idea that the image of Holmes was being created alongside the literary version through the illustrations of Conan Doyle’s father and later of Sidney Paget, and it is here, rather than the text, that the ‘look’ we know today comes from.
Having learnt a bit about the original stories and the author, this exhibition really begins to have fun with the material and we get to explore contemporary London and Holmes’s lifestyle through references in the stories. The great detective has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the capital’s streets so the Museum has created maps for three of the stories plotting the routes Holmes and Watson take by cab, on foot and by train. Underneath each is a video reproduction of the same journey taken today and played at high speed. It’s all about context in this section and showing the viewer how Conan Doyle’s London would have looked under the strain of its expanding industrialised population. Paintings and photographs are used to highlight key places mentioned in the books – The Strand, particular hotels, The Tower of London and Trafalgar Square, which, although recognisably the same place, is yet so different without Lutyens 1930s fountains. We see pictures of the famous Hansom cabs that Holmes takes everywhere and the railway tracks and stations that gave greater mobility to his powers of detection. There is also a small section on the atmospheric London fog inspiring artists like Monet to depict its changing colours and ethereal effects.
The final room is filled with cabinets containing an array of Victorian and Edwardian artefacts which give a sense of the social history around Holmes. There are telephones and telegraph machines similar to the ones Conan Doyle would have envisaged his character using, examples of clothing, pince-nez, typewriters, stage make-up and wigs for Holmes’s disguises, furniture such as Paget’s own chairs which he installed in Baker Street in several illustrations, pipes, chemistry and fingerprint kits, as well as canes and the famous deerstalker. For fans of the current series they even have the blue great coat and dressing gown worn by Cumberbatch which will draw a lot of fans.
The Museum of London has pulled together a very fine exhibition here giving the viewer access to both original manuscripts and the context in which he was created. It’s a clever approach that simultaneously links descriptions from Conan Doyle’s stories to the world around him, and shows us those influences to provide new and clearer insight into the text. As one of Britain’s most enduring fictional characters there is a physical Holmes for every age; whether yours is Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey Junior or Benedict Cumberbatch, they are all here as part of the man who, as the subtitle of this exhibition tells, us will never die.
Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die is at the Museum of London until 12 April 2015. Tickets cost £12.55 (with donation) and a range of concessions are available.