Author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle provided the key element of the Sherlock Holmes myth – the character himself – with his scientific approach to crime, his bohemian lifestyle and his restless curiosity.
But, as a major new exhibition at the Museum of London aims to show, the image of the detective evolved as new generations revisited the icon.
Conan Doyle established the physicality of Holmes. In A Study In Scarlet he describes Holmes’ appearance: “His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness.”
Other illustrators had attempted to capture the image but neither they nor the stories really caught the public’s imagination until they were serialised in The Strand magazine.
Sidney Paget (1860-1908) was hired to illustrate 12 short stories running from July 1891 to December 1892. Altogether he illustrated 356 scenes until 1904 and created much of the significant iconography of the character.
Film director Michael Powell said his work “as much as the text created the immortal folk figure”.
He captured the pose and poise of the detective – earnest, pipe in hand – but perhaps his most famous addition was the cape and travelling cloak and deerstalker hat.
In the stories, Conan Doyle never specified the nature of the headgear. In The Adventure Of Silver Blaze, Dr Watson, describes him as wearing “his ear-flapped travelling cap”, and in The Boscombe Valley Mystery, as wearing a “close-fitting cloth cap”.
The deerstalker was an interpretation that fitted popular fashions of the time and chimed with Holmes as a hunter.
Bent briar pipe
American stage actor William Gillette (1853-1937) embodied the physicality of the actor portraying him as human rather than machine. He played the detective 1,300 times on stage over 30 years and in one silent film, now lost.
His most famous evolution is the pipe. It is said he found it difficult to enunciate or be fully seen with a straight-stemmed pipe so he adopted the bent briar pipe.
Curator Alex Werner said: “William Gillette makes a lot of the dressing gown and for the new Sherlock the Derek Rose dressing gown that Benedict Cumberbatch wears at home is an important symbol as well as the Belstaff coat.
“Gillette’s interpretation of the role was used by many of the actors who started to interpret the role firstly in silent films of the 1920s, then with Basil Rathbone. It is really Jeremy Brett, one of the greatest interpreters of the role, who goes back to the stories, back to the original Paget illustrations.”
Mr Werner said: “Our perception of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson has been shaped by a long line of film, TV and theatre adaptations. Conan Doyle had no idea that popular culture would embrace his creation in such a dramatic way.”
Incidentally, the detective’s most famous phrase – “Elementary, my dear Watson” – was never actually uttered in the books.
Instead it was taken from PG Wodehouse’s novel Psmith Journalist, in 1915 and then claimed for stage and screen versions.
Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die, until April 12, Museum of London, £12 (concs), museumoflondon.org.uk/sherlock