A problem worthy of Sherlock Holmes himself, how do you tell the story of a man who has never lived and will never die? I have been contemplating this conundrum ever since I heard the Museum of London was following up a blockbuster Cheapside Hoard exhibition with a close up look at the master detective. As the months have passed and I have been up in conservation or down in the store in my role as a volunteer at the Museum of London, I have seen tantalising sheets of tissue paper laid over mysterious objects. My eyes have been drawn to the ‘Don’t Touch – Sherlock’ signs scribbled in different hands, laid gently over indecipherable lumps and bumps. Strangely they have held me in their thrall, for once I have not been tempted to peek or snoop, I have been waiting for the big reveal and the day has come, the wait is over.
I don’t think I have ever walked through a bookcase, let alone used one to enter an exhibition. A perfectly fitting way to understand that we cross the threshold of the real into the world of the imaginary. The words on a page have been transformed into images, a Sherlock for every generation. It is the reincarnation of a character that has perpetuated a global reach, a Sherlock known to almost every corner of the globe. Each with their own subtle differences but the essence never-changing, so recognisable with a hat, a pipe, a magnifying glass.
The genesis of the world’s greatest detective begins in the real, an author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, influenced by Edgar Alan Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’. The main character, C. Auguste Dupin with such great powers of reasoning, perhaps a kernel for the birth of Holmes. The touch of real people, Joseph Bell, in his analytical mind and surgeon’s skill we see the echoes of Holmes’ amazing abilities to deduce and detect, to see beyond the facile. But we can’t sit with the real too long before we slip into the mind of Conan Doyle, to the imagined, a manuscript of precious first thoughts where Dr. Watson is first birthed as ‘Ormond Sacker’ and the great man himself dons his first disguise as ‘Sherrinford Holmes’.
There are jewels as rich as the Cheapside Hoard for the Sherlock connoisseur, a rare copy of Beeton’s Christmas Annual, the first published story presenting Holmes to the world, now only 11 complete copies exist. The artwork for Strand Magazine from 1890 takes us to the Sherlock Holmes short stories, its distinctive blue cover would have been as familiar to fans as the title music of our 21st century incarnation.
I loved seeing the original Sidney Paget artworks, the imagination of Conan Doyle takes form in the hand of an artist. In particular an illustration from 1904 captures my attention, from ‘The Second Stain’, Holmes is crawling on the floor, almost feral, his hooked nose and slender arms, long fingers gripping in a fervour. I find it quite frightening, who is the villain? Who is the detective? The darker side of Holmes is the irresistible pull of a character we want to understand, who we are not quite sure of, his unpredictability is exciting and enticing.
Alex Werner, lead curator on the exhibition, guides us to the real again, this time the London of Sherlock, brought alive in print, photo, film and paint. I love this section, as a London obsessive this is almost a standalone section for me. I am completely lost in the images of Victorian London: fascinating evocative Whistlers; the Charles Booth maps uncovering the criminal underbelly of London in striking black semi criminal dissection.
There is one image I stand stock still in front of, that of John O’Connor’s 1887 preparation drawing “Ludgate, Evening”. I am not allowed to take a picture, so on my return home I seek out the finished painting, it is no way as a beautiful as my first experience with the picture. I urge you to seek it out for yourself, the view has changed so little over time, the black and white image in the exhibition is gritty with realism, seeing it in this state is like Sherlock would see it, the truth and beauty of the piece revealed in its simplicity. Another picture, Joseph Pennell’s, “St Paul’s Wharf” from 1884, is so modern to my eyes, London changes so much with each year and yet there is a freshness to rendering. It is like the image of Sherlock, a London ever reinventing itself so as to appear to each generation a-new.
There is a Monet I find a little jarring. I know the acrid, sulphurous fog of mysterious London is being brought to mind, but the greens and yellows speak to me of Giverny not London. I have a copy of my favourite Monet of London on the wall at home, it is of the Thames at Westminster. This for me is Sherlock’s London, never empty, always alive, shadowy people on the banks of the Thames. They could even be some of his ‘Baker Street Irregulars’, eyes peeled surveying the living, swirling river.
I am struck on re-reading the Study in Scarlet how the areas and places of London are continually named, “a hotel in the Strand”, “standing at the Criterion Bar”, “after leaving the Holborn”. The irony is that Conan Doyle did not know London that well, but Sherlock is intimately acquainted. It is as if Sherlock has become his path to understanding the Metropolis, the demands of his imaginative story telling informing his real world and the lines are becoming deliciously blurred.
It was great fun to see the maps laying out the journeys Holmes and Watson take in different adventures, a hansom Cab, a chase on foot, a trip by train. It gives you the sense of the frenetic energy of the stories. I love their simplicity, coloured string stretched out, it is as if Sherlock himself has constructed them, a plot, a plan, a chase, unfolding in front of our eyes. I can’t help think it would make a fantastic University Challenge question, name the story by following the trail across London.
Finally the door of 221b Baker Street leads us to the inner sanctum and Sherlock is dissected into his component parts, for me a wow moment of discovery, the real strength and depth of the Museum’s collections revealed. The analytical, the forensic, the Bohemian, the English gentleman, the master of disguise. Talking to Museum curators and technicians, I love the fact they tell me the objects have everything to do with Sherlock but nothing to do with Sherlock. This is what the Museum of London does so well, London’s history distilled in objects, in the physical, teased out by curators. The phrenological head, the analytical mind, a perennial favourite of mine, evoking the belief in the skull as an indicator of criminal intent. The forensic; syringes and specimen cases, a tincture of this a tincture of that, the scientific route to discovery. Each case has its own narrative and you can lose yourself as the imaginary clings to the real and weaves a rich narrative.
The exhibition for me is like Sherlock Holmes himself, there are moments of contemplative of stillness; manuscripts, paintings, postcards. Then there is frenetic energy, the chase, videos at high-speed. There is detail in the forensic study of objects, the cuffs of a blouse ready for minute observation. It is as if the exhibition is like entering the mind of the Sherlock Holmes himself, to use modern parlance, a journey into his ‘mind palace’. In the ‘Study in Scarlet’ he calls it his ‘brain attic’ where the most relevant items are kept.
“You see”, he explains, ” I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little an empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work.” A Study in Scarlet.
The whole exhibit has recreated this ‘brain attic’, this ‘mind palace’. It is delicious and decadent, it is rich with detail and information, there are so many parts to seek out, dark corners to explore. You can take the Sherlock of your generation whether he be a Basil Rathbone, a Jeremy Brett or a Benedict Cumberbatch and see him living and breathing with every object.
As you leave the exhibition, you are reborn through the Reichenbach Falls, I was no longer sure what was real and what was imagined. I actually believe that this man who can never die has in fact lived, from the moment he was born when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put pen to paper. The one thing I missed is what I see on the streets, Sherlock’s footprint in the London I love, in the London of the here and now. But then a fire alarm did go off and disrupt my final moments in the exhibition, I may have missed a few treasures. A perfect excuse to make a return journey.
What I see of Sherlock in London is the messages in a phone box, the whispers that ‘Sherlock Lives’ around every corner. The imaginary is very real if you open your eyes and look. This strange phenomenon where a book has become a film, a play, a tv show, where new writers now seek to breathe new stories and life into Conan Doyle’s most famous son. The clues and hidden messages that have allowed a character to come to life on 21st century London streets are why I love this city so much.
What I love more than anything is that I don’t have to love Sherlock to come to this exhibition that is all about the power of a collective imagination to bring to life words on a page. The Museum of London is the magnifying glass, enlarging, examining and revealing the detail, the minutiae. They are the master story tellers, this exhibition merges the real and the imagined to such an extent that I am not longer sure what I believe.
‘Sherlock Holmes – The man who never lived and will never die’ is on at the Museum of London till 12 April 2015. To book tickets please visit the website
With thanks to Janet Vitmayer for the bookcase photo and Roy Stephenson for opening up the bookcase.