You enter the exhibition through a bookcase and discover the many faces of Sherlock Holmes, from theatre, film and television. This is undoubtedly a suitable entrance to what is an in depth study not just of Holmes but also of London. A homage to both, it demonstrates that they are intimately entwined, both influencing and inspiring the other.
Sherlock Holmes – The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die (17 October 2014 – 12 April 2015, Museum of London) begins with screen after screen of clips from the different films and TV productions of Holmes. Here we reacquaint ourselves not just with Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett, but also with Tom Baker, Christopher Plummer, Rupert Everett and Peter Cushing, not forgetting the most recent incarnations of Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch. Across from these ever changing screens are film posters, English, Chinese, French, German and more. We are also introduced to London in 1903, so setting the scene firmly for the two main characters of this exhibition. As you walk through, the audio follows you, with sounds of Holmes’s voice and that of London.
We are then introduced to Conan Doyle, his history and influences including Edgar Allan Poe. The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), quite possibly the first modern detective story, was a clear inspiration. Nearby, The Strand Magazine is displayed with its ‘A Study in Scarlet’ cover (first and second printing). Sidney Paget’s beautiful drawings, of which only 27 survive out of 356, show the Holmes and Watson with whom we have become familiar.
London proper is then introduced. Maps from Victorian times to today show us the scenes and locations of Holmes’ world and how he travelled through it. Stunning albumen photos, etchings, aquatints, photogravure and lithograph prints showcase the London of Holmes, presenting the soft, misty allure of a London we associate with Victorian times. Paintings give further atmosphere, including one by Monet, Pont de Londres (Charing Cross Bridge, London), demonstrating how the industrial fog inspired him and other artists like Whistler.
It’s at this point that we get our one photo opportunity. Sandwiched between Monet’s painting and the ephemera that we associate with all aspects of Holmes’s life and work, is a narrow room. The end of this displays the key elements that have come to define Sherlock Holmes – the deerstalker, his pipe, a magnifying glass and, of course, the door of 221b Baker Street. While the door attracts some attention, it is the accoutrements that appeal, as they are placed in such a way that it is possible to appear as if you are wearing the hat, smoking the pipe and holding the magnifying glass in readiness to solve the crime from which the impossible has been eliminated and, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
The most densely populated room contains an open triangle of showcases. These house clothes from Cumberbatch’s Holmes, the famous deerstalker and cape, theatrical clothing, wigs, make up and more audio and visual clips from the various films and TV programmes. There is a cacophony of sound, but it is easy to pick out the different actors playing the role. Around the edges, we find out about phrenology, opium and cocaine. Forensic images are an important addition, which lend credibility to the character of Holmes. A cabinet contains not only shoes, but also their x-rays showing repairs and hidden objects. The exhibition would not be complete without Holmes’s pipes and the various kinds of tobacco that he was an expert on.
Holmes and Conan Doyle were modern men and we can see how they epitomised the fast moving societal changes taking place at the end of the Victorian and beginning of the Edwardian eras. The phone and telegraph are explored as being essential and we see different types of typewriters, not just demonstrating Holmes’s ability, but also the social changes taking place – that of women entering the work force. One of the most interesting objects is that of an automaton – the Psycho automaton, 1874. A wonderful object, it was made by John Neville Maskelyne (1839-1917) and shown in Piccadilly’s Egyptian Hall. The setting evokes sorcery, but ultimately Holmes explains that the automaton works by logic.
If I have one main criticism of the exhibition, it is related to this room. On the one hand, I felt that the display worked really well, presenting a wealth of objects in a cabinet of curiosity (or possibly Victorian living room) style that gives insight into the character and the time in which he was set. This is Victorian London at its most vibrant and innovative, and a character at his most complex. The down side is that this is a room that can very quickly become crowded and a little claustrophobic. There are at least five screens showing clips from films and TV programmes, all on a loop, but all playing different clips at the same time. The result, while evocative of the complexity of the character and the different characterisations can be somewhat discordant, particularly when the room contains a large number of people, all of whom are discussing the exhibits. I recommend going when the exhibition is not so busy…
The exhibition concludes with not just the final problem but the assertion demonstrated in the strap line to the exhibition – Holmes is immortal, he may never have lived, but he will never die. We exit via the Richenbach Falls and the realisation that Holmes lives on.
After exiting the exhibition, you have the chance to indulge yourself with lots of Holmesian related memorabilia. Not only is there the catalogue (£5 off with ticket), but Holmes and London related books, games and jewellery, bags, bowler hats and dressing gowns. These latter are clearly aimed at the wealthy tourist, but there are many smaller objects, including the ubiquitous museum chocolate and teddy bears dressed as Holmes to buy as souvenirs. Tempted as I was by the leather bag, its £150 price tag was a little beyond me and I contented myself with a catalogue. Perfect for those foggy English days so reminiscent of Victorian London.