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Museum of London

Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die

22 October 2014 Jessica Johnston

This landmark exhibition will peel back the literary layers to reveal the inner workings of the worlds most captivating crime solver.

Sherlock Holmes is a London icon and when it comes to fictional detectives, he reigns supreme. Conceived by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1886, the adventures of Holmes and his faithful companion Dr Watson have enthralled audiences for more than 125 years. Transcending his literary origins, the complex and curious character of Sherlock Holmes has been reimagined through a long line of film, TV and theatre adaptations, all of which continue to shape our perception of this most enigmatic Englishman. With a global reach and worldwide fan base, the popularity of Conan Doyle’s detective is at an all time high.

This autumn, anew landmark exhibition at the Museum of London – the first of its kind since 1951- will peel back the literary layersto reveal the inner workings of the worlds most captivating crime solver, the legend that is Sherlock Holmes. Using the museum’s unrivalled collections of photographs, paintings and original artefacts, Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Dieinvites visitors to embark on a intriguing journey through the capital city that inspired Doyle’s iconic stories. Much like Holmes’s mind, this exhibition presents itself as a mysterious maze with clues and information waiting to be deciphered at every turn. Before stepping foot into the exhibition, visitors must negotiate a large wooden bookcase, which conceals a hidden door – easier said than done - presenting a challenging enterprise for any budding detective.

Once securely inside these cryptic walls, visitors can immerse themselves in the ultimate Sherlock experience, starting with a collection of rare artefacts and material offering insight into the origins of the stories. The Genesis of Sherlock Holmes includes three notebooks used by Conan Doyle between 1885 and 1889, one of which contains the first lines ever written on Sherlock Holmes. These appear alongside two editions of the Beeton’s Christmas Annual (only 11 complete copies are known to exist worldwide) and the only filmed interview in existence of Conan Doyle, made in 1927. The display also features original artwork by Sidney Paget, illustrator of The Strand, whose drawings capture the very essence and spirit of this remarkable sleuth. It was Paget’s vision of the character that proved to be the greatest influence on popular culture, and one that continues to inform the many generations of Sherlock detectives, from Peter Cushing to Benedict Cumberbatch. 

Holmes is indelibly linked with London; in all its fogs, transports networks, criminal underworlds and celebrated landmarks, the imperial capital is like another compelling character in the stories. The London of Sherlock Holmes conjures a vivid image of the hustle and bustle of Victorian London, through a rich display of artworks, maps and photographs, revealing how the artistic climate of the late 19th century influenced Sherlock’s adventures. Works include Claude Monet’s painting Pont de Londres (1902) and Joseph Pennell’s black and white prints of London, both of which capture the city’s atmospheric tone, colour and light, whilst William Wyllie and Henry W. Brewer’s wood engravings depict the thick, pervasive fog that so often shrouded the streets, adding an edge of danger and ambiguity to London’s visual mood. Only the all-seeing eyes of the master detective can penetrate this thick blanket of fog, to shed light on the crimes and mysteries of the metropolis.

The Many Sides of Sherlock, takes a thematic approach, invitingvisitors to explore five main ‘Holmesian’ attributes: the analytical mind, the forensic scientist, the Bohemian soul, the model Englishman and the master of disguise. Items rarely displayed include, a violin owned by 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, a model hansom cab from 1891, a theatrical wig worn by Sir Henry Irving and the earliest surviving manuscript page from ‘The Sign of Four’, which has not been seen in the UK for over 100 years. The display also features a number of different costumes and props suitable for Holmes in disguise, as well as the iconic Belstaff coat and Derek Rose dressing gown worn by Benedict Cumberbatch. Not surprisingly, the exhibition wouldn’t be complete without Holmes’s iconic deerstalker hat and pipe, a selection of which are shown in the exhibition. These unforgettable symbols of Sherlock Holmes are embedded in our visual imagination and remain iconic motifs of the character.

The exhibition’s final section, The immortal Sherlock Holmes reflects on the legacy of this complex character. Conan Doyle wanted to kill off Holmes soon after he had created him, and in December 1893 Sherlock and Professor Moriarty plunged to their deaths in ‘The Adventure of the Final Problem.’ Readers were left stunned and devastated and urged the author to resurrect the detective. Finally, in 1903 Conan Doyle relented and readers discovered that Holmes had miraculously survived in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’, the manuscript of which is on display, alongside an 1804 painting by J.M.W. Turner of the Great Falls, where he met his ‘death’. This exhibition offers countless clues revealing Holmes’s global appeal. Best summed up by the crime-solving maverick himself: ‘there is nothing like first-hand evidence’, so don’t take our word for it, head down to the Museum of London this autumn and see for yourself.

Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die is on at the Museum of London from 17th October - 12th April 2015. Tickets cost £10 - £12, available here.

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