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CURRENT : RED SPARROW WRITERS : storytelling, workshops, book signings : RSPB Conwy : booking now for 29 October 2019
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Sunday, 22 February 2015

A Sunday in London: A Study in Sherlock

“Enter through the bookcase…” thus begins your adventure into the realm of Sherlock Holmes. One of the main missions of the weekend was to visit the major Sherlock Holmes exhibition currently at the Museum of London

The exhibition is divided into several sub-sections but is broadly divided in two, with the first half setting the scene and focussing on the Victorian London of Sherlock Holmes, the London in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived and made authentically present in the stories. The London of the era is so well evoked in - and integral to - many of the stories that this has led many (particularly Americans, it seems) to believe that Holmes was indeed a real historical personage and not a fictitious character. Here you can see paintings and photographs depicting various aspects of Victorian London, often with a quote from a specific story next to it, highlighting the relevance of the artwork and the authenticity of the text.

Views of Victorian London - photogravure prints by Alvin Langdon Coburn
Amongst the well-selected works, which include Whistlers and Monets, I particularly enoyed a row of photogravure prints by Alvin Langdon Coburn, the American photographer who was a huge influence on the Futurist. He is one of the first photographers to make bold, balanced compositions of light and dark with the ‘modern’ city as his source material. The Futurists believed that he showed cities in a positive way and managed to capture their light and abundant energy (both physical and cultural). Futurists believed that cities were machines for living and were necessary to build the future, by facilitating cultural and technological changes at an accelerated rate due to the density of population enabling a rapid exchange of ideas. The images in the exhibition are beautiful examples of Langdon’s work and of the photogravure etching technique, with a very distinctive atmosphere. I have seen some of these images before, but looking at the real things closely is a different experience. The surfaces have a certain quality that cannot be captured through modern glossy printing and certainly not conveyed over a screen.

The immortal Sherlock Holmes
(click image for reviews or to purcahse catalog on-line)
The second half of the exhibition is about Sherlock Holmes, the character, and how he has changed and developed significantly, whilst remaining essentially the same. There is a filmed interview with Conan Doyle in which he explains much of his thinking and intentions behind the character and his motivations for creating the character in the first place: He enjoyed the genre of whodunit detective stories, but was frustrated because the crime scenario was always set up and then the detective, or inspector, would solve the case either without explanation - he would just know whodunit - or else there would be a torrent of clues right at the end as the case was solved that the reader had not been privy to. He would rather have had the challenge of ‘role-playing’ the detective character and working out the clues throughout the story, hoping to solve the case before the denouement and then waiting in suspense to see if he had it right. So this is what he always tried to achieve with a good Sherlock Holmes story.

On display are a few ‘holy relics’ of Serlockania, such as the original, hand-written manuscript for The Tangled Skein, with that title struck out and A Study in Scarlet added instead. In a cabinet opposite this, there are also some pages from Edgar Allan Poe’s original manuscript for Murders in the Rue Morgue, featuring the detective, C Auguste Dupin, said to have been the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. So the story of Sherlock begins with the stories, then the exhibition explores how different illustrators have contributed to the enduring visual identity of Sherlock and Watson. It is obvious from portraits of Conan Doyle on display that, from the start, the appearance of Dr Watson was based very closely on the author. The visual identity of Sherlock Holmes developed quickly, though tentatively, until the illustrations for the stories appearing in The Strand magazine were commissioned to Sidney Paget who consolidated the aquiline features and accessories we still associate with the character.

Watson and Holmes as visualised by Sidney Paget for The Strand
After establishing the origins of Holmes, the exhibition climaxes with a chamber showing items form the Museum of London’s collection that would be identical to items mentioned in the stories: coats hats, shoes, canes, chemistry supplies, smoking paraphernalia, a violin, medical equipment, make-up and wigs worn by actors of the era that would have been useful for the master of disguises... There are also authentic props from some of the film and television production, including Benedict Cumberbatch’s unique coat.

There is also a very interesting ‘thread’ to this section of the expo demonstrating, with the use of actual artefacts of the time, some of the observations and deductions made by Sherlock Holmes. Such as the spatters on the cuffs of a typist’s blouse made when re-inking a ribbon for the, then new, writing machine. The cuts and cracks in the sole of a shoe which could be matched to a cast of a footprint left in mud at a crime scene. The discovery of finger-printing techniques placed in context with the contemporary, and the now debunked, concept of the physiognomy of criminal types.

Numerous screens showed the many and varied actors who have portrayed Homes and Watson, including some of my favourite versions - Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely, Christopher Plummer and James Mason, and for me the definitive pairing of Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke… The whole exhibition brought back poignant memories of seeing them both perform in the two-man play The Secret Of Sherlock Holmes at the Wyndam’s Theatre back in 1989(!?). I had interviewed Jeremy Brett over his pre-performance steak dinner and he had made a note of my party’s seat numbers… and during the performance he delivered a key line directly to us… a lovely gift and a treasured memory.

(An extract of this interview first appeared in Outlook Magazine and here you can read the fuller interview with Jeremy Brett as it later appeared in The Scrawl.)

A fascinating exhibition that manages to stay focussed on meaningful content and examines the many elements that have contributed to making a man that never lived into an immortal. Elementary, of course!

Tom Hunter's photography beautifully showcased on this scale model
of Ellingfort Road in the early 1990s
We then had some time to spend in the main collections of the Museum, so we started in the Twentieth Century and I was particularly impressed with the beautiful fusion of model-making and photography that forms the piece titled The Ghetto. This 3D artwork authentically documents Ellingfort Road in the early 1990s when it was scheduled for demolition. It is a collaboration between photographer Tom Hunter and model-maker, James MacKinnon. The walls and doors and shop-fronts of the model, along with interiors glimpsed through windows, are surfaced with photographs of the actual doors, walls and wallpapers. Look in through some of the windows and you see back-lit miniature transparencies showing some of the people who lived there at the time, in situ. This is a loving personal monument - Hunter was, and still is, one of the street’s residents - to what could have become a forgotten part of London life.

From the 1900s, we then travelled back in time via the Victorian Walk, to before that era of Holmes and Watson, exploring the London of the past… the Great Fire, the Globe Theatre and the Great Bard, the Great Plague, the Danelaw, the Romans… we finished with artefacts excavated from the Temple of Mithras discovered in the City. The cult of Mithras was an early Roman religion with many elements inherited from Ancient Egypt, it was a dominant cult at the time of Jesus and there are many parallels with Christianity. All very interesting, though Mithras' traditional Phrygian cap does make him look rather like he was balancing a guinea pig on his head …and did Serapis, the god of the Mithran underworld, balance a pot of yogurt on his? No that is his modius - a corn measure representing the fertility of the earth above him...

Mithras and Serapis - once you see the guinea pig... 
As we were leaving the museum, there was an added writer-related bonus: a mini Paddington exhibition with his famous hat, case and duffle coat as realised for props in the recent film adaptation. The attention to detail was impressive, with the toggles bearing (sic) the scratch marks cause by little fumbling claws. What thrilled me the most was seeing the typewriter used by Michael Bond to write some of the early books. I was born in the year of its manufacture and some of my earliest bookish memories are going to the children’s section of our local library, with my brother, to borrow the latest Paddington adventure. We read them as they were published and then had to wait impatiently for the next.  The first few were out before I could read, so I have cherished memories of listening to my older brother read them to me – oh, how we laughed and laughed at the antics and adventures of the funny little bear... He was as real to me as Sherlock Holmes!

Michael Bond's 1965 Olympia typewriter
A hugely enjoyable and educational weekend in London rounded off with a Sunday spent at the Museum of London before heading back up north, stopping for a welcome KFC at Oxford Services, minutes before they shut down for the night… much needed coffee was consumed.

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