Creating the Myth of Holmes



A tall, dark-haired man with a thin, prominent nose sits sunk in an easy chair gazing intently over his steepled fingers. Who is this man? It’s Sherlock Holmes, and if you happen to notice a plaid cape and a deerstalker cap hanging by the door, you should have no doubts at all about his identity. Even people who have never read a Holmes story in their lives recognize the deerstalker cap and curved pipe, as emblems of the greatest detective.

Most people know that the author of the Holmes stories was Arthur Conan Doyle and he based Holmes’s amazing deductive skills on a man he once knew, Dr. Joseph Bell, a physician who was able to make accurate observations about his patients based on the smallest details. But you may not know that Doyle never once mentions a deerstalker cap in the Holmes canon. He describes Holmes as a smoker, and the basics of the detective’s physical appearance are clear. In the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, Dr. Watson describes Holmes thus on meeting him for the first time:

In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. 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 and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.

But besides being tall and thin and having a “hawk-like” nose, the other details are missing. Thus, where do we get the instantaneously recognizable image of Sherlock Holmes that is so embedded in our cultural consciousness we only have to see a deerstalker cap and pipe to think “Holmes”? Do we get these ideas from the many, many movies and other visual adaptations of the Holmes series? Yes, partly. But all those movies and pictures were influenced by the very first images of the great detective: the black-and-white illustrations that originally accompanied the Holmes stories in the Strand magazine where they were first published in the 1880s.

The artist who drew those illustrations, Sidney Paget, became almost a co-creator with Arthur Conan Doyle of the common cultural image of Sherlock Holmes. His work helped to popularize the series, and eventually his dramatic style became so associated with the way we think Holmes should look, that later illustrators and even movie makers could hardly help but be influenced by him.

Sidney Paget studied art at the Royal Academy, the standard school for artists at the time. Two of his brothers were also artists. Though Paget did paintings that were accepted into Academy exhibitions, he was not particularly successful as an independent artist, and is not remembered for that work today. In fact, the fateful pairing of Sidney Paget with Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories came about as an accident. The Strand magazine intended to commission Sidney’s brother Walter to do the illustrations for the first Holmes story, but sent their letter to Sidney instead.

Paget’s illustrations were initially fairly small, although as the Holmes series grew in popularity, later stories often contained at least one dramatic full-page drawing. They were black and white, since the magazine would not have been published with color printing at that time. Paget drew them with pen and ink, and sometimes watercolor washes to create atmospheric lighting effects. In overall style they were not unusual for the time, but Paget had a gift for scene-setting and focus that fit the dramatic moments of the series.

Most importantly he quickly established a characteristic personality for Holmes communicated clearly through gesture and pose. His Holmes has a quiet confidence easily seen in the way he sits comfortably listening to his clients in the earliest story illustrations. As additional stories were published, Paget built on this foundation, giving Holmes a keen and eager expression in some illustrations, such as the way he sits alertly forward in his train seat on the way to investigate the Silver Blaze mystery. He also began to use more creative lighting effects in the drawings, to the degree that he is sometimes credited with being the father of film noir detective stories. Certainly, the later Holmes tales have illustrations with deeper, gloomier shadows and often side lighting that gives the effect of a stage spotlight.

Silver Blaze incidentally is the first story where Paget depicts Holmes wearing a deerstalker cap and Inverness cape. These were not details Doyle included in the tale, but Paget’s imaginative interpretation of the way Holmes would prepare to hike over the moors.

It was said Paget based Holmes’s appearance on his brother Walter, but another Paget brother later denied this. He said Paget had just invented the look for the detective. It’s easy to see as you look through Paget’s drawings that Holmes had become a very real personality to the illustrator.

Possibly one of Paget’s most famous illustrations is the one showing Holmes struggling with Moriarty on the brink of the falls in The Final Problem. Here we can see his gift for dramatic staging and lighting at its best—the whole composition is simplified into deep dark shadowy cliffs, and the bright falls behind, which divide the page evenly. You might even guess that the dark and light division echoes the theme of the ultimate fight between good and evil. Artistically, Paget uses the dark against light to create an intensely gripping focal point to the drawing. The shadowy path leads the viewer’s eye directly to the two figures, which are silhouetted stunningly against the white of the falls. Moriarty thrusts one hand skyward in a gesture of hopelessness or desperation while at the same time Holmes’s cap is falling off the brink of the cliff. It’s no wonder this image cemented the myth of Sherlock Holmes in readers’ minds.

Though Doyle occasionally complained about Paget’s work, saying he had made Holmes too handsome, he must have been pleased in the end. Eight years after the release of The Final Problem when Doyle published The Hound of the Baskervilles, he specifically requested Paget as illustrator. Perhaps he knew that Paget’s work was already inextricably linked to the idea of Sherlock Holmes in the minds of his readers.

Unfortunately, Sidney Paget died comparatively young, at age forty-seven, before the last collections of Holmes stories were even written. It’s tantalizing to imagine how he might have added to those tales. But at least we can easily enjoy many of the Holmes short stories as they were originally seen by readersthe Paget illustrations are reproduced in many print versions of the Holmes canon and can even be found online. And the next time you see a deerstalker cap, remember the man who helped create the myth of Sherlock Holmes. ■



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