Arthur Conan Doyle claimed never to have visited Baker Street, then a monotonous eighteenth-century tributary of the Marylebone Road. He was presumably more familiar with the streets a few roads over: the fictional nervous disease specialist Percy Trevelyan, client in The Resident Patient, assures Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson that ‘a specialist who aims high is compelled to start in one of a dozen streets in the Cavendish Square quarter’ and in the 1890s, while trying to establish himself as an eye specialist, Conan Doyle lived precisely here, on Upper Wimpole Street – the ‘long unlovely street’, also haunted by the bereaved Alfred Tennyson of In Memoriam A.H.H., which runs almost parallel to the site of 221B.
Holmes, by contrast to his creator, operates from the less fashionable, rather undefined, area further to the west. On Baker Street, he is within shooting distance of the medical profession, but rather on their geographical margins. Yet, as a ‘consulting detective’, structurally Holmes occupies much the same position as the medical specialist: outside the echelons of the mainstream British law-enforcers, he, like Percy Trevelyan, embodies knowledge gathered over years of study, upon which he can draw as required. ‘There is a strong family resemblance about misdeeds,’ Holmes tells Watson in A Study in Scarlet, ‘and if you have all the details of a thousand at your finger ends, it is odd if you can’t unravel the thousand and first.’
Today, of course, Holmes is as indelibly marked on Baker Street as medicine is on Wimpole and Harley Street, to the point that he could almost be called a London landmark in himself. The tiles at Baker Street underground station, adorned with silhouette, deerstalker hat and pipe, indicate what is above ground (or not), while, in the 1940s, the offshoot York Mews South was renamed Sherlock Street, writing the shadowy detective onto the London A-Z. Even 221B, which has never existed, has been established and fixed: the ‘Sherlock Holmes Museum’ opened at its estimated spot in 1990 and operates from Holmes’ fictional address with special dispensation from the City of Westminster. It behaves in most ways like a literary house museum, and even displays a simulacrum of the so-called ‘blue plaque’ on its frontage to commemorate its illustrious occupant. But it is not a real blue plaque; their (English Heritage-administered) terms do not allow them to be awarded to fictional characters. In fact, the subtitle of this exhibition at the Museum of London - drawn from Vincent Starrett's poem 221B - declares Holmes doubly ineligible: he is (it declares) ‘the man who never lived and will never die’. Originally called 'memorial plaques', and bearing more than a passing resemblance to the so-called 'tombstone' wall labels in galleries, blue plaques are only for the dead.
"As a consulting detective, structurally, Holmes occupies the same position as the medical specialist."
By contrast - before even considering the question of filmic or touristic afterlife - even within the 60 Conan Doyle stories that make up his career, Holmes dies (The Final Problem) and is resurrected. The story with which Conan Doyle brought him back to ‘life’ in 1903 was called The Adventure of the Empty House, a blasphemous echo of the ‘empty tomb’ of John 20, or indeed the ‘dark house’ on Wimpole Street where Tennyson stood ‘waiting for a hand’ in 1849. In Holmes’ empty house – an abandoned building opposite 221B – Watson sees the silhouette of a decoy waxwork of Holmes. ‘There was no mistaking the poise of the head, the squareness of the shoulders, the sharpness of the features’ he says. ‘It was a perfect reproduction of Holmes’. Uncannily, Watson’s description of this silhouette (‘thrown into hard black outline upon the luminous screen of the window’) is as much a description of the wonderful proto-noir Sidney Paget illustrations of the detective (many on display here) as of the ‘real’ Holmes. Maybe it is the dummy we see on profile on the Bakerloo line. It would in any case be geographically apt, since Madame Tussaud’s has been just up the road from Holmes since 1832.
The importance of metropolitan geography to these stories is beautifully explored in this exhibition whose galleries (like the permanent ones upstairs) proceed in a vaguely disorienting, byway-like spiral. In The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, Watson describes how his companion ‘…loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people, with his filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to every little rumour or suspicion of unsolved crime.’ This extract is reproduced here next to a nineteenth-century view of London from atop the Monument, with the ‘filaments’ of London streets spanning out from this central point, surveyed by the great landmark in the centre, the only viewpoint truly able to comprehend it. London, this exhibition reveals, was full of people who sought, detective-like, to classify it, order it, and fix its meaning. In the BBC series Sherlock this was explored through the metaphor of modern networks and electronics, but in 1889 Charles Booth colour-coded London's streets with the labels ‘comfortable’, ‘well-off’ or ‘semi-criminal’ in his ‘Descriptive Map of London Poverty’. Meanwhile, a contemporary post office directory listed those streets’ occupants by occupation – chandler maker, whip mounter, ladies’ school. Alongside this scientific system is the more jovial popular approach of the graphic artist: William Nicholson’s lovely series of 1898 lithographs illustrates a series of ‘London types’ (sandwich seller, drum major, mounted policeman).
"Holmes loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people, with his filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to every little rumour or suspicion of unsolved crime."
The final room, a large spiral, displays nineteenth-century medical, forensic and ocular equipment, of the type Conan Doyle might have used in Upper Wimpole Street. The motif of the eye naturally links Conan Doyle with his all-observing creation, but these displays are also – like Sherlock Holmes himself – in themselves excellent metaphors for the museum, archive or exhibition as a whole, which is also all about categorising, looking and, finally, unveiling (with a dramatic flourish). It feels appropriate, then, that the interpretation here invites us not to wonder or feel amazement, but to look, sift and analyse when confronted withthe Times agony column or the mender’s marks in a pocket watch.
But, unlike most museum displays (which visitor polls throughout the twentieth century revealed were popularly conflated with 'monuments to the dead'), this exhibition, which you enter and exit through a false wall bookcase, is a kind of empty house. Visitors, cued to forensic analysis, are shown reels of Sherlocks - from Rathbone to Cumberbatch - all claiming to be the real thing, but of course none of them are. Besides film, the dominant medium here is print, etching or lithography: books, posters, illustrations, newspapers, all easily reproducible formats, often in shadowy black and white, speaking both of mass consumption and an absent 'original'. Next to Booth's analysis of London by street, timelapse video footage allows visitors to ‘fly through’ Holmes and Watson’s London journeys: in modern cars, with modern cameras, they overwrite Victorian London with the twenty-first century city, and repeat journeys that were never undertaken. It's a lovely meander through Holmes' London streets, but, naturally, it will never pin him down.
Sherlock Holmes: the Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die is on at the Museum of London until 12 April.