Sherlock Holmes. What is the image that forms in your mind’s eye when you think of the world’s most famous consulting detective?
For many, it is the open, engaging face of Basil Rathbone, sporting his iconic deerstalker and Inverness cape. Others may picture the elegant and genteel version that Peter Cushing presented on the BBC. Or perhaps it can be none other than the mercurial Jeremy Brett, who single-handedly dragged an entire generation of new fans into his Holmesian orbit with his relentless pursuit of authenticity. Even now, there are myriads for whom the youthful visage of Benedict Cumberbatch is Sherlock Holmes.
Television and films have featured so many versions of the great detectives, brought to life with varying success and acceptance by the public of the day. But what is the original source for all of these interpretations, and what image did people form of Sherlock Holmes before the advent of TV or films? For this, we must look back to 1891 and The Strand Magazine.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson from “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter” (1893)
Arthur Conan Doyle desribed his most famous literary creation as a tall, thin man, over six feet but appearing even taller due to his extreme leanness. He had heavy, tufted eyebrows and a thin, hawk-like nose, with eyes rather close together on his thin face. Not a handsome man by any stretch of the imagination! And yet, when Sherlock Holmes stories first began appearing The Strand Magazine, where they quickly gained a huge and loyal following, this was not the image seen by readers.
Portrait of Sidney Paget
Sidney Paget (1860-1908), a product of the Royal Academy Schools, was hired by the magazine in 1891 to produce illustrations to accompany each adventure of Sherlock Holmes as they appeared in print. Over the next 14 years, he provided 356 published drawings within the pages of The Strand Magazine, for 37 Sherlock Holmes short stories and one novel. It was the talented Sidney Paget that truly provided us with the popular and most enduring image of Sherlock Holmes, a depiction somewhat at odds with Doyle’s. Gone were the tufted brows and beady eyes, the nose now less aquiline and hawk-like; for Paget, according to legend, chose to have his handsome younger brother, Walter, serve as his model, and become the face of Sherlock Holmes for generations to follow.
Who knows what our image of Sherlock Holmes would be, were it not for Sidney Paget and his wonderful illustrations. For me, Paget will always be the artist.