The modernisation of Sherlock Holmes

Published 4 December 2013

As Sherlock returns to BBC1 and the Museum of London prepares for its Sherlock Holmes exhibition, Matthew Sweet explores the enduring appeal of Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary detective.

There’s a story about the French painter Horace Vernet, which puts him in the thick of a row with Napoleon. The emperor, it seems, wanted him to take an old canvas and erase a general who had fallen from favour. ‘I am a painter of history,’ Vernet replied, ‘and I will not violate the truth.’

Vernet (1789–1863) is now as unfashionable as an artist can be – partly because a man whose work has never gone out of fashion took the trouble to say how much he hated his guts. ‘His pictures are not painting,’ insisted Charles Baudelaire in 1846, ‘but a sort of agile and frequent masturbation, an irritation of the French epidermis.’ Vernet cracked a few out for British clients – notably Lord Kinnaird, who commissioned him to paint a portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte – but his work seems to have lost its stimulating power.

However, Vernet has a descendant with a surer claim on our attention. Accounts of his exploits remain resolutely in print. He has a primetime TV show on both sides of the Atlantic. In autumn 2014 a vast new exhibition at the Museum of London will document his influences. You’ll know him: cocaine user; soil botherer; dab hand with an alembic and a retort, but utterly ignorant of the Copernican shape of the universe. Sherlock Holmes revealed his surprising kinship with Vernet in The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter (1893). ‘My grandmother … was the sister of Vernet, the French artist,’ he tells Dr Watson. ‘Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.’

Holmes has been in the circulatory system of our culture for over 130 years. He is a symbol of the age into which he was born. And yet, unlike Marple or Poirot or Wimsey, he remains unconfined by the prison of his publication date. In the BBC’s Sherlock – which returns in January – Holmes drums up work online and has exchanged his dark shag for a row of Nicorettes. Watson’s Afghan war wound is the result of a Taliban bullet. (An early draft of the first episode opened in Helmand.) Inescapably, though, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are playing the characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle.

I went on the set of the first episode of Sherlock and watched Cumberbatch recumbent in the living room of 221B Baker Street, assuming a trance-like state in order to unwind a long deductive speech. He seemed to retain something of Holmes’s eccentricity when we shared a cab back to his hotel in Cardiff, fidgeting gleefully with a stack of Tupperware boxes that, with admirable parsimony, he had filled with leftovers gleaned from the lunch wagon.

Those who are offended by the modernisation of Holmes misunderstand his relationship with history. In the same month that Czechoslovakia disintegrated, Basil Rathbone became the first actor to play a self-consciously 19th-century Holmes. Before 1939 stage and screen Holmeses had been citizens of the contemporary world. Eille Norwood, who incarnated him in 47 silent features and two-reelers, closed his cases with the support of automobiles and telephones. (Off-screen, he used Holmes to advertise a tonic call Phosferine, which claimed to combat ‘brain fag’ and ‘nerve shock’.) Even Rathbone didn’t stay in the past for long – after Pearl Harbour, Universal Studios called him into service against the Third Reich, redeploying the speeches Doyle had written against the Hun 25 years before: ‘There’s an East Wind coming,’ Rathbone declares, gazing towards a cyclorama of the English Channel. ‘Such a wind as never blew on England yet.’

Horace Vernet was similarly adaptable a man from a royalist background who became an ardent Bonapartist, then a protégé of King Louis Philippe, then the official painter of Second Empire. His true loyalties were to Napoleon: when news of his death reached Paris, the artist lit candles around a bust of the emperor and was struck by a vision of him on horseback. (The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, in which plaster busts are smashed in the hunt for the Black Pearl of the Borgias, would have brought him out in a cold sweat.) There’s another family resemblance, too: Dr Watson characterises his friend as ‘a brain without a heart, as deficient in human sympathy as he was pre-eminent in intelligence.’ Baudelaire identified Vernet’s ‘absence of all passion and a memory like an almanac.’ It’s not impossible that Doyle read those words and took note.

Doyle resented the power of Sherlock Holmes: the detective pushed him to the side of his own career; he retaliated by pushing the detective off an Austrian waterfall, hoping that the public would transfer their affections to his Napoleonic war stories about Brigadier Gerard. They didn’t. But by writing Vernet into the Holmes family history, Doyle shared the burden with a dead French artist. In 2014 the Museum of London will throng with visitors examining artefacts associated with a man who never existed. The four important Vernets owned by the National Gallery, a triptych of battle scenes and the Kinnaird portrait of Bonaparte, will remain where they have been for years – in a store-room, as unregarded as copies of The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard. Sherlock was Horace’s imaginary great-nephew. Arthur Conan Doyle, though, was his brother.

Series three of Sherlock will air on BBC1 in January 2014. The Sherlock Holmes exhibition is at the Museum of London from 17 October 2014 to 12 April 2015. Get 50% off exhibition entry with National Art Pass.

This article appears in the Winter 2013 issue of Art Quarterly. If you would like to subscribe to the magazine, please buy a National Art Pass.

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