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Sherlock Holmes iconography (etc.)

2011 July 24

The reader will most likely be aware, by now, that I like Sherlock Holmes, and am assembling a collection of Holmes books. But I’m far from being a “serious” Sherlockian enthusiast, familiar with every bit of lore and trivia, at any rate so far.

Instead you might say I occupy a sort of middle ground, in which I know enough to notice some puzzling phenomena, but not enough to know the explanations forward and backward. For example, the popular image of Sherlock Holmes…

graphic for Mac OS 'Sherlock' program

Amusingly, you really have to search to find anything about the program on Apple's web site, now

Those over 30 may remember the above graphic, for example, used a dozen years ago to promote Apple’s “Sherlock” search application. The “deerstalker” cap is so associated with Sherlock Holmes that, even by itself, it’s effectively a symbol for both Holmes and for detective fiction, generally; many libraries use something like the following to label their mystery stories:

"Mystery" label with Holmes-looking cartoon

Even with a cartoon mustache, the cap and curved pipe create an immediate association between this figure and Sherlock Holmes.

When one begins to get familiar with Sherlock Holmes beyond the popular icon, though, one is left to ask “why?” The image doesn’t really come from Doyle’s stories. The Sherlock Holmes of those works probably spent more time with chemistry equipment than with a magnifying glass, and while he often smoked, he used various kinds of pipes and usually smoked while sitting at home in Baker Street, rather than puffing away everywhere he went. The original illustrations by Sidney Paget don’t really support this image, either, nor do they depict Holmes in a deerstalker and matching caped coat except rarely. For some time, it has indeed been something of a mystery to me.

So I was especially pleased, yesterday, with my selection of Sherlock Holmes: The Published Apocrypha from the local library, which comments at some length on this matter. Editor Jack Tracy writes:

…the popular Holmes image of today owes every bit as much to William Gillette as to Conan Doyle. While it had been Sidney Paget […] who first gave Holmes the deerstalker cap and caped travelling-cloack, it was Gillette who really made them his trademark by wearing them in more than 1,300 performances spanning more than 30 years. [Yow.] It was Gillette too who introduced the curved… pipe. […] The American magazine artist Frederic Dorr Steele, when he began illustrating Holmes for Collier’s Weekly in 1903, based his drawings on Gillette, and the cap, the cloak, the curved pipe, and the silver-headed walking-stick became stereotyped symbols of Sherlock Holmes for millions of people who had never seen the play.

When the Basil Rathbone films began, then, these props were almost obligatory, and then of course became even more deeply associated with Holmes through the cinema. (Which also gave us the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson,” nowhere present in Doyle’s stories, as even the casual Holmes fan learns early on.) Images from the excellent Granada series with Jeremy Brett, in which Holmes usually appears in a typical Victorian gentleman’s wardrobe and wears some sort of bowler or derby style hat much more often than the “traditional” deerstalker, can thus seem jarring and revisionist at first even if they are much more faithful to the original material.

Interesting stuff. Meanwhile, my collection of the original Doyle “canon” has been complete for a while now:

All nine volumes of the Oxford Sherlock Holmes

Check that off my list

Looks pretty good, still generally well-satisfied with this selection. May yet replace this copy of Hound of the Baskervilles and/or do something about that Sign of Four dustjacket. We’ll see.

First, though, I think one of my next projects will be designing some kind of custom bookplate for all the items in my Holmes collection. Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve looked into options online for bookplates and other stickers and not found anything really appealing in terms of value. So I may just go “old school,” and get bookplates produced without any thought to self-adhesive material, then place them in with paste or double-sided tape or something. We’ll see; whatever I come up with will be posted here sooner or later, naturally.

2 Responses
  1. July 25, 2011

    Did you catch the latest Comic Book Legends Revealed? It’s how the Superman phone booth thing is pretty much exclusively limited to two of the old Fleischer cartoons.

    Similarly, most of the public’s perception of Tarzan — especially his speech patterns — comes from the Weissmuller movies, not the original novels.

    Same ideas of a secondary source overpowering the original’s imagery.

  2. Matt permalink
    July 26, 2011

    Yeah, I think this sort of thing actually happens quite a bit. One or two of the early CBLR posts dealt with the many “Superman” concepts which debuted on the radio show, and were then actually folded back into the comic.

    And then as you once noted, “tilting at windmills” was part of the original Don Quixote story, like Holmes’ hat and cape, but ended up growing all out of proportion in the general impression of the character. Probably in part because, in both cases, they’re such unique images that they offer handy symbols for the concept as a whole; Holmes actually wears other clothes at times even in Gillette’s play, but none of them offers the compact and unusual contour of the “deerstalker” cap.

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