Literary Visuality

Exploring the Visual Qualities of Literature

Illustrating Holmes: The indelible contribution of Sidney Paget

I don’t quite know why but always at this time of year I think of Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes stories. Perhaps it has something to do with the countless BBC and ITV adaptations, new and old, that happily seem to grace our television screens at Christmas. Of course, while these adaptations are wonderfully varied and entertaining, nothing quite beats returning to the stories themselves and soaking up their mystery, suspense and delightful oddness.

My love of Holmes is longstanding but really kicked into high gear during my undergraduate English studies at University College Cork (UCC). Taking a seminar entitled Signs and Clues: The Mothers and Fathers of Detective Fiction (led by my tutor Elaine Harrington), I was immersed in the worlds of Doyle, Wilkie Collins, Anna Katharine Green and Edgar Allan Poe. However, it wasn’t until I had to prepare an in-class presentation on Doyle that I came across Sidney Paget‘s original illustrations for the Holmes stories, which appeared together upon their first publication in The Strand Magazine. These images are so evocative of character and scene and so arresting in terms of illustrating drama as to make them an indispensable part of the reading experience. Indeed, Doyle thought highly enough of Paget’s work as to personally request him as illustrator for the serialisation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-2).

The Strand Magazine which ran for 711 issues between 1891 and 1950

The Strand Magazine which ran for 711 issues between 1891 and 1950

Between 1891 and 1904 Sidney Paget (1860-1908) – who seemingly came by his post at The Strand by chance – provided illustrations for some thirty-seven Holmes stories and one novel, namely those collected as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891-2), The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893), The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1903-4), and the aforementioned The Hound of the Baskervilles. In the first of Doyle’s stories to be published in The Strand and illustrated by Paget – “A Scandal in Bohemia” (1891) – Holmes remarks of Watson: “Quite so… you see, but you do not observe.” Thus, and similarly, Paget’s images often serve to illustrate many of the details that hide in plain sight within the text and which confound all but Holmes himself.

Holmes and Wtason puzzle over the titular 'Musgrave Ritual' in a Sidney Paget illustration (signed SP)

Holmes and Watson puzzle over the titular ‘Musgrave Ritual’ in a Sidney Paget illustration (signed SP)

As can be seen in the electronic version of The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Paget’s illustrations are placed for maximum effect at regular intervals throughout the text. In “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual”, for instance, the illustrator’s work (above) enables us to keenly visualise place, something of which is particularly important to the story where place must be calculated according to the titular ritual, a riddle in verse. While many of these images are somewhat still and appropriately meditative, elsewhere Paget renders moments of high tension and drama in Doyle’s text, none more iconic than that of Holmes and Moriarty’s struggle at Reichenbach Falls in “The Final Problem” (1893).

"The Final Problem" as Holmes and Moriarty dramatically fight above the Reichenbach Falls

“The Final Problem” as Holmes and Moriarty dramatically fight above the Reichenbach Falls

Beyond the scope of such spacial or dramatic visualisations of Doyle’s text, however, Paget’s contribution to how we picture the great detective himself is perhaps his most lasting achievement. It is he who is credited with first depicting Holmes with what has become his signature garments: the deerstalker cap and Inverness cape. Nowhere in the stories does Doyle directly mention Holmes as wearing such garments, although he does refer to “his ear-flapped travelling cap” in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”, the first story in which Paget depicts Holmes in this manner. So, while Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and words provide us with no end of enjoyment, excitement and puzzlement, it is to Sidney Paget that we owe such a very great deal in presenting us with some of the earliest and most indelible illustrations of the greatest detective in fiction, Sherlock Holmes.

Paget's Holmes

Sidney Paget’s Sherlock Holmes

Just as, at the beginning of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” (1892), Watson resolves to wish Holmes “the compliments of the season” so too do I send every good wish to you for the coming days and the New Year. Thanks for reading.

Click here for more of Paget’s illustrations of the Holmes stories.

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