London show holds up magnifying glass to Sherlock Holmes

The museum traces the evolution of Holmes,“The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die”

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How do you make an exhibition about a man who never existed?

The Museum of London show on Sherlock Holmes, which opens on Oct. 17 after two years of preparation, acknowledges the conundrum with its title, “The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die.”

Visitors enter the show through doors masquerading as bookshelves in a physical embodiment of the engaging blend of reality and fiction that characterizes British author Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of the world-famous detective.

The displays include everything from the specially designed Belstaff coat worn by Benedict Cumberbatch in the recent BBC series to original manuscripts written in Conan Doyle’s careful cursive.

The author, who aspired to be an eye doctor before turning to literature, can be seen in a 1930 clip of what is believed to be his only filmed interview.

In contrast, his creation has hogged the limelight for over a century. The show’s curators say Holmes is the most-filmed character of all time, starring in over 200 adaptations. The earliest film on display is a French version from 1912.

“The only two characters I found that came close were Dracula and Frankenstein,” said curator Alex Werner.

The museum traces the evolution of Holmes, from the arrival of the famous deerstalker hat in Sidney Paget’s illustrations for the short stories that appeared in the Strand Magazine, to the curved pipe in the theatre performances of William Gillette as Holmes.

Gillette was so intent on impersonating Holmes to the hilt that he even injected himself with liquid cocaine on stage as part of his 1900 portrayal of the opium-loving detective.

The exhibition also devotes a sizeable chunk of space to Victorian London - dubbed by Werner the “third character” in the books after Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson.

The museum has collated London-focused works, including Monet’s painting “Pont de Londres,” railway maps and an immense engraving of the city drawn in 1884 from a hot-air balloon by artists working in shifts, showing Westminster and St Paul’s jostling alongside vast, black industrial chimneys.

“It is funny how London infuses the work of Conan Doyle,” said acclaimed author Anthony Horowitz, who is set to release a second Sherlock-based novel entitled “Moriarty,” after the detective’s famous nemesis.

“It’s an extraordinary moment in London’s history, with the growlers and the cobblestones and the gas lamps and the fogs.”

The Victorian detective originally appeared in 56 short stories and four novellas, including the famous “Hound of the Baskervilles.”

But Conan Doyle’s creation continues to inspire, from the BBC’s acclaimed update to a “kick-ass” Hollywood franchise to Horowitz’s more traditional take, meaning that audiences’ century-old hunt for the detective is far from over.

“My sense is that in a hundred years’ time he’ll still be around,” said Werner. “He may be sent off into space or something, but he’ll still be here.”

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