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Holmes exhibit spans centuries

| Tuesday, May 20, 2014, 9:06 p.m.

LONDON — The Museum of London is turning its magnifying glass on the most famous Londoner who never lived — Sherlock Holmes.

The museum on Tuesday announced an exhibition devoted to Arthur Conan Doyle's Victorian detective, featuring everything from hand-written manuscripts to the coat worn by Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC series “Sherlock.”

It's the first time the history museum has built a show around a fictional character. But Holmes is one of those rare characters who has long outlived his maker and captured the public imagination for more than a century.

“There are people out there who think he's a real person,” said Alex Werner, the exhibition's lead curator. “His profile has never been higher.”

Werner said with a new generation discovering the character through the BBC's “playful and reverential” adaptation, the timing seemed right for a major retrospective.

“This is the moment to say: He is one of London's icons. He helped make London what it is,” Werner said.

The exhibition — which will open Oct. 17 and run through April 12 — examines the character's origins, in a series of stories by doctor-turned-writer Conan Doyle, and his evolution through myriad stage and screen adaptations.

Werner said the aim was to “peel back the layers” of a character who is simultaneously cerebral sleuth, forensic scientist, drug-taking bohemian and archetypal Englishman.

The show draws liberally from the museum's large collection of Victorian costumes and artifacts, including a 19th-century syringe; Holmes infamously relieved boredom with a 7 percent solution of cocaine in water.

The Free Library of Philadelphia has loaned pages from Edgar Allan Poe's handwritten manuscript for the 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” It's often considered the first modern detective yarn and was a childhood favorite of Conan Doyle.

There's also an oil portrait of Conan Doyle, painted in 1897 by Sidney Paget, whose illustrations for the original stories in Strand magazine created the lean, hawkish Holmes of popular imagination. Pat Hardy, the museum's curator of paintings, prints and drawings, noted that the solid, moustache-sporting Conan Doyle looks distinctly Dr. Watson-ish.

And no modern Sherlock show would be complete without the flowing Belstaff overcoat worn by Cumberbatch in “Sherlock” — a garment that's something of a style icon in itself.

The artifacts will be set alongside paintings, prints and photographs of late 19th-century London, including the evocative but little-known illustrations of American artist Joseph Pennell, on loan from the Library of Congress. The images — like the stories — evoke a vast, polluted metropolis of foggy streets and horse-drawn hansom cabs, bustling crowds and screams in the night.

Hardy said the exhibition hoped to underline “the importance of London to the stories. It seems to have been taken for granted.”

Werner said the exhibition will end with a “near-death experience” inspired by the detective's demise over the Reichenbach Falls in the 1893 story “The Final Problem.”

Even then, Holmes did not stay dead for long. A fan outcry led Conan Doyle to revive him in 1903.

“Almost as soon as Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes he was trying to kill him off,” Werner said. “He thought the Sherlock Holmes stories were a minor form of fiction.”

History has proved him wrong.

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