The many faces of Sherlock Holmes in the Czech lands

In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes, photo: ČT art

An exhibition in Opava, called In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes has focussed on how, in the 20th century Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective was depicted and in some cases misrepresented or even parodied in the Czech lands. The show, covering book illustration but also theatre and film, was put together by art historian Tomáš Kolich.

Tomáš Kolich,  photo: ČT art
In our interview for the Arts, I began by asking Mr Kolich when it was that he first came across the famous detective.

“I never read any of the Sherlock Holmes stories before I was 20 but the impulse came from my girlfriend who was reading them and we also went to see the 2009 version or reimagining of the character starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. And what surprised me was in fact that the characters of Holmes and Watson in this film were in some ways closer to the original characters in the books. Because I am an art historian, I decided to write a paper on the differences in how the characters were depicted, along with their main props or attributes, in illustration and film.”

That was your thesis…

“My bachelor’s thesis, several years ago, yes.”

That Guy Ritchies’ film is in some ways more faithful is fascinating… but before we get to that what are some of the visual attributes that are the most important, as Conan Doyle imagined him.

“Certainly there is the deerstalker hat, the violin and the pipe. The pipe is very important because he smokes it when thinking about the crime he is trying to solve it is an integral part of the process. There are other elements as well, the magnifying glass, but those are less important and there are others aspects that were forgotten in how he was depicted: his physicality, his abilities as a boxer or student of some martial arts. For me, the deerstalker and the pipe are the most prominent visual attributes.”

For a reader. or film viewer for that matter, is it more common to relate to Holmes than the more “grounded” Watson?

“Interestingly, the dynamic of the two characters was quite equal in the books and readers could go back and forth between the two. But during the 20th century, film viewers were far more likely to identify with Holmes: the character of Watson changed. He became more fat and dull and buffoonish. So it was far easier to identify with Sherlock. The Ritchie films sort of corrected the situation and made both of them interesting. Much of the time, Watson is more reasonable while Holmes becomes more irritating or antisocial.”

In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes,  photo: ČT art
When the cast was originally announced, I remember thinking that it should be the other way around, that Law was physically closer to the original Sidney Paget illustrations… it proved to be an inspired decision, though. In what way is Downey Jr.’s Sherlock closer to the original?

“I felt he made the character dangerous again. I felt he could handle situations he could fight if he had to. They dropped the cloak and he is much more energetic. You can find that in the books. I felt he could solve the crime but was not just an aging Victorian gentleman solving crimes and drinking tea.”

If we talk about the Czech Republic and especially Czechoslovakia before it, how was the character depicted here? It appears he went through many different transformations and mutations – some by accident. What did you find in your research?

“This was fascinating for me. For, it is necessary to point out that the Czechoslovakia was on the periphery when it came to the detective novel and Sherlock Holmes in particular.

There were quite a number of misunderstandings and there were different versions.

Watson and Holmes by Sideny Paget
“In books, the most important figure was the publisher Josef Richard Vilímek and he used two strategies. One was to reprint the original illustrations by Sidney Paget; the other was to commission original illustrations from Josef Friedrich. And although Friedrich was a professional, for some reason he had real trouble drawing the deerstalker hat. It never came out right.

“Basically, he drew it with one peak and it looked like some sort of cap but not the one associated with the detective but more like something you would wear to the beach. It was weird. The historical deerstalker just wasn’t familiar to Czechs and in fact it didn’t make a proper appearance in Czech illustration until the second half of the 20th century. So it was sort of ‘Czech’ Sherlock Holmes.”

“The deerstalker hat is one of the detectives most recognizable items; but such a cap was unknown to most in the Czech lands.”

“On the other hand, there were cases where the attributes, by the same illustrator, were well understood. That was, for example, in Maurice LeBlanc’s Arsene Lupin contra Sherlock Holmes where the detective is shown with the pipe, the magnifying glass and so on.”

“In theatre, we know about three plays from around 1907 – 1910 and the depiction was very different. No deerstalker, no pipe, but just ordinary cigarettes and when he apprehends the villain he does so with two pistols in his hand. There were also parodies. The first movie with him here in 1923, called Únos bankéře Fuxe (The Kidnapping of Fux the Banker) ridiculed the character by giving him an enormous pipe and an enormous cap. Rather than solving crimes he creates only more problems: So we can see that they understood Sherlock Holmes well enough to make fun of it.” Were there any other cases of misrepresentation?

“There was a very rare case where one illustrator depicted Sherlock Holmes as a Philip Marlowe-type character even prior to the film noir films. But that was very unusual. Later in the 20th century, depictions of the great detective were more conventional.”

Arthur Conan Doyle was never really satisfied with how his detective was depicted…

“That’s true.”

“Conan Doyle said in his autobiography that every version of Sherlock Holmes he saw during his lifetime was different from the one he imagined or intended.”

If that is the case, what you were saying about the many different faces of Holmes was in order I suppose; he might be able to choose from among them today…

“He said in his autobiography that every version he saw during his lifetime was different from the one he imagined or intended. So I think it is perfectly fine that there are so many versions. You can try to pay tribute to the wishes of Arthur Conan Doyle and return to Sherlock Holmes as a Victorian gentleman. Or we can try and create a more realistic version for today but recreating the excitement original 1890s readers must have felt.”