‘Pentonville Road: Looking Westwards’ by John O’Connor, like John Anderson’s ‘The Houses of Parliament, Westminster Bridge and Abbey’ are gems of the late nineteenth century paintings collection.
Considered for a long time as deeply unfashionable, prime examples of Victorian art, they have been brought out of store and are now on display in the Sherlock Holmes exhibition at the museum. Both typify the world of Sherlock Holmes which we try to convey in the exhibition and both evoke the sense of London at the close of the nineteenth century; busy, vibrant, confident, wealthy, but also mysterious and even menacing. Anderson’s painting seems almost apocalyptic with its swirling cloud, moonlight and huge Gothic architecture. By placing them in a rich selection of artwork, much of it assembled from our own collections, we get a wonderful idea of how London looked at this time.
As the largest city in the world in 1900, the Imperial capital attracted people of every nationality, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle exploited in the stories – introducing exotic poisons and snakes from South America, rare jewels from India or German military spies or wealthy ranch owners from the States. It was a city of movement, and the railways feature heavily. Holmes rushes out to suburban villas where dark misdeeds are carried out in the wooded seclusion or ventures further afield like Dartmoor to visit Baskerville Hall and the moors.
Pentonville Road looking Westwards 1884 evokes an almost spiritual quality of the railway. Here the spires of St Pancras railway hotel rise up to meet the glorious sunset, inviting comparison with a cathedral or temple of worship. The glistening railway terminus behind reminds us of the importance of the rail network in Victorian society and also in the stories by moving characters around quickly and punctually. But, in the foreground, the hustle and bustle of the street with the postman, policemen, woman hailing an omnibus with her umbrella, soldier, sandwich board man and commuters, all point to the density of the population and make us wonder about their individual stories.
The many photographs in the exhibition, from the extensive archive at the Museum of London, also capture the huge numbers of people on the streets competing with the hansom cabs, horses and omnibuses in a chaotic melee. We can vividly imagine what it would have been like to walk along the Strand looking towards Trafalgar Square or dodging the traffic at Piccadilly.
These documentary photographs contrast with the works of American photographer, Alvin Langdon Coburn who saw London in 1909 with new eyes. The museum has a wonderful collection of atmospheric photogravures, some of which are on display in the exhibition. The foggy haze engulfs well known landmarks creating a mood of suspense and uncertainty, exemplifying the unease at the beginning of the Holmes stories when a problem or mystery is presented.
Coburn made London into a city of great beauty with striking viewpoints and distinctive lighting effects, in which well known landmarks like Westminster or Waterloo Bridge become blurred and out of focus. Street lamps emerge from the gloom casting a strange artificial light and intermittent fog and smoke play with the sunlight creating unusual shadows. This image of London in the stories of Sherlock Holmes, is dominant and ever present. Fog, hansom cabs, gas lamps, reflections on the Thames, ceremonial spaces, busy streets and ornate hotels combine to make London a vivid, vibrant context for the world’s most famous consulting detective.
We have presented a snap shot of Victorian art in the Sherlock Holmes exhibition, but it is only a glimpse of what we hold in the collections – for more, take a look at our collections online or make an appointment to visit the works not display and you’ll see the rich holdings we have!