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Illustrating Sherlock

Welcome to week two of my 2018 Sherlock Holmes adventure.

(If you missed week one, you can catch up here.)

I am re-reading and illustrating one Sherlock Holmes story every week this year. Week two takes us to the second Holmes novel, The Sign of Four.

The story

On the surface this is a very different story from A Study in Scarlet. Holmes and Watson are already established in their flat in Baker Street, and are soon sent to assist a “wronged woman” in receipt of a mysterious summons.

So far, so different.

Underneath, however, this novel shares the same skeleton as the first Holmes story. A mysterious murder is committed. An overseas adventure sparks a long-gestating revenge plot. A young woman falls in love.

I will not spoil the secrets here, but I can say that, at least, Conan Doyle shuffles his pack and plays the same cards in a slightly different way.

Revenge, as meted out in A Study in Scarlet, had an honourable motive. In The Sign of Four, betrayal is met with revenge, however it could hardly be called just.

The love-struck lady in The Sign of Four is someone we will meet again. A Study in Scarlet’s unlucky lovers suffer a much bleaker fate.

The fallible Mr Holmes

The most interesting development, for me, in The Sign of Four is the discovery that Sherlock Holmes is not always right.

We find out here that he can make mistakes. His deductions are not always 100% correct. Do not fear, for he gets there in the end, but we are in the company here of a man who is sometimes several steps behind his quarry. This, I believe, makes him far more interesting.

Another interesting “fact” that I had not remembered from my many-years-ago readings of these books, is that Holmes is not really that old.

Published in 1890, but set earlier, The Sign of Four features a Sherlock Holmes who is probably only 33 or 34. Certainly, a man much younger than the picture I hold in my head.

Which leads us to our next topic…

The many faces of Sherlock Holmes

Whether it is Benedict Cumberbatch, Basil Rathbone, or Jeremy Brett, we all see a particular face when we picture Sherlock.

The first person to bring the character to life, visually, was illustrator David Henry Friston. His take on the character was published alongside A Study in Scarlet in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, 1887.

When published in novel form the illustrations were by Charles Doyle, the author’s father. Far be it from me to criticise another illustrator’s work, however I can’t help but agree with the majority view that this was a step backwards in terms of quality.

You can see samples of D. H. Friston’s work in this article by Sherlock Holmes blogger Paul Hayes. Finding examples of Charles Doyle’s efforts was a little harder, but you can see some here, in this Sherlock Holmes forum. The fact that no one seems entirely sure who is who, is not a glowing endorsement of the artwork.

For many, the defining illustrator was Sidney Paget.

Paget was selected to illustrate the short stories that came after The Sign of Four, which were initially published in the Strand. I say Paget, but it appears that the magazine was initially trying to recruit Walter Paget for the gig, Sidney’s brother, but the letter ended up on the older brother’s desk and the work was his.

Follow this link to see a wide selection of Sidney Paget’s Sherlock Holmes illustrations. Can you honestly tell me that this is not the Sherlock Holmes that you see when you picture him?

Making my own mark

It’s impossible to ignore the hundred and thirty years’ worth of imagery that comes with Sherlock Holmes.

Having said that, once I had chosen this challenge for myself, I made sure not to seek out other artists’ interpretations until after my initial illustration was done. Instead I sought inspiration from the descriptions in the books. Tall, lean – “excessively” so – with sharp and piercing eyes. A “thin, hawk-like nose” and a square chin, which marks “the man of determination”. Apparently.

These are the features I let seep into my brain as I sketched my first illustration.

A Study in Scarlet Sherlock Holmes illustration digital art doctor dr watson victorian costume

When it came time to capture Sherlock for a second time, I was keen to build on this. To really get into the character of his face.

sherlock holmes the sign of four digital art illustration black and white

Only kidding.

I drew him with his back to us and John Watson in the foreground. After all, these stories are really all about the Doctor, aren’t they?

But that is a topic for another day…


You can see more of my artwork in my online portfolio.

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