Sherlock’s Home

221b Baker Street, London NW1 6XE

220px-sherlock_holmes_portrait_pagetIn case of any misunderstanding, let us make one thing clear: Sherlock Holmes is a FICTIONAL character. His house, however, is very real. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned the famous novels, he gave the consulting detective, Mr Holmes, a London address. Baker Street, in the Marylebone district of the City of Westminster, is now famous for this classic character’s apartment.

Back in 1887, when the first Sherlock Holmes book A Study In Scarlet was published, the addresses on Baker Street only went as high as 85, therefore it was a safe, fictional location for Conan Doyle to base his hero. In 1930, the street was expanded, thus the building 221 came into existence.

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London businesses in the Baker Street area have taken advantage of the famous connection by naming their shops, pubs and cafes after the celebrated detective. The site of Sherlock Holmes’ home however, was not brought into connection with the stories until 27th March 1990, when it was opened to the public as the Sherlock Holmes Museum.

Set out in a typical Victorian fashion, visitors can walk around the building imagining what life would have looked like for Holmes and his friend, Dr Watson. With furniture, objets d’art and miscellaneous paraphernalia, the museum curators have sourced objects from the victorian era to create an authentic experience. Sticking closely to the description in the novels and short stories, realistic scenes are displayed in each room.

As indicated by the Blue Plaque on the front of the building, Sherlock Holmes lived at 221b Baker Street between the years 1881-1904. The apartment, which begins on the first floor, was shared between Holmes and Dr John Watson, as well as their landlady, Mrs Hudson. Sherlock’s rooms can be found on the first floor, and Watson and Hudson’s on the second.

Those familiar with the BBC’s contemporary reimagining, Sherlock, may have been misled about the size of the abode. The rooms are surprisingly tiny for an area regarded as a high-class residential district, however readers will know from Dr Watson’s description, that the apartment really was quite small.

Dr John Watson’s bedroom is set out as a doctor’s study, and therefore lacks a bed or anything else to suggest it was used for sleeping. In cabinets and on the cramped desk are books and implements that physicians were likely to have had amongst their possessions during the late 1800s.

Mrs Hudson, presumably as a result of being the landlady, had the biggest room of the house. Due to her being only a minor character in the stories however, nothing is shown of what her quarters may have looked like. Instead, the room has been used as an exhibition area, containing a bronze bust of Sherlock Holmes and various wax models of characters from the more well-known tales.

The museum, unfortunately, lacks written information, therefore visitors need to know a fair bit about Sherlock Holmes to understand the relevance of the various displays and exhibits. The models, for example, come with a brief caption stating who they are, but unless the observer has read the books, they are meaningless. One scene showing a wax-woman firing a pistol at a wax-man does not make clear who is the victim – the man, surely, for he his being murdered? However, knowing the plot of The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, it is actually Lady Eva Blackwell killing her blackmailer, thus avenging her husband.

Being on the small side, the Sherlock Holmes Museum only has room for a handful of visitors at a time. As a result, queues are seen down Baker Street as tourists await their turn to enter the famous building. Despite these restrictions, the house feels very claustrophobic, and guests are constantly bumping into each other. Most people want to take photographs, but how well their shots come out depends on the location of the large party of sightseers that have entered the museum in their dozens.

Sherlock Holmes – no doubt due to the BBC programme – is surprisingly popular amongst European and Asian tourists. Flicking through the guestbook, which everyone is welcome to sign, it is hard to spot another visitor from England amongst all the entries from Japan, China, Sweden and so forth. The museum caters for these foreigners by providing a brief leaflet in their own language explaining the opening of the building to the public, and a concise description of its fictional inhabitants.

The museum is not quite worth its £15 entry fee, but it is impressive to be able to say “I have been to Sherlock Holmes’ house!” The souvenir shop, despite being expensive, makes up for some of the disappointment visitors may have felt with the poky rooms above. Located on the ground floor, the shop is open to everyone regardless of whether they intend to view the museum or not. On sale are a unique selection of mementos, such as t-shirts, novelty playing cards, posters, stationery and other trinkets, as well as special editions of the novels and short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the many books written on the subject since. Whether you intend to purchase something or not, the souvenir shop is as interesting to look around as the initial attraction.

With the TV series Sherlock still fresh in everyone’s mind, it is unlikely that the popularity or sheer number of visitors to the museum will diminish anytime soon. The Grade 2 listed building has a long future ahead of it, attracting fans from all over the world. From the Blue Plaque outside, to the authenticity of its content, it is easy to forgot that Sherlock Holmes only existed on paper, and not in flesh and blood.

Michelangelo and the Risen Christ

The current exhibition at the National Gallery, Michelangelo & Sebastiano (I wrote about this a few weeks back) emphasises the impact Christianity – mostly Catholicism – had on artists of the early Renaissance. The Renaissance era itself, a word that means rebirth, was a European movement that brought about the rediscovery of Classical Greek Philosophy, thus painters began refocusing on mythological stories. However, Florentine art during the years of Michelangelo (1475-1564) was still greatly influenced by the Church and papacy.

Whether as a result from commissions, or his own personal preferences, Michelangelo’s artwork suggests a fascination with the resurrection of Christ. Naturally, other biblical scenes were also popular, the birth of Christ for instance, but it is the death and resurrection that was most prominent in the choice of artwork exhibited.

The way Michelangelo chose to depict the body of Christ goes against all logic. Putting cultural misrepresentation aside, the paintings portraying the crucifixion are far too pure and clean, diminishing the pain and horror of death. Rather than presenting a realistic account of events, Michelangelo painted an impression of the immortal soul, rather than flawed, damaged physique. Instead of blood, sweat and tears, Christ is a symbol of celestial beauty and grace.

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As well as paintings, Michelangelo turned to sculpture to demonstrate his version of the Risen Lord. At the beginning of the 16th century, Michelangelo produced two marble statues of The Risen Christ (The Giustiniani Christ). The first attempt was abandoned after a vein of black marble became visible in Christ’s face, thus making it less than perfect. An unknown artist finished the job in the early 17th century.

The second version, located in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, is slightly different. Christ is positioned in a different stance, stepping forward on one foot, suggesting a continuation of the Easter story, rather than concluding it with the resurrection.

 

In both statues, Christ is portrayed nude – presumably because he has only that moment risen from the tomb – clutching a linen cloth and holding up the cross, as if posing in triumph over death.

Michelangelo was not trying to be provocative in his decision to sculpt Jesus nude, he wanted to give the impression of perfection by using this classical form. Unfortunately, this has resulted in unintentionally making Christ appear like a pagan god.

Primarily known for his solo work, Michelangelo held great influence over his Italian contemporary Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547). As a result, Sebastiano shares Michelangelo’s aesthetic visions and almost replicates the exact same style. Often the pair would collaborate on a commission, Michelangelo providing initial sketches, and Sebastiano executing the final outcome.

The Borgherini Chapel Project (1516-24) is a significant example of the work produced when the two joined forces. Pierfrancesco Borgherini commissioned Sebastiano to decorate the chapel located in the San Pietro in Montorio church in Rome, however Michelangelo also contributed toward the masterpiece.

50854859_9b53780fde_zThe plan was for Michelangelo to provide Sebastiano with sketches of the design, however due to another commission, Sebastiano was largely left to his own devices. Michelangelo only provided drawings for the lower section, The Flagellation of Christ, but Sebastiano was just as capable of tackling the remaining sections alone.

The resulting artwork has been labelled as the most influential of their joint works, and has resulted in countless interpretations. The National Gallery has recreated the masterpiece through means of 3D printing, which successfully conveys the atmospheric effect of the original.

As with Michelangelo’s statues and paintings of Christ, Sebastiano has retained the god-like aura when painting Jesus’ body. The idea of the artwork is that Christ appears twice, thus telling parts of his death and resurrection: the Flagellation and Transfiguration. In the upper dome, Christ is depicted in a dazzling white, symbolising his purity and flawlessness of character. His disciples look on in awestruck wonder, whilst Moses and Elijah, prophets of the Old Testament, regard the event from either side.

In contrast, the version of Christ in the lower half, the Flagellation, is much darker and distressing. Shown here is Jesus chained to a pillar, being flogged by Romans. Stripped of clothing and in evident pain, his suffering is distinctly illustrated. Yet, Christ is still represented as a superhuman character. His toned body and strong muscles betray Michelangelo’s visualisation of Christ in the same vein as an Ancient Greek or Roman god. Although this is an inaccurate portrayal of the biblical record, it does help to emphasise the primary intention of the artwork. The Flagellation emphasises the corrupt state of Christianity in the early 16th century, whilst the Transfiguration provides hope for a more glorious future.

Were Michelangelo and Sebastiano right to depict Christ in such god-like proportions? Some would argue yes, for he was the son of God. Others would be less inclined to agree. With the latest versions of technology at our disposal, artists and film makers of the 21st century have created more realistic imagery of the New Testament, going as far as to show a convincing amount of blood and emotion. Unlike the angelic Christ of the Renaissance, Jesus has been shown as human, like each and every one of us.

Whether or not you agree with Michelangelo’s unblemished form of the son of God, or you prefer to witness the blood, sweat and tears, it goes without saying that the paintings of the past are shrouded with awe and reverence. It is definitely worth seeing the artworks for yourself – nothing compares to standing directly in front of an original masterpiece.

WARNING: the exhibition closes on 25th June 2017

PS, Happy Easter!

America After the Fall

Painting in the 1930s

Art exhibitions can have various purposes: to show case an artist’s work, to explore a certain style or art movement, to inspire others, etc; but they can also educate you on a variety of subjects. The Royal Academy of Arts is currently running an exhibition that focuses on a particular timeframe and location: 1930s America. Titled America After the Fall, the curators have sourced a large display of paintings from various artists who depict the visual and economic climate during that period. To the ignorant spectator, the choice of artwork may have little significance, however, knowing the historical importance turns them into a perfect illustration of the life of Americans at that time. The academy helpfully supplies a written account and timeline of events around the gallery.

As the title suggests, America had fallen.  On 29th October 1929, the US stock market crashed causing a severe drop in the prices of goods and crops. This was the beginning of what is now labelled the Great Depression, which America took over a decade to start to recover from. These price drops, unfortunately, did not make consumer items cheaper to purchase. Instead, it made them more expensive to produce. Millions of people lost their jobs because their employers could no longer afford to pay them. People were living in poverty, often homeless or living in hand-built communities.

To complicated things further, the population of America was increasing dramatically, principally due to the inrush of Europeans escaping conflict and hoping to find jobs in the rising industrialised cities. As a result, the President and fellow politicians had to step in to resolve the devastating issue. America eventually recovered, but it was not easy. America After the Fall reveals the effects on the common people during this most dramatically changing era.

American Gothic

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This famous painting by Grant Wood (1891-1942) is the poster painting for America After the Fall, and arguably the main attraction. American Gothic (1930), as it is titled, has become one of the key icons of American art due to the principles it symbolises. The late nineteenth century-style house, along with the appropriately dressed, conservative couple represent the importance of family, manual labour and landscape for Americans at the time.

The placement of the two figures says a lot about the way farmers felt about the threat of industrialisation. Filling the canvas from left to right, the man and woman block the path to their home as though they are trying to prevent the viewer or the rest of America from infiltrating their land. The gripped pitchfork and stern faces evoke feelings of hostility and opposition. These are people who have worked hard to achieve results and do not want this taken away from them. Notice, however, only the man directly staring out of the painting. This suggests male dominance and demonstrates the inequalities befalling women at that time.

Daughters of Revolution daughters-of-revolution-1932

Two years after American Gothic, Grant Wood painted another icon of American art. Daughters of Revolution shows a contrasting scene to the rural one above.

Presumably, the three women are mother and daughters and, as the title suggests, were born after the American Revolution. DAR or Daughters of the American Revolution was a group founded in the nineteenth-century for decedents of soldiers who fought in the American War of Independence. Immaculate outfits, neat hairstyles, and a cool gaze emphasise the group’s claim to privilege and superiority.

The framed image in the background is a replica of Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Leutze. The year 1932, when Wood painted Daughters of Revolution, marked the bicentenary of George Washington’s birth. Placing the frame behind the women, in what is presumably their home, implies they truly believe in the greatness of their bloodline.

Wood, however, may have been mocking DAR in this painting, giving them plain, simplified faces, rather than features that evoke strong personality. Also, the inclusion of a tea cup is ironic in that it symbolises Britain, the empire they fought to break away from.


There are, of course, plenty of other paintings and artists to see in this exhibition. Additional works by Grant Wood are included amongst similar and contrasting images. What is easily noticeable is the range of styles portrayed across a small timeframe – something that would not have occurred during an earlier period of time. This gives visitors to the Royal Academy the opportunity to understand varying points of view about the crisis in America, as well as view the physical changes and developments of the land and industry.

Some artists, such as Stuart Davis (1892-1964) and Edward Hopper (1882-1967)  concentrate on city life, recording the fast-changing world through their independent styles. Whether these artists were successful at the time is irrelevant to today’s exhibition, what matters is their educational value. By painting an urban scene, artists are not only documenting the changes in physical appearance of the cities, they are reflecting the character of the population.

In constrast to the metropolitan landscapes are the country life focused paintings. Grant Wood is one of the key artists in this area, although as already mentioned, American Gothic and Daughters of Revolution were far superior. While the towns and cities became more industrious, the countryside had to adapt to create suitable roads to connect them together, or even to build new towns. This would not have helped the unemployment situation – the demolishing of farms would mean the termination of jobs and the loss of homes.

Although the landscape paintings show the changes and destruction of the countryside, it is arguably American Gothic that truly captures the effects on the rural population. The despondent feelings are far easier to capture in a face than in a farmland illustration.

Cityscapes and landscapes are not all that the exhibition has to offer. Some artists, instead of focusing on the world around them, looked to the future, producing dystopian scenes of doom and gloom, almost as if they believed the Great Depression a sign of the end times.

Some of these paintings follow a similar style to the previously mentioned, however many take on surrealistic themes, or are expressed in the form of abstract expressionism. Not everyone appreciates or understands these modern art techniques, but it exposes a confusion of feelings and anxieties Americans had at the time.

With hindsight on our side, some of the dystopian ideas may seem farfetched or laughable, but it makes us realise the seriousness the effects the stock market crashing had on an entire nation. Add that to the war brewing in Europe, and you have got yourself a very daunting situation.

America After the Fall is less about who painted what, or how so-and-so achieved such an effect, but rather a history lesson using imagery. The Royal Academy of Arts has achieved a museum-like effectiveness that teaches as much as it entertains – although, in a far more interesting way than a generic textbook or presentation would manage.

With artistic and historical appeal, America After the Fall is worth the visit, however it will not be on display forever. Closing on 4th June 2017, you have a couple of months to see the exhibition before it is too late.