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.

Sir John Soane: Master Hoarder

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The ‘supreme example of the house-museum in the world’

Born in Berkshire, 1753, (Sir) John Soane, following in the footsteps of his bricklayer father, took his passion for buildings to the next level when he became a pupil of the architect George Dance at the mere age of fifteen. After studying the subject at the Royal Academy in London, Soane spent some time in Italy before returning to England where he later secured the position of Architect and Surveyor to the bank of England in 1788. Eventually he became a Professor of Architecture at the same academy he attended as a student.

Soane’s passion was not only significant for his career, but influenced and shaped his entire life. His marriage to Eliza Smith prompted him to purchase and remodel No. 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields – supposably taking advantage of his wife being a heiress – as a home for his family of two sons. This was in 1792, however sixteen years later he began rebuilding the house next-door – No. 13 – as an extension to his original home. Eventually, No. 14 was added to his personalised home meaning that he was able to rent out parts as a way of earning extra income, as well as opening a museum and creating a particularly inventive picture gallery.

By the time Soane had finished renovating No. 12, 13 and 14, the structure resembled a maze more than a house. From the outside, the buildings innocently stand there refusing to provide the merest suggestion of the labyrinth found inside, however stepping through the front door takes you to a new dimension. With unexpected doors, corridors and mysterious rooms, it is easy to get yourself lost and turned around several times throughout your visit. If you were to release a cat into the building (don’t do it), there is a high chance you will never see it again!

Although Soane’s architecture is an impressive feat, it is not the main attraction. On his death in 1837, Soane’s house was left to the nation, which he had bequeathed as a museum for the public on the condition that it remain “as nearly as possible in the state in which he would leave it.” So, what is it about the house that makes it museum-worthy? The contents, of course.

Sir John Soane may have been one of England’s greatest architects, however was also a great collector of art, sculpture and painting. He used his home primarily as a laboratory for his architectural ideas, but also used his intriguing collections for teaching purposes. Students were left to wander through rooms to study and draw the accumulation of objects on shelves, walls, floors, and wherever else he managed to squeeze something in.

Some of the rooms were obviously decorated with the intention of being lived in, for instance the dining room, drawing room, study and dressing room. Despite this, their contents are still noteworthy objects. The furniture Soane purchased were not simple, function-based items, but expensive, meaningful amenities. Many were made specially for Soane, however there are chairs imported from China amongst the Classical vases, astronomical clock, oil lamps and frescos.

Those items, however, are a few of the more “normal” pieces in Soane’s collection. Head downstairs to the former wine cellars and you find yourself transported to ancient Rome in a basement titled the Crypt, reminiscent of the burial tombs or catacombs of bygone eras. The rather eerie, morbid atmosphere is summoned up by the cinerary urns, replicas of classical statues, gothic ornaments, plaster casts of grotesque heads, and, most importantly, the sarcophagus of an Egyptian king.

King Seti (1303-1290 BC) was interred in a sarcophagus carved from a single piece of calcite limestone and scored with hieroglyphics, telling the Egyptian story of the soul’s journey to the afterlife. What possessed Soane to make such a purchase is unknown, but in 1824 it was placed in his Sepulchral Chamber and has remained there ever since.

The basements, whilst containing the most fascinating items, is not necessarily the best room of the house. Some visitors may prefer the staircase and recess dedicated to William Shakespeare, complete with stain glass windows and paintings based on his plays, as well as a shrine featuring a cast of the original bust from the parish church of Stratford-Upon-Avon. Yet, without a doubt, the most impressive room is The Picture Room located upstairs.

Despite being a relatively small area, in comparison to most galleries, Soane managed to fit 118 paintings into his Picture Room. How? At a glance, it looks like an ordinary room (that happens to have a few famous paintings in it), however on closer inspection it is revealed that the walls are, in fact, hinged screens, that when opened, reveal even more artworks. The paintings cover the walls – real and fake – from floor to ceiling, using all space available. And, these works are as grand as the room itself.

Amongst Soane’s collection of paintings are a number of notable names: Canaletto, Turner, Fuseli; as well as architectural drawings designed by Soane himself. But, the most important pictures – the reason some people may visit the museum – are the eight paintings by William Hogarth that make up The Rake’s Progress. These are the originals, painted during the 1700s, and kept protected behind one of the wall screens.

Due to Soane’s instructions, the house has remained as close to the way it was left at the time of his death. Apart from restoration works to make the environment more suitable for visitors, the general contents of the building has been carefully preserved. Unfortunately, this means that the Museum’s owners have been unable to attach labels or information panels, as this would disturb the atmosphere and charm that Soane intended the public to experience. A short guide book is available for purchase at the entrance to help you find your way around the labyrinth of rooms, and provide a few paragraphs about the main attractions.

It is a shame that the museum only reveals a limited amount of information about Sir John Soane, his architecture and bizarre collection of oddities. One can assume that he was a rather unconventional man prone to whimsical ventures, yet why he chose to collect and display such items is anyone’s guess. But, we do not need to know the man to enjoy a tour around the surreal establishment. You will never see another house like it!

The Courtauld: A History of Art

Located in Somerset House, The Courtauld Institute of Art is amongst the most prestigious galleries in the world. Not only does it exhibit hundreds of well known paintings and artists, the gallery provides a visual timeline of the history of art, at least in Europe. Spanning from medieval art to paintings of the 20th century, The Courtauld reveals the gradually changing styles and techniques that influenced the old masters, and led to the contemporary artworks we create today.

Unless visiting with the intention of viewing a specific artwork, it makes sense to conduct your tour of the gallery in chronological order. Beginning on the ground floor, you can study and contemplate a collection of Medieval art and sculpture alongside a handful of paintings from the Renaissance era (13th-15th Century). Although spanning over two decades and being produced by different artists, many of the artworks look alike, not only in style, but content as well.

It does not take a genius to notice that everything  displayed in Room 1 is of a religious (Christian) nature – the birth and death of Jesus Christ being the most predominant. This reveals a lot about the culture in Europe at that time, an era when religion was at the zenith of most people’s lives. As the information provided alongside the artworks explains, artists were often commissioned by the Church in order to deck out the building with religious effigies – either biblical, or depictions of saints.

Up the stairs, to the first floor, leads you to recognisable works from the 16th-19th centuries. Continuing with the Renaissance era, large paintings dominate the walls, again, mostly of religious scenes. This theme continues through to the 17th century with artists such as Rubens and the beginning of the Baroque era. However, it is from this point onwards that the artists’ choice of subject matter takes a dramatic change.

The 18th century brought about a shift in thinking in what is now referred to as the Enlightenment years. Scientific development of the past century was causing many to distance themselves from religion as they discovered the workings of the world for themselves, and worship inventors who were opening people’s minds to a future unlike any experienced before. As a result, presumably demand for biblical artwork dried up, causing artists to find other ways of attracting clientele.

Not only was the subject matter of art changing, but new methods of painting were being experimented with. The 19th century saw the beginning, middle and end of Impressionism, an art movement characterised by the usage of small, but visible, brushstrokes. Artists involved with this development, and exhibited at The Courtauld, include Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, and, of course, Vincent van Gogh.

The top floor of the institute brings you into the 20th century, the years in which a significant number of changes occurred in the art world. What you will notice are the contrasting techniques, choices of colour and differences in theme and imagery, particularly compared with everything you have viewed on the lower floors. Throughout Europe, artists were appropriating methods from their contemporaries and tutors while they sought their own, personal style. This is particularly noticeable when juxtaposing French paintings with German Expressionism, as well as a few British artists.

The experience The Courtauld provides differs significantly from the larger galleries in London – establishments where it is impossible to view everything in one visit. Rather than being a place to see a couple of well known paintings – although that is entirely possible should that be your intention –  the gallery takes you on a journey: a trip through the history of art. Whether or not you decide to pay close attention to individual artworks, scanning the framed paintings on the wall gives you an instant sense of the dramatic changes the art world has encompassed throughout the last 700 or so years.

The Courtauld Institute of Art is worth the entrance fee to bare witness to the great artists of the past centuries, in what is a relatively peaceful environment. Whatever your expectations, it will be hard to be disappointed in your visit; the inclusion of a variety of art movements guarantees an interest for each individual. And, whilst the paintings are the main reason you are there, do not forget to look up and be impressed by the beautiful, awe-inspiring ceilings!