Archive for July 7th, 2019

Sherlock Holmes and the deerstalker

This post is really only for Sherlock Holmes fans. (That is, fans of the Conan Doyle stories: I have to add this rider as there seem nowadays to be many who describe themselves as Sherlock Holmes fans, but who appear neither to have read nor are interested in reading the stories.)  It’s not that you can’t read this post if you’re not a fan – we like to think we’re inclusive on this blog – but I’ll be delving here into Holmesian matters so esoteric and arcane, that those less than obsessed with these stories may well be thinking to themselves “What a sad git!”

Now the preliminaries are over with, let us begin.

Dear fellow anoraks,

Whose invention was the deerstalker? Conan Doyle never mentions the deerstalker explicitly, but near the start of the story “Silver Blaze” (Dec, 1892) we do get this:

“… Sherlock Holmes, with his sharp, eager face framed in his ear-flapped travelling-cap …”

Although not explicitly mentioned, it’s obvious what Conan Doyle meant. And Sidney Paget obliged, illustrating “Silver Blaze” with the now iconic picture of Holmes and Watson sitting in a railway carriage, with Holmes dressed in an Inverness cape and deerstalker hat.

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Sidney Paget’s illustration for “Silver Blaze”

However, there is more to it than that. Just over a year earlier, Paget had drawn a very similar picture, again showing Holmes in his deerstalker (though not, I think, the Inverness cape), for “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” (Oct, 1891). And, as far as I am aware, the deerstalker is not mentioned, directly or indirectly, either in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”, or in any of the earlier stories.

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Sidney Paget’s illustration for “the Boscombe Valley Mystery”

So, the absence of any evidence to the contrary leads me to deduce that the deerstalker was indeed Sidney Paget’s invention, and that, rather than the illustrator following the author, as is usually the case, here, it was Conan Doyle following his illustrator by giving Holmes the deerstalker in “Silver Blaze”.

And also, as far as I can remember, Conan Doyle never mentions, nor even describes anything that could resemble, the Inverness cape. That too, it appears, was Sidney Paget’s invention.

Of course, there was nothing particularly unusual about a deerstalker in those days. Gentlemen often wore it, especially when out hunting. (Which, in effect, is what Sherlock Holmes was doing.) The deerstalker was one of several items of headwear that Paget had drawn for Holmes. But, curiously, those other items of headgear (including, once, a top hat) haven’t remained in the popular imagination: it is the image of the deerstalker that has stuck – to such an extent that one cannot even think of such a hat without picturing Sherlock Holmes.

For this, I think we have primarily to thank William Gillette, the American actor who, in 1899, adapted Holmes for the stage, and played the character over 1000 times. (He also played Holmes in a silent film in 1916.) It was he who popularised the Inverness cape and the deerstalker that Paget had introduced, and had added to it the curly pipe, which appears nowhere either in Conan Doyle’s text nor in Paget’s illustrations. Indeed, in “The Red-Headed League”, the pipe is described as “black clay pipe thrusting out like the bill of some strange bird”; and whenever Paget drew Holmes with a pipe (as in the picture below illustrating “The Man with the Twisted Lip”), he invariably drew it as a straight pipe.

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Sidney Paget’s illustration for “The Man with the Twisted Lip”

Later, of course, came the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce films, and the deerstalker, Inverness cape, and curly pipe became synonymous with Holmes. And that image remains. Even Jeremy Brett – perhaps now the most widely seen Sherlock Holmes on screen – donning various items of headgear other than the deerstalker has failed to dent this popular image.

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Now, those of you who aren’t Holmes fans but who have, despite my advice, read this far, may well be thinking to themselves “So what?” Well, so nothing, really. It’s just that I’m something of an anorak in these matters, and, as I sit on my patio this sunny Sunday afternoon, a drink in one hand and a book of Sherlock Holmes stories in the other, these, rather than more profound questions concerning the nature of our lives, are matters I find myself musing upon. Perhaps, if I put a bit of effort into it, I could develop this stub of a post into something more of general interest, and reflect upon how myths develop in the popular imagination, and upon how creations of the imagination, once created, assume a life independent of the creator; and so on. Well, yes, maybe. But I am enjoying this summer afternoon on my patio too much right now to go into all that. Some other time, maybe.

Now back to “The Red Circle”…