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Why Sidney Paget? “It is the purest accident.”

This quotation is from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlockian story The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor. But it could well apply to the story of Sidney Paget’s selection as illustrator for the manuscripts that Conan Doyle sent to The Strand Magazine in 1891—because Sidney wasn’t the Paget whom the art editor of the Strand had in mind!

Sidney Paget

Artists abounded in the Paget family. Sidney, his elder brother Henry Marriott Paget, and his younger brother Walter Paget were all Royal Academy students. Henry’s strength lay in historical subjects and portraits but he also produced magazine illustrations of the Balkan War for The Sphere and illustrated Conan Doyle’s non-Sherlockian novel, Micah Clarke. Walter was a prolific contributor to magazines, also creating lush illustrations for novels like Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, the Arabian Nights, King Solomon’s Mines and many more.

It was on the strength of Walter’s work for the Illustrated London News that the Strand wrote to commission drawings for A Scandal in Bohemia and The Adventures of the Red-Headed League. But forgetting Paget’s first name, the editor simply addressed the letter to “Mr. Paget the illustrator.” Sidney opened it and took the job.

Sherlock and Walter

At first Conan Doyle found Sidney’s detective a little too handsome, more elegant than he had intended. And here again, Walter comes into the story. It’s been said that he was the model for his brother’s vision of the detective. Over the years members of the Paget family have dismissed this notion. But the resemblance between photographs of Walter and Sidney’s drawings of Holmes is striking. And there are stories of people mistaking Walter for Sherlock, such as a young boy at a dinner party with Walter Paget in attendance suddenly calling out, “Mummy, Mr. Sherlock Holmes has come!”

Other aspects of Sidney Paget’s life made their way, consciously or unconsciously, into the Sherlockian scenes he depicted. While Conan Doyle wrote of Holmes throwing off his dressing gown or cogitating in his basket chair, the clothing and the furniture Paget drew were his own. In fact, his dressing gown and basket chair were loaned by his daughter Winifred and displayed as artifacts at the 1951 Exhibition on Sherlock Holmes, the first such event after Conan Doyle’s death in 1930.

Paget also added touches that are nowhere to be found in the stories themselves, mostly notably Sherlock Holmes’s now-famous deerstalker hat and Inverness cape. Here is Winifred Paget’s explanation:

I imagine he chose this type of hat for himself … for tramping around the countryside. This possibly inspired him to depict Homes wearing a deerstalker on similar occasions. It seems to me to be a fitting headgear for the great detective out on the man-hunt.

The pairing of illustrator and author was extraordinarily productive. Between 1891 and his death in 1908, Paget illustrated 37 short stories and one novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, featuring Sherlock Holmes. Judging by Conan Doyle’s gift to Paget on his wedding, it was a good-humored alliance as well. He gave Paget a silver cigarette case, inscribed “From Sherlock Holmes, 1893.” Read more.

View the exhibition in the Arion Press gallery, Oct. 13 through Nov. 17, 2010.