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• • • Being a journal by artist and designer John Coulthart, cataloguing interests, obsessions and passing enthusiasms.


 

Illustrating Sherlock Holmes

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Beeton’s Christmas Annual, 1887.

The latest in the series of illustrated editions I’ve been working on for Spanish publisher Editorial Alma is a single-volume collection of two short Sherlock Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. Work on this book began immediately after I’d finished Dracula so maintaining the Victorian theme was easy enough, although the commission as a whole was an awkward one. The main problem was having barely enough time to create 20 new illustrations while I was finishing work on the huge Jim Cawthorn book. But even with enough time this would have been a difficult brief. I regard Sidney Paget‘s original Holmes illustrations as the definitive ones so trying to offer people a fresh take on the world’s greatest detective is difficult. (And, as with Dracula, there’s further competition from the innumerable screen adaptations.) Then there are the stories themselves which are often more cerebral than visual, offering little for an illustrator beyond successive views of rooms, streets, houses and so on. Even Paget has trouble with this aspect of the stories, with many of his illustrations showing the various characters standing or sitting in rooms. If I’d had more time I might have tried a lateral take on the content—two of the illustrations in Dracula avoided the people-in-rooms problem by showing collections of objects on tables—but I didn’t have the time…

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Watson and Holmes by Sidney Paget. From The Adventure of Silver Blaze, The Strand Magazine, December 1892.

As things turned out, the least satisfying of the novels from a story perspective, A Study in Scarlet, was easier to illustrate because much of the second half takes place in the United States. This was the first Holmes novel, and it doesn’t work as well as the others for precisely this reason, the narrative attention is removed from Holmes, Watson and London, but the change of scene is a benefit for an artist. The second novel, The Sign of Four, is a better story but was compromised in this edition because the publisher only wanted every other chapter illustrated. For this reason Holmes and Watson are elusive presences in their own books although given the problems outlined above this may be for the best.

There’s still one more volume to emerge from my recent round of work for Alma, a collection of four Lovecraft stories, three of which I hadn’t illustrated before. More about this in a month or so. In the meantime, the full run of Holmes pictures follows below, while all may be seen at a larger size here.

A Study in Scarlet

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The Sign of Four

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Previously on { feuilleton }
Illustrating Dracula
Illustrating Frankenstein
Narraciones extraordinarias by Edgar Allan Poe
The World’s Greatest Detective
“The game is afoot!”

 


 

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