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WE ALL HAVE an image of Sherlock Holmes. He’s lean, clean-shaven for the era, with sharp features. Indeed, for some reason or another, the names Sidney Paget and Basil Rathbone come to mind.

But the earliest renderings of the world’s first consulting detectives were another matter entirely. Here are tidbits about this, gleaned from Walter Klinefelter’s fine analysis in Sherlock Holmes in Portrait and Profile

Sherlock Holmes in Portrait and Profile, by Walter Klinefelter, introduction by Vincent Starrett, Syracuse University Press, 1963.

“We know what he looked like to Dr. Watson,” Vincent Starrett said. “But do we know how he appeared to Mrs. Hudson? We can guess what he looked like to Scotland Yard. Professor Moriarty, visiting him, found less frontal development than he had expected; but Dr. Mortimer, who coveted his skull, was gratified by the detective’s well-marked supraorbital development.” 

The Best Authority. Holmes’ chronicler Watson observed, “His very person and appearance were such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer. In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, … and his thick hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of decision.”

However, it’s evident that the artists initially commissioned to illustrate Holmes didn’t follow Dr. Watson’s knowledgeable advice to any significant extent.

D.H. Friston. Dr. Watson’s first chronicle, A Study in Scarlet, made its debut in Beeton’s Annual for 1887. D.H Friston was an illustrator of some note; he suppled four drawings for the piece, two of which show Holmes, a sole one, his overall appearance. 

Image from Beeton’s Annual for 1887 by D.H. Friston (appearing several times here at SimanatisSays).

“It has been said of this portrait,” Klinefelter noted, “that it is a cause for acute distress to the general detective’s more ardent admirers…. for Friston gave him luxuriant sideburns, garbed him in a voluminous greatcoat fitted with an enormous cape, and on his head placed a hat that is neither an out-and-out billycock nor yet a fireman’s helmet, but looks rather like the sort of hybrid piece of headgear that might be expected to eventuate from an illicit union of the two, if anything like that were possible.”

Klinefelter summed up, “….the artist made what he considered to be a fairly close pictorial study of Watson’s description, which he then dressed up with sartorial, whiskerish, and sundry other effects after his own fancy.”

Charles Doyle. Literary agent Arthur Conan Doyle evidently commissioned the next illustrator of client Watson’s chronicles, these to appear in book form published by Ward, Lock & Company in 1888. Doyle chose no less than his father, Charles Doyle!

Klinefelter observed the result: “Charles Doyle’s illustrations were six in number. In three of them there are three different conceptions of Sherlock Holmes, which to put it as charitably as any well-disposed person could, are the veriest of counterfeit presentments.” 

Enoch Drebber’s body is discovered in A Study in Scarlet. This and the following illustration by Charles Doyle.

Pictured from left to right, Klinefelter identified “a decidedly unferretlike Lestrade’s expression of sheer cock-eyed horror,” “a ludicrously bonneted Watson’s conventional attitude of reverence,” and “nothing remotely resembling any detail of Watson’s description” of Holmes.The stiff, of course, is Drebber.

Klinefelter commented on Holmes’ “narrow, sloping shoulders and broad-browed, dissipated-looking face which has only the suggestion of a nose, and that on the retroussé side rather than hawk-like.” 

Doyle’s other illustrations are even worse. “In the third representation,” Klinefelter said, “Charles Doyle definitely achieved the all-time low in the portraiture of the man. Mere words are too ineffectual to describe this Holmes.”

Holmes commands his “street Arabs.” Watson relaxes.

Klinefelter is dismayed by a “staring-eyed, weak-mouthed person in schoolmasterish attitude calling to attention five of the original members of the unofficial Baker Street detective police, or as they were more familiarly known, the Baker Street Irregulars, whose portraiture, incidentally, is the best part of the illustration.”

Where’s Sidney Paget when we so sorrily need him? And where’s Basil Rathbone to pose? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021  

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