Paul Klee by Susanna Partsch (1993)

Taschen produce large format art books with high quality colour reproductions. The text is often foreign – I think this one was translated, not always fluently, from German. Who cares. It gives a good brief overview of Klee’s career with lots of full-page colour illustrations.

Early life

Born into a musical family, Klee was a prodigy on the violin who eventually plumped for the visual arts but, in his earlier career, made more from performing in concerts than by selling paintings. (Interestingly he was a conservative in his musical taste, devoted to Bach and Mozart, with no time for Schoenberg and his circle, which is odd considering he became good friends with Kandinsky who knew and had an important correspondence with Schoenberg.)

Paul Klee, photographed in 1911 by Alexander Eliasberg (Wikimedia Commons)

Paul Klee photographed in 1911 by Alexander Eliasberg (Wikimedia Commons)

Die Blaue Reite

Having developed a distinctive early style which combined detailed draughtsmanship of often grotesque and fantastical creatures, Klee was experimenting with a more abstract approach to design and layout of paintings when he was invited to join the Blaue Reite group – including Russians like Wassily Kandinsky and Germans like August Macke and Franz Marc – in 1911. In 1912 he exhibited with them. In those brief years before the War all sorts of influences were exploding across the European art world: in Paris they saw Robert Delaunay experimenting with colour, Picasso and Braque’s cubism ripping up perspective, along with the other post-Impressionist experimenters about to be dubbed the Fauves.

Die Blaue Reite group were interested in the liberation of colour (many of the group produced detailed writings investigating the psychological and aesthetic impact of colours and colour arrangements) and in freedom of inspiration (in art produced by children, primitives, the mentally ill) both of which left traditional Renaissance ideas of figurative representation in a fully-worked out perspective far, far behind.

Epiphany in Tunisia

Klee and Macke along with fellow painter Louis Moilliet visited Tunisia in June 1914 and forever afterwards Klee mythologised this trip as the moment when pure colour took control of his soul, when he realised the power of colour alone in painting.

‘Color possesses me. I don’t have to pursue it. It will possess me always, I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour: Color and I are one. I am a painter.’

Tunisia, 1914

Tunisia, 1914

The ‘reality’ of the scene is metamorphosing into a matrix of colour possibilities, squares and square-ish blocks of colour, whose sharpish juxtaposition creates a ‘feel’, an affect. In the next few years Klee quickly grasped the opportunities presented by this ‘Move to Abstraction’; henceforth colour and line are to be deployed for their psychological affects, not for any relation they have to an external ‘reality’:

‘Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.’

Colour, tone, shapes, squares, triangles, lines, columns, circles, cones – all will be deployed as experiments, to see what affects they produce on the viewer. From this date stems Klee’s lifelong interest in analysing all the various components which go toward a painting – line, colour, shape, form and so on.  He constantly tried this, that or the other in order to hone his judgment on how to deploy them.

The book very usefully includes paintings by his colleagues on the trip, Macke and Moilliet, allowing us to see how very similar their thinking about colour and design were during this intense period of debate and experiment.

The Great War

The Blaue Reite published one almanac – containing reproductions of art works and key essays on form and colour and spirit – and organised two exhibitions, before the Great War broke out and was a catastrophe for them. Kandinsky was forced to go home to Russia and Macke and Marc were drafted into the German Army, Macke killed in September 1914, Marc at Verdun in 1916. Klee managed to sit out the war in a series of administrative jobs well away from the Front.


Klee had a lifelong dedication to experimenting with technique. According to Wikipedia Klee “worked in many different media – oil paint, watercolor, ink, pastel, etching, and others. He often combined them into one work. He used canvas, burlap, muslin, linen, gauze, cardboard, metal foils, fabric, wallpaper, and newsprint. Klee employed spray paint, knife application, stamping, glazing, and impasto, and mixed media such as oil with watercolor, water color with pen and India ink, and oil with tempera.”

An early example is the technique of ‘oil transfer’ which he developed, which produced a highly characteristic fragmenting the lines of his fantastic doodles, giving them an eerie remoteness, as if degraded images recovered from a remote past or intermittent signals from a distant universe.

They're biting by Paul Klee

They’re biting by Paul Klee (1920)

The German army and navy mutinied at the end of the 1918, the government collapsed and the Kaiser abdicated. In 1919 a Bolshevik republic was declared in Bavaria and Klee volunteered to be art delegate (rather like Daumier volunteering to serve on the Paris Commune, 1871) but it was quickly repressed by the Army and some 500 comunists were gaoled or executed, Klee escaped.

Breakthrough exhibition

The following year, 1920, came Klee’s breakthrough exhibition, in which he exhibited 362 pieces in a wide range of media including oil paint, oil on glass, prints, drawings, plaster casts, sculptures. It made his reputation and the next 20 years he was acknowledged as a major European painter and pioneer.

Of the exhibition and the power of his fantastical draughtsmanship, his colleague Oskar Schlemmer commented: ‘In a minimum of line he can reveal of his wisdom, this is how Buddha draws’.

The Bauhaus

In 1921 Klee was invited to join the Bauhaus where he was to become one of the most respected teachers, teaching a wide range of course, for the next 10 years. His technical experiments continued apace as did his writings leading up to publication of the Pedagogical Notebook in 1925 with its famous opening about taking a line for a walk. Throughout his life he experimented and recorded his technical experiments so that, at his death, he left some 3,000 manuscript pages on art theory.

Fish Magic, 1925

Fish Magic (1925)

Magic squares

Another exhibition of 1923 showed a series which became known as Klee’s ‘magic squares’, for example Architecture, an uncharacteristic palette of purple and yellow, its juxtaposition of rectangles of vivid colours cemented a certain classical ‘look’ of Klee’s. The squares which represent areas of light and shadow, colour and white light in the Tunisia paintings, have now become almost abstract arrangements of colour and tone.

Static-Dynamic Intensification, 1923 Watercolour and transferred printing ink on laid paper with gray and green gouache and black ink mounted on light cardboard 381 x 261 mm Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Static-Dynamic Intensification (1923)

But Klee never quite becomes completely abstract. In even the most pure paintings you can, maybe, just about, make out reference to an origin in organic shapes or landscapes. And in most of them there is some kind of reference to observed reality. And others of them happily incorporate human or animal shapes.

Combining the use of squares with his lifelong ability to produce fantastical versions of the human figure, Battlescene from the Seafarer is a lovely hymn to the quirkiness and humour and strangeness of the human imagination.

Battle scene from the comic fantastic opera 'The Seafarer'

Battle scene from the comic fantastic opera ‘The Seafarer’


In the mid-20s the French intellectual world discovered Klee, especially the Surrealists and, like Picasso and de Chirico, he was adopted as a precursor. The Surrealists associated his dreamlike forms with their own attempts to capture the unconscious via automatic writing or painting. Klee didn’t mind but he never became a party member of the Surrealists.

Portrait of an Equilibrist again shows Klee’s cartoonish imagination, his sense of humour, along with his feel for the arrangement of colour and line. It can be read both as a rudimentary cartoon face, and as an actual stick figure holding a balancing pole weighted with two round red weights. At the bottom left is the ladder the equilibrist used to climb up onto his high wire. Possibly.

Portrait of an Equilibrist

Portrait of an Equilibrist

When the Bauhaus moved to the industrial city of Dessau, Klee and his wife moved into the hypermodern Master’s House designed by Walter Gropius. His studio was described as being like a magician’s lair where multiple canvases were on numerous easels at any one time, and the master magician quietly contemplated them, occasionally stepping forward to paint a detail or finetune the patterns.

From the 1920s come hundreds of images using the oil transfer technique such as Comedy which combines characteristic humorous cartoon-like figures, the oil transfer technique which gives them such a wavering, hesitant finish, and a new technique he experimented with, ‘gradation’, dividing the space into bands and giving the first one layer of paint, the second two layers and so on, thus creating a stylised background, which achieves a sense of depth, but completely different from traditional notions of perspective.

Comedy 1921 Watercolour and oil on paper support: 305 x 454 mm on paper, unique Tate. Purchased 1946

Comedy (1921)


In the late 20s and early 30s he experimented with a form of abstract pointillism and with the shapes and shades he saw on a trip to Egypt. The pointillism is just about the only one of Klee’s styles I don’t like. they are too light without any of the quirky inventiveness of everything else he did.

Clarification, 1932

Clarification (1932)

The Nazis

By 1932 Klee found his teaching duties taking up nearly all his time and so he quit the Bauhaus and moved to a job as professor of Art at Düsseldorf. However, early the next year the Nazis came to power, immediately rounding up communists, socialists, liberals, artist and writers and beginning to persecute Jews. The Bauhaus was closed and Klee fled to Switzerland.

Degenerate Art

In 1937 the Nazis held an exhibition of Degenerate Art which featured 17 pieces by Klee. The Wikipedia article says it all.

Later, bigger

In 1935 his supporters organised a big exhibition at Bern, though Klee insisted it only feature work from the past 5 years, but it was to prove a turning point. In the same year he felt increasingly ill and was diagnosed with an incurable disease. For a few years his legendary productiveness dwindled to a handful of paintings. However, from 1937 he got a second wind and became more prolific than ever.

In this final phase, as his body failed him, Klee painted larger and larger abstracts, the scale becoming larger, the gestures bigger and clearer. The tiny etching-like detail of the 1920s seem a long way behind. For example, the wonderful Forest Witches.

Forest witches (1938)

Forest witches (1938)

Or Blue Night. Not only is this a new, more rough and striking type of design, but Klee continued his experiments with surfaces and media, this one painted on burlap or sacking, a rough grainy surface further textured with plaster. Quite apart from the image itself, all Klee’s work repays really close-up scrutiny to enjoy the highly textured surfaces of the pieces, which adds tremendously to their sense of urgency, modernity and wistful fragility.

Blue Night

Last show and death

In 1940 fans and curators organised a last exhibition in Zurich – Twilight Flowers was among his last works, and a has completely new feel. Who knows where these new impulses would have taken him, but Klee died in June 1940. One of his last paintings is the eerie and moving Outbreak of Fear III.

Outbreak of Fear III (1939)

Outbreak of Fear III (1939)


Klee invented a way to be hugely varied within a distinctive style. So many images, each so vivid and inventive and imaginative and stimulating. I much prefer his quiet, unshouty, consistently strange and quirky and funny and vibrant work to Picasso’s or Matisse’s. He lived though the worst years of the century producing countless works of wistful grace and haunting beauty.

Angelus Novus, 1920

Angelus Novus (1920)

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Paul Klee – Making Visible @ Tate Modern

This is a marvellous, inspiring, life-affirming exhibition covering the full career of the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee (1879-940) in 17 rooms containing some 130 of his wonderfully vivid and innovative paintings.

The five paintings I include here are the ones authorised by Tate for inclusion in reviews. They show a little of Klee’s variety and development over the main years of his career from 1920 to 1940.

Redgreen and Violet-yellow Rhythms, 1920. An example of Klee’s ‘magic squares’ though still with recognisable, figurative elements ie the trees. Maybe this is a mountain scene with fir trees, but with Nature abstracted and reinvented into pure colours and forms.

Redgreen and Violet-yellow Rhythms, 1920

Redgreen and Violet-yellow Rhythms, 1920
Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1984 (1984.315.19)
Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Source: Art Resource/Scala Photo Archives

Comedy, 1921. An example of Klee’s technique of ‘oil transfer’, as well as his experiments with grading colours ie bars of deepening colour. It also shows  his cartoon-ish approach to figures which are stick-like, moving to strange abstract shapes. The nominal subject is the imaginative fancy dress parties held at the Bauhaus where Klee started to teach in 1921: as one witness commented Kandinsky went dressed as an antenna, Klee as The Song of the Blue Tree.

Comedy 1921 Watercolour and oil on paper support: 305 x 454 mm on paper, unique Tate. Purchased 1946

Comedy 1921
Watercolour and oil on paper
support: 305 x 454 mm
on paper, unique
Tate. Purchased 1946

Look at the border of Comedy. As the exhibition continued I found myself noticing the contrast between the unfinished rough edges of the paintings and the highly finished edges of the frames: a contast between intuition and rationality; or between inspiration and the Swiss clockmaker precision of the detailed catalogue Klee kept; or between art and the calculating world of commodity capitalism it has to be packaged and marketed in.

Almost none of the paintings have straight boundaries. They are straight-ish. And almost none of them are on traditional canvas, but on a wide variety of surfaces including, later in the show, oil and watercolour on burlap sacking prepared with plaster!

Static-Dynamic Intensification, 1923. Another ‘magic squares’ painting. Note a) the colours aren’t random; the more you look the more there appears to be a pattern which, at the same time, stays elusive, is not mathematically rigid b) it’s another novel surface: this is a watercolour and transferred printing ink on laid paper with gray and green gouache and black ink mounted on light cardboard; in an unobtrusive way most of the works are collages ie made of more than one surface laid on another c) the title: I didn’t read any commentary on this, but it seems to me that Klee experimented with words as much as with colour and line: what happens if we combine these words in a title? what impact does it have on the viewer’s response (if any)?

Static-Dynamic Intensification, 1923 Watercolour and transferred printing ink on laid paper with gray and green gouache and black ink mounted on light cardboard 381 x 261 mm Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Static-Dynamic Intensification, 1923
Watercolour and transferred printing ink on laid paper with gray and green gouache and black ink mounted on light cardboard
381 x 261 mm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Steps, 1929. After a trip to Egypt Klee experimented with abstracts where the magic boxes had been expanded to become bars of colour stretching across the picture. The crucial element remains the non-mathematical nature of the lines; he is not Mondrian. In their imprecision, quirkiness, non-rationality, they give a strong feeling of instinct and intuition, maybe a childlike sense of freedom.

Steps, 1929 Oil and ink on canvas 520 x 430 mm Moderna Museet (Stockholm, Sweden)

Steps, 1929
Oil and ink on canvas
520 x 430 mm
Moderna Museet (Stockholm, Sweden)

Fire at Full Moon, 1933. Use of bolder, brighter colours, though with characteristic ‘quirky’ lines and squares.

Fire at Full Moon, 1933 Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany

Fire at Full Moon, 1933
Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany

Park near Lu, 1938. In his final years, stricken with a wasting disease, Klee’s paintings became significantly larger and lost the flat, magic square aspect, to become more a case of bold black lines surrounded with a penumbra of vibrant colours. Gone are the scratchy little detailed cartoon people or fish of the 20s although you can, at a pinch, read some human or biological aspect into the shapes. Or not. Reminiscent of late Matisse, maybe.

Park near Lu, 1938 Zentrum Paul Klee

Park near Lu, 1938
Zentrum Paul Klee

This is an absolutely brilliant exhibition by a quiet genius of the 20th century. Everyone should see it in order to learn just how free and light and joyous, how unguilty, expressive, funny and awe-inspiring Art can be.

Related links

Rupert of Hentzau by Anthony Hope (1898)

Thus Rudolf Rassendyll set out again for the walls of Strelsau, through the forest of Zenda. And ahead of him, with an hour’s start, galloped the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim, again a man, and a man with resolution, resentment, and revenge in his heart. The game was afoot now; who could tell the issue of it? (Chapter 6)

Ha! Buckle your swashes and tighten your bodice – wicked Prince Rupert is conspiring his return to the central European country of Ruritania while the Queen’s loyal servants, led by heroic Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll, are hot on his heels to foil his dastardly plot!

Tone and control

Whereas the first person voice was perfect for the short pacey Prisoner of Zenda (1894), the sequel – Rupert of Hentzau (1898) – is both longer, a bit more confusing, and a bit more revealing.

Plot In the first novel the king of Zenda is kidnapped by his cousin, wicked Black Michael, and his remote English cousin Rudolf Rassendyll is drafted in to impersonate the king at his coronation and in his wooing of the beautiful princess Flavia, until the real king – trapped in the castle at Zenda (hence ‘the prisoner of Zenda’) – can be released. There is a serious motive for the action – wicked Michael’s kidnapping and threat to murder the real king of a European country – lending weight and excitement to numerous tense moments.

In the sequel the spring for the plot is much slighter – Flavia, still in love with English Rudolf (though now married to the real king of Ruritania), sends him a letter affirming her love but saying that, out of duty to her country, they must stop corresponding. The messenger carrying this letter is mugged by an underling of the dashing but wicked prince Rupert of Henzau and then the whole of the 200-page romance which follows describes the convoluted attempts of Rudolf, his manservant James, and the small group of noble assistants from the first novel, to foil Rupert’s plan to show the letter to the king and thus ruin Queen Flavia’s reputation and hasten the ill king’s demise. Mwah ha ha.

So this one is all about an incriminating love letter, compared to the motive in the first novel just not weighty enough to carry 200 pages packed with intrigue and complicated plot twists. A flimsy pretext which smacks of the kind of elaborate melodramas popular on the Victorian stage.

Narrator The subtitle of the novel is ‘From the memoirs of Fritz von Tarlenheim’ and the narrative starts off being in the voice – the rather stilted Germanic voice – of this servant of the Queen of Ruritania. But after he is mugged in and the Queen’s incriminating letter is stolen from him, the action moves to other places – the capital city Strelsau and the castle at Zenda – which he has to strain to accommodate into a first person narrative.

In fact it strains too far and these other chapters are effectively told by the 3rd person omniscient narrator with a few token ‘or so I learned later’s thrown in to try and hold it together. So the text moves from 1st person to 3rd person, sometimes confusingly, and this distinguishes it from the first novel, told by the hero in a first person narrative that unfolds at breathless pace.


Whereas the first novel dealt with a masculine power struggle, the second one is driven by what seems to us a largely preposterous amount of effort to save the virtue and reputation of the Queen. If chivalry is a mask for the repression of women as free agents, if it is the lie which men in power tell themselves to conceal their own domination of women, then this novel reaches a kind of giddy height of chivalry/misogyny.

A number of high powered men pledge their lives to the service of the Queen and vow to die for her if necessary and, indeed, a number of men are (unbelievably) killed in order to retrieve this simple love letter. And yet the result of all their sacrifices is to leave the Queen trapped, powerless and unhappy. It is the doublethink of ‘Chivalry’ laid bare.

In its closing passages the novel goes to tremendous lengths to showcase the extraordinary gentlemanliness of its hero, the Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll. He is clearly held up as a role model, a fantasy figure, the absolutely perfect gentleman, driven solely by honour and concern not to hurt or offend others.

At an obvious level the novel is romantic escapism because the reader identifies with this perfect man, placed in numerous situations of physical and moral danger, who survives all of them with poise and control. Not unlike his grandson James Bond.

But at a slightly deeper level, the novel is escapist in the way it ignores all the social problems associated with the system which produces the Rudolf Rassendylls of this world ie the stunning economic and social inequality of late-Victorian England.

Not only is it escapist to vicariously identify with the all-conquering hero; and escapist to imaginatively inhabit the childishly simplified world of Ruritania, a world where only about 10 people matter and everyone else is a harmless yokel who can be bought off with a few gold coins; it is just as escapist to enter an imaginative realm where the fancy scruples of the hero appear to justify the grotesquely unjust society of 1890s England. The text allows us to escape the adult world in multiple ways.

The year after its publication the Boer War would break out and reveal the pitiful state of men living in Britain’s cities, badly shaking even conservatives’ faith in ‘the System’. And a decade later the world would plunge into the irremediable disaster of the Great War, which destroyed belief in precisely the values this novel epitomises.

In a deft piece of footwork, Hope contrives the final words of the novel to be ‘God save the Queen’. I felt like bursting into applause at this pirouette of patriotism. Yet it is the completely unquestioning nature of the text, the lack of any troubling elements, of any psychological depth or conflict, which means it is now a children’s book, its naivete about the world, society, human nature, men and women, meaning that, in fact, even modern children would find it lame.

Its appeal is in its deft combination of pure narrative drive – the excitements and tensions of a page-turning plot – with its deliciously prelapsarian emptyheadedness .

Ruritania morphs into Fascist chic

Turn of the century Ruritania conjured for its Victorian readers a remote country which magically combined all the elements of period romance with modern excitements – thus medieval towns, castles and swordfights mingled with modern steam trains, telegraphs and revolvers.

The name Ruritania quickly became associated with the piddly royal family or upper class of a wholly inconsequential country who take themselves with comical seriousness, a seriousness inversely proportional to the country’s complete unimportance in the great affairs of Europe, let alone, of course, compared to the mighty British Empire of the books’ author and readers.

In modern times it is this quality of preening narcissism, of overdressed flunkies, of absurd ceremonial which has led the adjective Ruritanian to be applied comic-opera regimes like Colonel Gaddafi’s in Libya or to countless African or Latin American dictatorships. And the baddy, Prince Rupert, is as gallant as he is amoral, dressed in the finery of an officer in the Guards. But even though the fashion sense has caught up with the 20th century, the mindset remains as brainless as before, with the crushing problems of the world in the 1930s resolving down to two men having a swordfight around a large dungeon.

The Prisoner of Zenda comic version

The Prisoner of Zenda comic version

It is striking to see the change which comes over wicked prince Rupert by the time of the classic black and white movie version (1937). Now there is a whole new class of European baddy, immaculately dressed in black leather, suave and sophisticated and thoroughly evil. Nazi chic has replaced the old world courtesy of a middle European Uhlan.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Rupert of Henzau in the 1937 movie version of The Prisoner of Zenda

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Rupert of Henzau in the 1937 movie version of The Prisoner of Zenda

Text of Rupert of Hentzau on Project Gutenberg

An American in London: Whistler and the Thames @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Anecdote or art?

In 1877 the American artist Whistler sued the English critic John Ruskin for libel. Ruskin had written of Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket that he had

never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face

During the trial Whistler said many interesting things, including explaining to the judge that the painting was not intended to be an accurate scientific portrait of the fireworks at Cremorne Gardens, Chelsea. It had been composed to create artistic interest as opposed to anecdotal interest.

It is ironic that this statement is quoted in the sixth and final room of the Whistler exhibition at the Dulwich picture Gallery entitled An American in London: Whistler and the Thames because the exhibition, in its layout, content and the way I overheard it being perceived, is overwhelmingly anecdotal.

Rather than concentrating on form and design for their own sakes, the exhibition places Whistler’s etchings and paintings of the Thames next to late Victorian maps and photographs to repeatedly emphasise the anecdotal and factual basis of the images.

James McNeill Whistler

James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), American artist and dandy, was born in Lowell Massachussetts, studied in Paris, then arrived in London in 1859. He made an immediate splash, this long-haired aesthete with his velvet suits, his witty quotes, friendship with the young Oscar Wilde as well as all the young artists of the day e.g. Rossetti and Millais.

Room 1 highlights Whistler’s earliest works, his etchings of the Thames – a hard-working river in the 1860s – cluttered with sailing ships, cutters and tugs, as well as miles of ramshackle and picturesque riverside wharves and workshops. Each one is meticulously described alongside contemporary locations and maps of 1860s London.

Eagle Wharf, from 'A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames', 1859, Published 1871, by James Abbott McNeill Whistle

Eagle Wharf, from ‘A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames’, 1859, Published 1871, by James Abbott McNeill Whistle

In 1863, Whistler settled on the Thames at Chelsea, becoming neighbour to Rossetti and Swinburne. Etchings he’d made throughout the 1860s were gathered in The Thames Set (1871).  The etching Limehouse (1859) features the Bunch of Grapes pub which, the caption informs us, was immortalised by Dickens as the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters in Our Mutual Friend.

Limehouse by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Limehouse by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Room 2 contains early paintings and these are not good. Whistler was fascinated by old Battersea Bridge close to his home and made etchings and paintings of it such as Grey and Silver Old Battersea Bridge (1878).

Room 3 contains more paintings such as the famous Wapping (1864). Here again the commentary is keen to root the image in historical and biographical anecdote, so we learn that the woman with the smudgy face in the centre is Whistler’s mistress.

Wapping on Thames by Whistler

Wapping on Thames by Whistler

Apparently, a common contemporary criticism of Whistler’s paintings was that they looked unfinished, with details and surfaces left underdone. Actually, there IS something unfinished and unsatisfactory about many of the paintings in this exhibition.

Also he is not good at painting faces, something which held him back in a great age of Society portraitists such as John Singer Sargeant.

Take Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl (1864). As usual the commentary tells us about the subject of the painting, and about the growing influence of Japanese design – the movement known as japonisme – symbolised by the vase, the spray of flowers and the fan the lady is holding. (The same fan is included in the exhibition just in case we don’t get the point.) And the commentary explains that using a title usually reserved for a piece of music – symphony – is also a piece of daring experimentalism. Art for Art’s sake, Aestheticism etc.

Yes. But it’s not really a very good painting. As a composition it isn’t really that arresting. And the face in the mirror is poor. Bad. As soon as you notice how poor it is, it’s difficult not to let it influence your reading of the whole thing.

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl (1864)

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl (1864)

As London’s leading aesthete Whistler created a Palace of Art at the White House in Tite Street, Chelsea. The English establishment reacted, as it so often does to artists who fly too high – by ruining him.

The libel case Whistler brought against Ruskin, and which is the focus of room 6, led to his bankruptcy in 1879, the selling-off of all his possessions and works… although Whistler continued to live in the same house until his death in 1903.

Room 4 There was something to admire in every room – just not necessarily to love. For example, Battersea reach from Lindsey House painting (1879) unfinished, yes, but atmospheric. Spot the Japonism! (the ladies with Japanese fans at bottom).

Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses (1863)

Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses (1863)

Or a later etching, The Adam and Eve, Old Chelsea. The etchings are like superior book illustrations. They would make good table mats or prints hung up in an old pub. I.e. they are attractive to look at but… but… the interest, the appeal is more anecdotal than artistic.

The Adam and Eve, Old Chelsea by Whistler

The Adam and Eve, Old Chelsea by Whistler

All around me people were peering at the etchings and comparing them with the photographs which the exhibition hangs next to as many works as it can – and then locating them on the old maps of London which are also thoughtfully provided – and wondering out loud how much Battersea and Chelsea have changed. Is that where PC World is now? My! hasn’t it all changed!

Installation view of An American in London: Whistler and the Thames

Installation view of An American in London: Whistler and the Thames

Anecdote, not aesthetic.

Room 5 I liked the Nocturne (1878). This seemed to me a rare example of a Whistler painting which really successfully achieved what it set out to do, impressionistically creating the sense, the feel, of fog over the Thames.

Nocturne by Whistler (1878)

Nocturne by Whistler (1878)

Room 6 was devoted to the Great Anecdote which squats at the centre of Whistler’s career like an ugly toad. The Ruskin libel case which exonerated the painter but ruined him, because the wealthy patrons he’d spent decades building up, abandoned him in droves, he lost all his income and eventually went bankrupt in 1879.

This final room contains more etchings and preparatory paintings of Battersea Bridge but not the one which prompted the trial – Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket – instead displaying the related but significantly different Nocturne Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge.


I was disappointed. I like this period of history and culture, I love London history and views, I am sympathetic to Impressionism and post-Impressionism and late-19th century art of all types – and yet this exhibition didn’t do it for me.

It left me feeling Whistler was a smaller figure than I had previously thought: a name in the history of culture; a catalyst for new ways of thinking, maybe; the victim of a typically English Establishment stitch-up. for sure.

The 30 or more etchings I liked as interesting book illustrations, some of amazing detail and character; but almost none of the paintings did it for me, and I left feeling a lot of them really were the unfinished daubs which his critics accused him of.

The promotional video

Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope (1894)

Anthony Hope (1863-1933 ) was posh – son of a public school headmaster, Marlborough, First in Classics at Oxford, called to the Bar in 1887, the year Sherlock Holmes made his debut. For fictions was Hope’s real interest – in his spare time he was writing scores of tales, novels and essays. (Project Gutenberg hosts an impressive number of his works including Zenda.)

The idea of The Prisoner of Zenda came to Hope as he walked back from Westminster Count Court in 28 November 1893, a month before Conan Doyle flung Holmes off the Reichenbach Falls. A month later the first draft was completed and the book was published in April 1894. Its spectacular success persuaded Hope to abandon his legal career and become a professional author but none of the reams of novels, essays, stories and plays he produced in the next 40 years recaptured Zenda’s success.

That success comes from a wonderful combination of themes which produce a short, fast-moving text full of excitement and sensation.

Gothic location by locating in Eastern Europe the book takes advantage of our vague sense that the area is full of the wild forests, romantic courts, medieval towns and castles set on crags which our own boring country lacks. He invented the name Ruritania for this relic of an earlier, more decorous and chivalrous age, and the name has endured to describe a backward mid-European fictional setting for swashbuckling adventures. I think of the kingdom of Syldavia in the Tintin adventure, King Ottakar’s Sceptre.

Ancient and Modern Yet in some magical way, this backward kingdom is also plugged into the modern age. In the various fight scenes hero and baddy wield swords for medieval duels, but also have revolvers tucked into their belts. They telegraph the capital city and catch trains to destinations. It is a strange, beguiling blending of past and present which adds to the fairy tale ambience.

Dashing hero The first person narrator is sometimes a problem for novelists but here it perfectly suits the rather lazy but brave and earnest hero, Rudolf Rassendyll, distant cousin of the king of Ruritania, who suddenly finds himself called upon to impersonate the king who has been kidnapped by his wicked cousin, Black Duke Michael.

Wish-fulfilment Who wouldn’t wish to be the hero who shows such pluck and dash – or the beautiful Princess Flavia who he falls in love with – both of them with so little time together before she nobly submits to her duty and he nobly walks away from their love. Millions of female readers have burst into tears at the novel’s moving conclusion or male readers stifled a tear and fantasised that, yes, they too would have done the noble thing!

Movies Cedric Watts in his introduction to the Wordsworth Classic edition of the novel describes its immense influence: Three black and white movies were made in the 10s and 20s, before the classic 1937 talkie version with Ronald Colman, a 1952 remake with Stewart Grainger, a 1979 spoof starring Peter Sellars, as well as countless versions in TV, radio, musical and stage form.

Stock scenes But it was as a fashioner of stock scenes that the book has had most impact: the fake coronation, the chase through the woods, the stealthy crossing of the moat under cover of dark, breaking into the dungeon just in time to rescue the captive, the duel in the forest, the passionate duet of doomed hero and self-denying heroine, the scene at the inn where the hero flirts with the sexy barmaid, the scene where the wicked uncle corners the blonde heroine, the hero getting cornered by three toughs and escaping by the skin of  his teeth – on and on it goes, a wonderful sourcebook of swashbuckling stereotypes.

I like Watts’s lineage of the ‘sardonic, cynical but dashingly handsome villain, epitomised by Rupert of Hentzau: his mocking tones re-echo in the voices of countless screen villains, from Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Orson Welles and Vincent Price, to Alan Rickman, John Malkovich’ and beyond.

Watts suggests the heyday of costume drama was the 30s until the 1970s, and there was certainly a lot of it about, but I’d say the genre lives on in movies like the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Wherever a goody and a baddy brandish swords and a beautiful heroine is in danger, some element of Zenda is present.

The Prisoner of Zenda 1937 starring Ronald Colman

The Prisoner of Zenda 1952 starring Stewart Grainger

PS I’m not completely sure this is the source for the well-known phrase, but the novel does include the words; ‘My work here is done,’ chapter 21.

Round the Red Lamp by Arthur Conan Doyle (1894)

Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Final Problem (December 1893). He continued knocking out short stories at a rate of about one a month until he had enough to collect in Round the Red Lamp, Being Facts and Fancies of Medical Life. The idea of writing a set of stories based on his medical training and experiences as a doctor had been suggested by Jerome K. Jerome two years earlier when he was editor of The Idler but in fact the volume rather confusingly pads out the medical stories with a few fantasy yarns, namely the original Egyptian-mummy-comes-to-life story, Lot No.249.

The stories are anything but art. They are short and entertaining in themselves but also shed fascinating light on the mindset of the late Victorian era: on patriotism, marriage, the Woman Question – as well as on their ostensible subject, the life and practice of a late Victorian doctor.

(The title derives from the red lamp which was the usual sign of the general practitioner in England at the time.)

  • Behind the Times (October 1894) Comic, warm-hearted memoir of an old-fashioned doctor way behind modern scientific times, but with a magical healing touch and bedside manner.
  • His First Operation (October 1894) Comic, warm-hearted memoir of a young student attending his first operation and fainting.
  • A Straggler of ’15 (March 1891) A patriotic portrait of Corporal Gregory Brewster, last survivor of the battle of Waterloo.
  • The Third Generation (1894) Seasoned Dr Horace Selby is visited by Sir Francis Norton who, it quickly tanspires, is infected with syphilis. He explains the taint comes from his hard-living Regency grandfather. He is due to marry the following week. The doctor suggests creating a sudden reason to go abroad and cancel the nuptials. But next morning Dr Selby reads that the noble aristocrat has thrown himself under the wheels of a heavy dray and died, in order to spare the damsel and kill the hereditary taint. True Brit.
  • A False Start (December 1891) 3rd person. Comedy about young Dr Horace Wilkinson who has several false starts of first patients including the gas man and an impoverished gypsy before he called quite by mistake to the house of the local millionaire. Turns out to be a comedy case of mistaken identity in which Wilkinson shines nobly.
  • The Curse of Eve (October 1894) The nondescript life of Robert Johnson, gentleman’s outfitter, is turned upside down when his wife begins her labour. He chase all over town for one doctor, and then again for a second opinion. After an all-night vigil, his son is delivered. ‘Lives had come and lives had gone, but the great machine was still working out its dim and tragic destiny.’
  • Sweethearts (October 1894) The doctor in a seaside town meets an old man on a bench who wastes and declines over three consecutive days. Finally he reveals it is because he is waiting for his wife, his childhood sweetheart, to return. I wonder whether Conan Doyle’s readers found this sickly sweet, or lapped it up.
  • A Physiologist’s Wife (September 1890) 3rd person. Social comedy/satire in which cold-hearted rationalist and scientist Professor Ainslie Grey marries one Mrs. O’James. A younger colleague is due to marry his daughter, until he meets the new Mrs Grey and is stunned to realise she is his first wife from Australia who ran off and left him and was drowned in a shipwreck. In fact she didn’t take the boat but came to England to start a new life. Cold rationalist Professor tells them to go be happy and reunited. He dies of a broken heart.
  • The Case of Lady Sannox (November 1893) A dashing surgeon is having an affair with a high society lady, is called late at night to operate on the wife of a Turkish merchant; he horribly disfigures the woman, then it is revealed it is his high-born lover and the merchant her husband who has taken a horrific revenge.
  • A Question of Diplomacy (summer 1892) Comedy. The Foreign Secretary, laid up with gout, is outwitted by his wife who arranges for his daughter’s fiance to get a position in Tangiers and for the daughter to accompany him and for them to get married asap, all against the FS’s wishes.
  • A Medical Document (October 1894) Three old doctors – a GP, a surgeon and an alienist – sit around discussing eerie cases. There’s passing reference to the way popular fiction uses very rare or vague conditions (‘brain fever’) but rarely actually common diseases (typhoid). And how fiction rarely uses those outbreaks of vice which are so common. I think he’s talking about sex.
  • Lot No.249 (September 1892) Horror. At an old Oxford college a fat evil undergraduate has been conducting experiments, bringing a 4,000 year old mummy back to life, and increasingly using it to terrorise his enemies – before a steady young sporting chap steps in and stops it.
  • The Los Amigos Fiasco (December 1892) A short light-hearted comic-horror piece about a town which tries to execute a man with electricity by increasing the voltage, but only succeed in giving him superhuman life.
  • The Doctors of Hoyland (1894) Dr James Ripley of Hoyland in Hampshire is astonished when a lady doctor moves to the town. Quickly she establishes herself a practice and ends up treating Ripley himself after he fractures his leg falling from a carriage. His initial sexist resistance to a female doctor is completely overcome by close experience of her ability and he inevitably falls in love with her. Thankfully, Conan Doyle foresees the utter hopelessness of such a resolution and has her remaining devoted to Science, departing for further education in Paris, leaving the country doctor sadder and wiser.
  • The Surgeon Talks (October 1894) Like A Medical Document this consists of paragraph-long anecdotes: how they removed the ear from the wrong patient; how most people receive the diagnosis of impending death nobly etc. The woman who hides her cancer form her husband. ‘…Besides, [a doctor] is forced to be a good man. It is impossible for him to be anything else. How can a man spend his whole life in seeing suffering bravely borne and yet remain a hard or a vicious man? It is a noble, generous, kindly profession, and you youngsters have got to see that it remains so.”‘
The Doctor by Luke Fildes (1891)

The Doctor by Luke Fildes (1891)

Daumier @ the Royal Academy

Robert Daumier is known as a cartoonist, satirist and chronicler of Parisian life in the mid-19th century. This exhibition – Daumier 1808-1879 Visions of Paris – at the Royal Academy brings together 130 works to argue for a re-evaluation of his achievement ie to raise him from political cartoonist to ‘artist’. The exhibition covers the full range of media he worked in – newspaper caricatures, witty lithographs, small satirical sculptures, drawings, watercolours and paintings – and arranges it chronologically, but certain obvious themes run throughout.


Daumier fought on the barricades of the July 1830 which overthrew the Bourbons and brought the constitutional King Louis Philippe to power. There was to follow the 1848 revolution, the coup of Napoleon III (1851), the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune (1870). Through the ups and downs of French 19th century history and the repeated defeats of the republican cause by reactionary royalists or turncoat liberals, he remained a republican atheist, refusing to go to church even for funerals, and drawn to the sufferings of ordinary people. Aged 60 he was drafted onto the Commune as art delegate.

Thus his lifelong employment on Charivari, the French equivalent of Punch or Private Eye, turning out reams of satirical cartoons satirising kings, emperors, presidents and politicians, as well as the upper classes and the pretentions of the bourgeoisie.

In Gargantua, an early example, money is being collected for the poor, hauled up into the mouth of king Louis Philippe who craps it out as peerages, awards and jobs for the upper classes. Stylistically, it is unusual, but the attitude of bitter satire is characteristic. This cartoon earned the 22 year old Daumier a 6 month prison sentence and fine.

Gargantua by Daumier, 1831

Gargantua by Daumier, 1831

A section is devoted to caricatures of artists, their fans, collectors and connoisseurs, and satire on the yawning gap between the idealised world of art, especially neo-classical sculpture, and the more sordid realities of 19th century life.

Critics by Daumier

Critics by Daumier

Big oil paintings

At the other end of the scale, Daumier tried repeatedly but struggled to create the large oil paintings which would have qualified him as a proper ‘artist’. Though he received some commissions he seems never to have finished them. He was certainly never interested in the established genres of landscape, still life, history and mythological paintings, or serious portraits, the kinds of work which got you noticed and big money commissions. The handful of big oil paintings on display are a mixed bunch.

Ecce Homo by Daumier, 1849

Ecce Homo by Daumier, 1849

Ecce Homo (1849) is his largest work and highlights his limitations – at the top is the striking gesture of the accuser and the rather haunting silhouette of Christ, but other areas are unfinished or of uneven composition.

The exhibition devoted a little section to Daumier’s depiction of life on the newish railway trains, focusing on another large painting, The Third Class Railway Carriage (1865). The version here is unfinished, displaying the grid of squares used to create it. It is an example of Daumier’s lifelong concern for and feel for the life of the labouring poor. Like a lot of his work, it is a striking image but not a great painting.

The Third Class Carriage by Daumier, 1865

The Third Class Carriage by Daumier, 1865

By far the best of the big oil paintings is the wonderful Man on a Rope (1860).

Man on a Rope by Daumier, 1860

Man on a Rope by Daumier, 1860

It plays to Daumier’s strengths – striking composition or arrangement of the human body, compassion for the human condition – without exposing his biggest shortcoming, realistic depiction of the human face. The most wonderful thing is its unfinished condition: you can plainly see the canvas and the paint is scored and scratched. It is a strikingly modern approach to painting, anticipating the similar rough unfinishedness characteristic of much 20th century art, and a standout piece.

Small oil paintings

Daumier is more at home with small paintings, a couple of foot long at the most. In a very uneven exhibition, probably more successes are in this group than any other. He is not very good at the face, at features or expression. His best compositions are of human figures which, often because of the blurred or unclear faces, have a haunting evanescent quality.

I liked the early painting of The Bathers (1846). Note the completely blank faces. The exhibition notes introduced me to the technique of contre-jour ie having daylight at the back heightened by a foreground in shade. Like many Daumier images this is better the smaller, the more compact and powerful, it becomes.

The Bathers by Daumier, 1846

The Bathers by Daumier, 1846

The Amateur, a much later small painting from the series about art and collectors is more finished but shows the same fundamental qualities, the key is the stance of the human subject whose face is obscured.

The Amateur by Daumier, 1860

The Amateur by Daumier, 1860

It is also a very low key composition. It isn’t, like so much Victorian painting, capturing a moment of high drama, or historical crisis or mythological intensity. It is a quiet candid depiction of a man  looking through prints in a shop. This seems to me a rare quality in art, just to capture the ordinary human being going about some quite nondescript activity. For me a standout example is Man reading in a Garden (1868). This watercolour epitomises Daumier’s ability to capture simple human moments. What could be simpler and yet, in its way, more profound?

Man reading in a Garden by Daumier, 1868

Man reading in a Garden by Daumier, 1868

Compassion for the poor

Talking of ordinary people and ordinary scenes brings us to Daumier’s lifelong concern for the poor. In lithographs, cartoons, sketches, paintings Daumier returned again and again to the trials and tribulations of the ordinary labouring poor.

It’s worth noting that he didn’t work from life but from memory, and that he reworked the same compositions again and again. There are half a dozen sketches of man on a rope, numerous versions of the travellers in the train carriage. An example of both practices is a series of sketches and paintings he did of the laundresses who worked at the Seine near his house.

The Washerwoman by Daumier, 1863

The Washerwoman by Daumier, 1863

The effort of carrying the laundry bag under your left arm and reaching down to help your toddler up that crucial final step to the pavement are wonderfully captured. But note the absence of facial detail or expression. The image is about the body, about effort, about work.

The exhibition includes some contemporary photographs, street scenes from the 1850s taken by pioneer-artist-turned-photographer Charles Nègre chosen so we can compare Daumier’s treatment of street entertainers with Nègre’s photos of the same. There’s a photo of a barrel organist next to Daumier’s painting of one.

A particular category of street scene fascinates him, circus entertainers, the saltimbanques. The commentary makes the smart point that these entertainers often drummed up trade to go into the Big Top, to see the Main Attraction and therefore Daumier’s interest might be a bitter comment on his own status as lowly cartoonist and sketcher who drummed up interest in ‘real artists’ with their 50 foot wide historical canvases etc.

Maybe. Or maybe he was just aware of the irony of so many street performers who made a living cheering people up while often being themselves very poor. In Daumier’s characteristic way, the same scenes and characters are repeated and reworked in different settings or poses. This section reminded me of the wandering entertainers Nell and her grandfather fall in with in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1841).

The sideshow by Daumier, 1866

The sideshow by Daumier, 1866

Don Quixote

Daumier had a lifelong fascination with Don Quixote and generated numerous images of the knight throughout his life. The commentary makes much of the dichotomy between the skinny visionary and the plump pragmatist Sancho Panza and claims that Daumier saw the same dichotomy in his own character, between the artist drawn to visionary paintings and the blunt down-to-earth satirist. Almost the final piece in the exhibition is a strange and surprisingly modern painting of the pair, radically unfinished, which Francis Bacon apparently claimed as one of his favourite paintings – the Don is turning into C-3PO and his squire into a Henry Moore sculpture. Very strange.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Daumier, 1870

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Daumier, 1870

A little more characteristic is this haunting image – it is better in the flesh – of Don Quixote and the Mule, a haunting image of abandonment and desolation.

Don Quixote and the Mule by Daumier, 1866

Don Quixote and the Mule by Daumier, 1866

Related links

Tales of Unease by Arthur Conan Doyle


Conan Doyle packed an amazing variety of activities into one life (1859-1930): doctor, author, sea voyager, played cricket for the MCC, enlisted age 40 to serve in the Boer War, public campaigner against miscarriages of justice, bombarded the Ministry of Defence with technical and strategic innovations during the Boer War and Great War, and devoted his later years and sizable fortune to promoting Spiritualism.

His writing output was similarly prodigious and varied: novels, short stories, articles, essays, reviews, poetry, plays, and in genres like history, detective, horror, melodrama, science fiction. What unites them all is the easy confidence of his style.

I prefer these stories of fantasy and the bizarre to the Sherlock Holmes tales, because Conan Doyle is less trapped by the iron format of ‘puzzle  – investigation – explanation’ which constricts the detective stories. Doyle’s imagination is set free to roam widely.

The result is short tales of horror, fantasy, of the macabre, alive with vivid descriptions – melodramatic moments – nightmare scenes of the bizarre or grotesque – each one a little twilight zone.


They move at great speed. Mises-en-scenes are quickly set up with comprehensive descriptions of places and peoples, and then we are plunged into the action.

They are very vivid because a) the tales themselves are melodramatic ie designed to purvey extreme moments b) Conan Doyle has a great gift for the telling image. The detail of the undergraduate’s room lined with Egyptological specimens. The colour of the setting sun on the great Northern ice packs. The flicker of the candlelight in the Roman catacomb.

They are uncanny because they begin so solidly in the dull workaday before beginning to blur the boundaries. Because the characters of predominantly stuffy, bluff Edwardian types who would never be suspected of frivolity. What is so Conan Doyle about them is the comfiness of the original settings – the educated class, public school chaps, the world of Edwardian normality, pipe and clubs. So when the impossible occurs, we have already bought into the fictional world; their very bluffness lends credibility when the situation turns bizarre and extraordinary.

For example, the outlandish story of Sosra, the Egyptian who discovered the secret of immortality, is made credible (within the fiction) by the slow, detailed build-up of the character of Vansittart Smith, the mundane but steady Egyptologist, the typically bluff Victorian chap who narrates it. Because he is so reliable and believable, we suspend disbelief for the duration of the brief, fantastical story, which so clearly isn’t.

I’ve seen John Wyndham’s science fiction novels described as ‘cosy catastrophes’. Something similar with Conan Doyle whose prose never loses the calm confidence of a sturdy Victorian gentleman. Almost every story features cigars and a bottle of fine wine in front of a roaring fire: as readers we enjoy two levels of pleasure: the thrill of the often pretty hokey plot (although some of them do rise to a level of genuine hair-raising uncanniness) and the permanent bass note of the reassuring, unimaginative, pre-twentieth century worldview.

It was ten o’clock on a bright spring night, and Abercrombie Smith lay back in his arm-chair, his feet upon the fender, and his briar-root pipe between his lips. In a similar chair, and equally at his ease, there lounged on the other side of the fireplace his old school friend Jephro Hastie. Both men were in flannels, for they had spent their evening upon the river, but apart from their dress no one could look at their hard-cut, alert faces without seeing that they were open-air men – men whose minds and tastes turned naturally to all that was manly and robust.

No matter how grim the ostensible plots, all Conan Doyle’s oeuvre is fundamentally innocent, child-like, deeply comforting and reassuring.

Papers, fragments and accounts

The earliest novels (Defore, 1720s) used the forms of diaries, journals and, of course, letters, so there is nothing new in these short stories, 150 years later, using the same strategy – the tales frequently masquerade as journals, accounts, newspaper reports and so on. But there is something specific to horror stories of this period in using the fragment. Remember that the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886 ie one year before Holmes appears) climaxes with the letter from the doomed Jeckyll.

  • ‘The following account was found among the papers of Dr James Hardcastle.’
  • ‘The Horror of the Heights which includes the manuscript known as the Joyce-Armstrong Fragment’
  • And such is the narrative of Abercrombie Smith as to the singular events which occurred in Old College, Oxford, in the spring of ’84.

A story basing itself on one of these forms has multiple purposes:

  • It adds authority and credibility; it lends the lustre of another (albeit fictional) name to validate the narrative.
  • It allows the text to be short and pithy, as diaries, journals and letters generally are, and to focus only on key moments.
  • It gets right inside the mind of the protagonist without limiting the narrative to a first person account. In other words, it allows the author to combine first person and 3rd person points of view, often itself part of the drama, often revealing the true state of affairs which lies behind all the weird occurrences (as in Jeckyll).
  • Precisely by being fragments, they can often end melodramatically, as in the last entry in Joyce-Armstrong’s until-then sober and careful account, which are words of horror scribbled in pencil and splashed with blood!

The stories

Conan Doyle wrote some 120 short stories, as well as the 56 Holmes stories, and numerous novels, plays and pamphlets. This selection of 15 tales was made by David Stuart Davies, a specialist in this genre and this period, who has compiled a number of similar selections for the bargain Wordsworth imprint.

The Ring of Thoth (1890) An Egyptologist in the Louvre stumbles upon a 4,000 year old Egyptian who discovered the secret of eternal life and now is going to end his life in the arms of his mummified love.

The Lord of Château Noir (1894) During the Franco-Prussian War a French aristocrat terrorises a Prussian officer in vengeance for his dead son.

The New Catacomb (1898) Two archaeologists in Rome, one of them a dashing bounder just returned from a failed elopement with an English girl. His colleague takes him at night to a new catacomb then traps him there; for he had loved the girl he had ‘ruined’.

The Case of Lady Sannox (1893) A dashing surgeon is having an affair with a high society lady, is called late at night to operate on the wife of a Turkish merchant; he horribly disfigures the woman, then it is revealed it is his high-born lover and the merchant her husband who has taken a horrific revenge.

The Brazilian Cat (1898) the protagonist visits his cousin, Everard King, at his country pile where he has housed his large collection of Brazilian flora and fauna, especially the prize exhibit, a huge black puma. Despite warnings from the collector’s wife, the protagonist allows himself to be locked in to the animal’s cage. He manages to survive and when evil Everard returns in the morning it is he and not the protagonist who is killed. And as a result, the protagonist inherits the land, house and title.

The Brown Hand (1899) After a successful career in India a surgeon retires to England where he is haunted by the ghost of an Indian whose hand he promised to keep safe after having to amputate it. the hand was lost in a fire. the ghostly Indian searches for it every night. The protagonist goes to a surgeon in the east End and obtains a hand recently amputated from an Indian sailor and returns with it to the country house where the ghostly Indian finds it, politely bows to the surgeon, and departs for ever. Which is why the protagonist is made the surgeon’s heir.

The Horror of the Heights (1913) Brilliant account of Captain Joyce-Armstrong, an airman who flies higher than any man before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters.

The Terror of Blue John Gap (1910) Dr John Hardcastle is on a rest cure in Derbyshire, and finds out the hard way that local lore about a monster inhabiting a deep ancient cavern is in fact true.

The Captain of the Polestar (1890) ‘Being an extract from the singular journal of John McAlister Ray, student of medicine’. Doctor on the Polestar which travels unwisely far into the northern, Arctic ice fields, supposedly in search of whales, but in fact driven by the haunted captain Nicholas Craigie who is pursuing the phantom of his murdered sweetheart which flees across the ice.

How It Happened (1913) Haunting short account of a man who is in an early car crash, recalling the lead-up to it and then, in the final sentences, realising he is dead!

Playing with Fire (1900) Account of a séance including an artist who had been painting a unicorn. At the height of the séance the ectoplasm forms a unicorn which goes rampaging through the house!

The Leather Funnel (1902) the narrator visits a friend in Paris who suggests objects which have witnessed powerful scenes affect our dreams. As an experiment the narrator sleeps with a battered leather funnel by his bed and has a nightmare of a woman being tried and then beginning a course of water torture. Screaming himself awake, his friend shows the historical documents proving he has witnessed the torture of Marquise de Brinvilliers, a real historical woman, a poisoner and murder!

Lot No.249 (1892) At an old Oxford college a fat evil undergraduate has been conducting experiments, bringing a 4,000 year old mummy back to life, and increasingly using it to terrorise his enemies – before a steady young sporting chap steps in and stops it.

The Los Amigos Fiasco (1892) A very short light-hearted comic-horror piece about a town which tries to execute a man with electricity by increasing the voltage, but only succeed in giving him superhuman life.

The Nightmare Room (1921) By far the most overwritten piece in which a room is all Victorian sumptuous rugs and curtains at one end, completely bare at the other, with a divan upon which  beautiful but immoral woman is lounging. In bursts her husband declaring he knows about her affair with young Douglas; she must choose one of them. In bursts Douglas and the husband produces poison: Let’s play cards for her, old man. All written in the highest pitch of melodrama with everyone gasping or turning white. In the final line the director steps forward and shouts, Cut! It was all a scene from a movie 🙂

Contemporary illustration for Lot No.249

Contemporary illustration for Lot No.249

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Arthur Conan Doyle versus John le Carré

As I read through the Sherlock Holmes stories, I was struck by the bluff, hearty, unshakeable confidence of Conan Doyle’s narratorial voice. And, particularly when I read the espionage stories (Bruce-Partington, His Last Bow), I thought of his descendant John le Carré, whose voice, tone and milieu couldn’t be more different – a world of jaded, disillusioned, cynical, overgrown public schoolboys – and I found myself comparing their oeuvres.

Arthur Conan Doyle John le Carré

  • Establishment
  • Public School
  • Professional (doctor)
  • Volunteer in Boer & Great War
  • Patriot

  • Establishment
  • Public school
  • Professional (diplomat)
  • Worked for military, Foreign Office, MI6
  • Sceptical patriot

  • Believer
  • Entirely endorsed the values of his time ie the supremacy of:
  • The British Empire, of British values, of Anglo-Saxon blood, of white men
  • Strong clear morality, decency
  • Patriarchy ie rule by men and chastity of women, recompensing the fairer sex with Chivalry

  • Disillusioned unbeliever
  • Bitterly questions Imperial values, seen as ambiguous, devalued, empty
  • Sad acceptance of the end of Empire. The Russia House is about the Americans taking over
  • Amoral or morally unsure
  • Sexually explicit, women as betrayers, completely post-patriarchy, -chivalry etc. Eg Anne the betrayer wife
Character of texts

  • Clear-cut problems solved neatly, restoring the status quo
  • Settings Romantic and cinematic
  • Characters unambiguously good or bad
  • Holmes imposes clarity and justice according to firm white man’s morality
Character of texts

  • Complex, sometimes insoluble problems eg Arab-Israeli conflict of Little Drummer Girl
  • Settings shabby, sordid rundown
  • Characters obscure, complex, conflicted
  • Lying and deceit and duplicity is the core subject of the spy books where no-one can be trusted epitomised by the Cambridge spy, Haydon

  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Professor Challenger
  • Conan Doyle’s heroes are the best in the world, always triumph, unshakably confident in their own abilities and purpose.

  • Alec Leamas
  • George Smiley
  • Le Carré’s anti-heroes are unglamorous, shabby, obscure men, cynical about their own cause, who often fail.
Foreign travel

  • has shown him that white men’s rule is best, ensuring the rule of law and morality in USA and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, India or South Africa
  • bolsters his values and his superb confidence
Foreign travel

  • has shown him the irrelevance of British Empire public school values in a complex Cold War world, packed with independence movements trying to get free of Imperialism or tyrannised by Soviets
  • has undermined his values leading to jaded cynicism, leading to the comprehensive betrayal of Magnus Pym

Le Carré’s novels embody the disillusionment of the British private school class, trained by institutions brought to perfection in the late-Victorian period to churn out unthinkingly loyal, white, patriarchal believers in cricket and fair play sent out to rule vast areas of Africa or India. The classics-and-rugger education continues to this day but in a post-Great War, post-Second War, post-Empire world, delivering these fresh-faced neophytes to a world much larger, more complex, and less manageable, less fitting into the pukka mental system, than conceivable by the Victorians. A world we no longer even pretend to control, where these Victorian values seem ludicrously out of date, redundant, irrelevant.

Hence the recurring milieu, the recurring setting of le Carré’s fiction is the club full of sozzled embittered middle-aged public school men, disillusioned public school types scattered around the higher echelons of the Army, the Foreign Office, MI6 or London’s clubland, huddling together for warmth and reassurance, to bolster their failing belief in themselves and their outworn values, kidding themselves that the British still run things or matter, that men are superior, that white men are most superior of all, despite all the evidence to the contrary. The Honourable Schoolboy in particular I found hard to read because of the way the white men got drunk and played schoolboy pranks in the Hong Kong press club, childishly reinforcing their own values and worldview, utterly regardless of the hundreds of millions of Asians living their lives just beyond the compound.

In contrast to all this, the main appeal of Conan Doyle as man and writer is his wonderful, unbreakable confidence – evinced in the hymn to bachelorhood which is the friendship of Holmes and Watson, but which extends to the settings of almost everything he wrote. Despite the killings and brutality in the stories and even in his histories of the Boer War and Congo, all Conan Doyle’s fictions bring you back to tea and crumpets by the fire, a white Anglo-Saxon mastery of the world which is demonstrated by the calm confidence of his prose style.

Le Carré, writing 50 years later (first novel 1961), is completely disillusioned, cynical and scathing about the very public school values he was raised in (but which he can’t escape). The pleasure to be had from his texts is the pleasure of soaking yourself in fictions which have very thoroughly worked out the implications of this hegemonic failure, this moral collapse.

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1927)

This is the final collection of twelve Sherlock Holmes short stories, published in the trusty Strand Magazine between October 1921 and April 1927. Incredible that the character associated with London pea-soupers, hansom cabs, gas lamps and Jack the Ripper, should live on into the Jazz Age and see the publication of Ulysses and The Great Gatsby, the Russian Civil War, the rise of Mussolini, the General Strike and talking movies. As Conan Doyle writes in the preface to this final collection:

He began his adventures in the very heart of the later Victorian era, carried it through the all-too-short reign of Edward, and has managed to hold his own little niche even in these feverish days. (Preface)

Cruelty and violence

But, possibly as a sign of the traumas the world had passed through viz. the Great War, the collapse of Europe’s land empires, and the tempestuous Bolshevik Revolution, the stories are notably crueller and harsher than previous ones.

  • A handsome man has acid thrown in his face.
  • A man finds himself among half-beasts and catches leprosy.
  • Holmes is severely beaten and repeatedly threatened.
  • When he seizes the diamond from Count Negretto Sylvius he holds a pistol to his head, more the act of a Philip Marlowe than the debonaire Holmes.
  • A boy infects his baby brother with incurable poison.
  • A woman shoots herself in the head.
  • A man takes medicine which turns him into a half ape.
  • A maniac traps his wife and lover in a gas chamber.
  • A deadly jellyfish kills its victims by flailing their backs to a bloody pulp.
  • A lion rips a beautiful woman’s face off.

Animal imagery

And the greater cruelty and violence of the stories is reflected in the much more frequent comparison of humans to animals:

  • ‘When one tries to rise above Nature one is liable to fall below it. The highest type of man may revert to the animal if he leaves the straight road of destiny.’
  • The Baron has little waxed tips of hair under his nose, like an insect.
  • How a beastman could have laid his vile paws upon such a being of the beyond I cannot imagine. You may have noticed how extremes call to each other, the spiritual to the animal, the cave-man to the angel. You never saw a worse case than this.
  • It seemed that none of them could speak English, but the situation wanted clearing up, for the creature with the big head was growing furiously angry, and, uttering wild-beast cries
  • A sudden wild-beast light sprang up in the dark, menacing eyes of the master criminal.
  • ‘You cruel beast! You monster!’ she cried.
  • From keeping beasts in a cage, the woman seemed, by some retribution of fate, to have become herself a beast in a cage.
  • Ruffian, bully, beast – it was all written on that heavy-jowled face.
  • Holmes sprang at his throat like a tiger and twisted his face towards the ground.
  • I tell you, Mr. Holmes. this man collects women, and takes a pride in his collection. as some men collect moths or butterflies.
  • ‘And is this Count Sylvius one of your fish?’ ‘

    Yes, and he’s a shark. He bites. The other is Sam Merton the boxer. Not a bad fellow, Sam, but the Count has used him. Sam’s not a shark. He is a great big silly bull-headed gudgeon. But he is flopping about in my net all the same.’

  • If I had said that a mad bull had arrived it would give a clearer impression of what occurred. The door had flown open and a huge negro had burst into the room.
  • She entered with ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop.
  • ‘I see. You’ve tested them before.’ ‘They are good hounds who run silent.’ ‘Such hounds have a way sooner or later of biting the hand that feeds them.’
  • There have been no advertisements in the agony columns. You know that I miss nothing there. They are my favourite covert for putting up a bird, and I would never have overlooked such a cock pheasant as that.’
  •  With his dressing-gown flapping on each side of him, he looked like some huge bat glued against the side of his own house, a great square dark patch upon the moonlit wall.
  • In all our adventures I do not know that I have ever seen a more strange sight than this impassive and still dignified figure crouching frog-like upon the ground and goading to a wilder exhibition of passion the maddened hound, which ramped and raged in front of him, by all manner of ingenious and calculated cruelty.
  • It was a dreadful face – a human pig, or rather a human wild boar, for it was formidable in its bestiality. One could imagine that vile mouth champing and foaming in its rage, and one could conceive those small, vicious eyes darting pure malignancy as they looked forth upon the world. Ruffian, bully, beast – it was all written on that heavy-jowled face.
  • … the other, a small rat-faced man with a disagreeably furtive manner.
  • ‘For myself, I am deeply in the hands of the Jews. I have always known that if my sister were to die my creditors would be on to my estate like a flock of vultures.’
  • He clawed into the air with his bony hands. His mouth was open, and for the instant he looked like some horrible bird of prey. In a flash we got a glimpse of the real Josiah Amberley, a misshapen demon with a soul as distorted as his body.

And the fact that one story is about a vampire and another about a scientist who turns himself into a ape-man clinches the sense of the ab-human, of the human mutating into the Gothic creature or beast, which permeates the stories. Humans permanently poised on the edge of bestial violence.

The Strand Magazine, vol. 73, April 1927

The Strand Magazine, vol. 73, April 1927

Sex and seduction

There’s more sex, more overtly referred to, than in the earlier stories.

  • Baron Grüner is a smooth-talking seducer of women; the Illustrious Client hinges on Holmes purloining the Baron’s ‘Lust Diary’.
  • Similarly, the gorgeous Isadora Klein has seduced numerous young men, used them and then discarded them, and the case hinges (once again) on a text which records her sexual escapades, this time a roman a clef written by her lover.
  • Maria Gibson is jealous enough of her husband’s relationship with the maid to kill herself.
  • Professor Presbury is besotted enough with a young woman he’s met to experiment with a dangerous youth serum.
  • Leonardo the circus acrobat has ‘the self-satisfied smile of the man of many conquests’.

It is difficult to cast your mind back to the Victorian stories where the sex element is simply absent; where there is no reference to sex whatsoever, at any point; where men drop dead of heart attacks at the mere thought of their reputations being besmirched, where women are prepared to plunge their country into war rather than have their husband read an old billet-doux (The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plan).

This is the most obvious way that, despite the way the tales are still ostensibly set in the late ’90s or early noughties – in fact the post-War Holmes is operating in a new era with new conventions,

Anglo good, foreign bad

Foreigners are generally bad, such as the smooth Baron Grüner:

  • The fellow is, as you may have heard, extraordinarily handsome, with a most fascinating manner. a gentle voice and that air of romance and mystery which means so much to a woman. He is said to have the whole sex at his mercy and to have made ample use of the fact… His European reputation for beauty was fully deserved. In figure he was not more than of middle size, but was built upon graceful and active lines. His face was swarthy, almost Oriental, with large, dark, languorous eyes which might easily hold an irresistible fascination for women. His hair and moustache were raven black, the latter short, pointed, and carefully waxed. His features were regular and pleasing, save only his straight, thin-lipped mouth. If ever I saw a murderer’s mouth it was there – a cruel, hard gash in the face, compressed, inexorable, and terrible.
  • Isadora Klein was, of course, the celebrated beauty. There was never a woman to touch her. She is pure Spanish, the real blood of the masterful Conquistadors… She rose from a settee as we entered: tall, queenly, a perfect figure, a lovely mask-like face, with two wonderful Spanish eyes which looked murder at us both.
  • It was as if the air of Italy had got into his blood and brought with it the old cruel Italian spirit.
  • This gentleman married some five years ago a Peruvian lady the daughter of a Peruvian merchant, whom he had met in
    connection with the importation of nitrates. The lady was very beautiful, but the fact of her foreign birth and of her alien religion always caused a separation of interests and of feelings between husband and wife.
  • ‘She was a creature of the tropics, a Brazilian by birth, as no doubt you know.’ ‘No, it had escaped me.’ ‘Tropical by birth and tropical by nature. A child of the sun and of passion.’
  • He was looked upon as an oddity by the students, and would have been their butt, but there was some strange outlandish blood in the man, which showed itself not only in his coal-black eyes and swarthy face but also in occasional outbreaks of temper, which could only be described as ferocious.

But, thankfully, in contrast to the beast-people and dastardly foreigners, there are plenty of fine upstanding, Anglo-Saxon chaps (and the occasional chapess):

  • Mr. James M. Dodd, a big, fresh, sunburned, upstanding Briton.
  • ‘I have found out who our client is,’ I cried, bursting with my great news. ‘Why, Holmes, it is—‘ ‘It is a loyal friend and a chivalrous gentleman,’ said Holmes.
  • ‘He had the fighting blood in him, so it is no wonder he volunteered. There was not a finer lad in the regiment!’
  • “Of course I remembered him,” said I as I laid down the letter. “Big Bob Ferguson, the finest three-quarter Richmond ever had. He was always a good-natured chap.’
  • Our new visitor, a bright, handsome girl of a conventional English type, smiled back at Holmes as she seated herself beside Mr. Bennett.
  • Stackhurst himself was a well-known rowing Blue in his day, and an excellent all-round scholar.
  • Fitzroy McPherson was the science master, a fine upstanding young fellow…
  • ‘Forgive what is past, Murdoch. We shall understand each other better in the future.’ They passed out together with their arms linked in friendly fashion.
  • Who could have imagined that so rare a flower would grow from such a root and in such an atmosphere?.. I could not look upon her perfect clear-cut face, with all the soft freshness of the downlands in her delicate colouring, without realizing that no young man would cross her path unscathed.

High society and superlatives

These stories continue the trend of hobnobbing with the rich and famous – giving the reader a flattering Downton Abbeyesque feeling that they are rubbing shoulders with the glamorous, rich and aristocratic. If not actual aristocrats, the adversaries are generally men and women at the top of their field.

  • It is hinted that the illustrious client in the first story is the Prince of Wales.
  • All the doctors are the most eminent in their field – Sir Leslie Oakshott, the famous surgeon, Sir James Saunders the great dermatologist
  • The soldiers are all medal-winning heroes – Colonel Emsworth the Crimean V. C.
  • Ronder, of course, was a household word. He was the rival of Wombwell, and of Sanger, one of the greatest showmen of his day.
  • ‘There are the Shoscombe spaniels,’ said I. ‘You hear of them at every dog show. The most exclusive breed in England.’
  • ‘That is a colt you are running?’ ‘The best in England, Mr. Holmes.’
  • And the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary come calling in person about the Mazarin stone!

The stories

The Adventure of the Illustrious Client (1924)

Set in 1902. The dapper Sir James Damery visits on behalf of an anonymous client who wishes to prevent sweet & gullible Miss Violet Merville from marrying the Austrian Baron Adelbert Gruner, not only a cad to women but probably a murderer. While Watson is distracting the Baron with the offer of a rare Chinese antiquity, Holmes sneaks in the back and purloins the notebook the Baron keeps of all his conquests. There is little or no deduction involved. What is involved is shocking violence as a) Holmes is badly beaten up by two of the Baron’s men b) the Baron has vitriol thrown in his face by an embittered lover, Kitty Winter. The Wikipedia entry on vitriol-throwing says the French press coined the word La Vitrioleuse after a wave of 16 vitriol attacks in 1879, all of them crimes of passion. In 1894 the French artist Eugene Grasset (1841-1917) created a haunting lithograph title La Vitioleuse. Kingston.

La Vitrioleuse by Eugene Grasset, 1894 (Wikimedia Commons)

La Vitrioleuse by Eugene Grasset (1894)

The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier (1926)

Set 1903. First story narrated by Holmes himself. Fine upstanding soldier James Dodd fought side by side with good man Godfrey Emsworth, son of the famous Crimean VC. Rumoured to be wounded but then disappeared and family are strangely cagey about him. Holmes goes to Tuxbury Old Park and quickly deduces that the missing soldier has in fact contracted leprosy in South Africa and is hiding from the world with his family’s help. Near Bedford.

The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone (1921)

Set in 1903. First use of 3rd person narrator. Holmes has a mannekin of himself in the window to distract his watchers. By adroitly swapping places with it he persuades Count Negretto Sylvius to take out the stolen £100K jewel to show to his accomplice at which Holmes simply swipes it. Baker Street.
The Adventure of the Three Gables (1906) Set 1903. Steve Dixie, a black boxer bursts in to warn Holmes off Harrow Weald which is a coincidence because he’s just had a letter from Mary Maberley who lives there. Off we go to meet her and hear her story, that an agent suddenly offered her a fortune for her house and everything in it. Through various clues Holmes deduces the involvement of the imperious Spanish beauty Isadora Klein who has dallied with half the men in London, including Mary Maberley’s dead son. Turns out he wrote a novel dramatising Isadora’s wicked ways and she suspected it was in his luggage, hence the offer for the house and all its contents. Harrow Weald.

The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire (1924)

Set in 1896. Good solid rugger player Bob Ferguson comes to Holmes stricken: after some suspicions he caught his wife at the throat of his little baby, and she turned with blood on her lips! then ran off weeping to her rooms and won’t emerge. On a visit to the rundown house Holmes quickly sees the lie of the land: the 15 year old son of the first wife is deadly jealous of the new baby by the second, Peruvian, wife and had nipped it with an south American arrow tipped with poison. The wife was gallantly sucking it out only to be completely misaccused. The prescription for 15 year old Jacky is a year at sea! Near Horsham.
The Adventure of the Three Garridebs (1924) Set 1902. An American named Garrideb reluctantly appears before Holmes after an English eccentric with a vast collection of bric-a-brac named Garridenb has messaged him. His irritation and worn English clothes belie his cock and bull story about a multi-millionaire American back in Kansas named Garrideb who bequeathed his millions to whoever could find three Garridebs in the world. He claims to have found the third one in Birmingham and packs the eccentric off to meet him but, of course, Holmes and Watson stake out the now empty house where they reveal the first Garrideb to be none other than ‘Killer’ Evans from Chicago, who’d killed a confederate in London and served five years fr it during which time the eccentric Garrideb moved into his flat, thus blocking access to the forger’s kit in the basement. Ryder Street, St James’s.

The Problem of Thor Bridge (1922)

Set in 1900. Mr Neil Gibson, the Gold King, the richest gold magnate in the world, marries a Brazilian lady and settles in England but as her looks fade they argue a lot, and he becomes attached to his children’s maid, Miss Grace Dunbar. The wife Maria is found shot dead and the gun is found in Grace’s wardrobe. What could be simpler? Holmes deduces from the way the little bridge over the lake is chipped, that the wife planted a copy of the gun to implicate the maid, and then shot herself with a gun tied to a weighted string dangling into the lake! (The story is notable within the Sherlock Holmes canon for the initial reference to a tin dispatchbox, located within the vaults of the Cox and Co. Bank at Charing Cross in London, where Dr. Watson kept the papers concerning some of Holmes’ unsolved or unfinished cases.) Near Winchester, Hampshire.

The Adventure of the Creeping Man (1923)

Set 1903. Mr. Trevor Bennett comes to Holmes with a problem. He is Professor Presbury’s personal secretary engaged to the professor’s only daughter, Edith. After a trip to Prague the professor has been behaving strangely, with a new vigour but also, on some nights, loping around the house and climbing the walls! Holmes shows he has been taking an experimental youth serum extracted from apes in Madagascar. Camford ie fictional version of Cambridge.

The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane (1926)

Set 1907. One of the last of Holmes’s adventures and the second one to be narrated by Holmes himself! In his retirement on the South Downs cases still follow him. One of the teachers at the nearby ? academy is found stumbling up the cliffs from an early morning swim on the beach, his back horribly flailed and bloody. There is an interlude while speculation about his murderer implicates his rival in love for a nearby maiden. Only for Holmes to suddenly remember the same marks are made by a rare tropical giant jellyfish, but not before the chief suspect is himself stung almost to death. Sussex coast.

The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger (1927)

Set in 1896. The veiled lodger is the wife of the world famous circus owner ? He was a tyrant and sadist who whipped her. Her lover Leonardo the strong man cooked up a plan to stave the tyrant’s head in with a club with spikes in it to replicate a lion’s paw and release the lion they fed every day. The murder went ahead but, unfortunately the lion was maddened by the smell of blood and turned on Mrs, ripping her face off while the coward Leonardo ran off. She feels free to tell her story now she’s read that Leonardo is dead. And she has lived in retirement hiding behind a veil ever since. Holmes gallantly talks her out of committing suicide. South Brixton.

The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place (1927)

Set in 1902. Head trainer John Mason from Shoscombe Old Place, a racing stable in Berkshire, comes to Holmes about his master, Sir Robert Norberton. Mason thinks he has gone mad. The stables are actually owned by Norberton’s sister, Lady Beatrice, and the old man has huge debts. He is staking everything on the next race featuring his colt. Meanwhile Mason lists various odd events which capture Holmes’s attention: Lady B has stopped greeting her favorite horse; Sr Robert has become increasingly angry and stressed; in a fit of anger he gave Lady B’s dog away to the local publican; he’s been seen going into the local church crypt at night to meet a stranger; and then burnt human bones are found in the furnace at Shoscombe! Holmes deduces that Lady B has actually died, but Sir Robert is maintaining the fiction that she’s alive to prevent his creditors seizing the estate before his horse can win the Derby. Which it does, and with his huge winnings he pays off his debts. Berkshire.

The Adventure of the Retired Colourman (1926)

Set 1898. Holmes is hired by a retired supplier of artistic materials, Josiah Amberley, to look into his wife’s disappearance. She has left with a neighbour, Dr. Ray Ernest, taking a sizeable quantity of cash and securities. Amberley wants the two tracked down. Holmes deduces that Amberley himself did away with the couple, locking them in his strong room and gassing them and then throwing them down a disused well. Holmes prevents Amberley committing suicide, predicting he will end up in Broadmoor not swinging from a rope. Lewisham.

Town versus country

Despite Holmes’s association with pea-soupers etc, only four of these 12 stories actually take place in London. All the rest are located in the countryside.

Related links


Short story collections

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