Holmes, sweet Holmes
Country Life UK|November 25, 2020
Sherlock Holmes had an eye for architectural detail, an interest derived from his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle. Jeremy Musson looks at how it emerges in the books, with the help of specially commissioned drawings
Matthew Rice

DARTMOOR’S Baskerville Hall is one of the most famous country houses in English fiction. The arrival at its doors of Dr Watson, in the company of Sir Henry Baskerville, is a vivid piece of cinematic direction, artfully combining the Gothic horror tale with the more modern taste for detective thrillers.

Passing a ruined black-granite lodge, Watson and Baskerville go through the gates that are ‘a maze of fantastic tracery in wrought iron’ before reaching an avenue where ‘old trees shot their branches in a sombre tunnel’ (Fig 1). The hall is a ‘heavy block’, with a projecting porch, its façade ‘draped in ivy’ within which the odd window or heraldic display can be seen. The central block is framed by turrets, beyond which there are modern wings built in more black granite. The young Sir Henry, ushered in by the butler Barrymore, is touched by the atmosphere of the great hall. As they warm themselves before a fire, he speaks of it as ‘the very picture of an old family home’.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s rendering of architectural aesthetics show a good grasp of the qualities of old English architecture as it was admired and imagined by the late Victorians. Inside Baskerville Hall, Watson, a retired military doctor, finds himself immediately conjuring up images of an ‘old-time banquet’ and is daunted by portraits of a ‘dim line of ancestors, in every variety of dress’ (Fig 4). The accidentally overheard sound of the housekeeper sobbing is pure Edgar Allan Poe, but rays of morning sun in which the panelling ‘glowed like bronze’ transform these first impressions.

Conan Doyle’s acuity to historic English houses is revealing and beguiling, not least because it echoes the themes of the early architectural coverage of COUNTRY LIFE (first published in January, 1897). The Hound of the Baskervilles first appeared in 1901, as a serial in The Strand Magazine—published by Sir George Newnes in the same stable as COUNTRY LIFE—and its runaway success in book form persuaded Conan Doyle to revive his great detective, who was last heard of grappling with Moriarty by a waterfall in a story published in The Strand in 1893.

However, when Conan Doyle wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles, he lived in a handsome, modern (with electric light) country house called Undershaw, built for him near Hindhead, Surrey, in 1897, in the fashionable Old English/Queen Anne Revival mix made popular by Norman Shaw (Fig 6). The house is on an elevated site that offered breathtaking views and was chosen to cater for the delicate health of Conan Doyle’s wife, whose TB had obliged her to live in Switzerland for a time.

Now occupied by a school, Undershaw could not have been more different from the imposing and haunting Baskerville Hall. It was light, healthy and comfortable—cottagelike, even—with its gabled and clay-tiled roof and tile-hung elevations echoing the Surrey-Sussex vernacular. Conan Doyle’s letters imply he himself had quite a hand in the design, but, in order not to be taken for a ride by builders, he appointed his old friend, the architect J. H. Ball—whom he described in a letter to his mother as ‘a man of most fastidious taste’. He sketched out a plan of the main rooms in the same letter (May 25, 1895), noting ‘the sun will be in all the rooms (to the south) all day’ and added that he and his wife ‘would take a pride in the house & furnish it lovingly’. Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, visited Undershaw in 1907 and described it as ‘cozy and snug to a remarkable degree’, its rooms and furnishing creating an effect that was like a ‘fairy pleasure house’.

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