Sunday, June 10, 2018

Sherlock Holmes and John Atkinson Grimshaw: The Perfect Holmesian Book Covers

[A version of the following was originally published in the "Proceedings of the Pondicherry Lodge", the official journal of The Sherlock Holmes Society of India (Vol. 5, Issue 2, December 1, 2017), edited by Jayantika Ganguly, BSI]. Also updated a little bit on April 18th, 2021

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most recognizable figures on the planet. Just the sight of his profile, or those objects associated with him – a deerstalker, a magnifying glass, or a pipe – is enough to immediately suggest detective, even to those unlucky or unwise people who have never enjoyed his actual adventures. Even someone who knows nothing about Holmes recognizes what he stands for. And those who know a little bit more are instantly reminded of other aspects of The World of Holmes: The presence and participation of Dr. Watson in Holmes’s investigations, for instance, or Holmes’s brilliance, and his constant ability to see what isn’t apparent to others.

Holmes has been successfully represented many times by actors such as Arthur Wontner, Basil Rathbone, and Douglas Wilmer, men whose noble visages help to reinforce Holmes’s influence in the world.

And of course, Holmes was first represented in the original publications by artists such as Sidney Paget, who showed us the exact way that Holmes looked. (And Paget would certainly have known how to accurately illustrate Holmes’s appearance, living in England during the 1890’s as he did, and with his illustrations requiring approval from those men who actually knew Holmes, both Dr. Watson and the first Literary Agent, Conan Doyle, during that time when many of the initial narratives were first being published in The Strand.)

After Paget, there have been other illustrators, such as the contemporary Frederic Dorr Steele, who unfortunately chose to present Holmes with the appearance of actor William Gillette.

In the many years since Paget and Steele illustrated some of the original Canonical tales, other artists have tried their hand at presenting Holmes. Many have failed, while others have done incredible work. One of the masters is Phil Cornell, whose presentation of Holmes and Watson is spot-on accurate. Likewise, a number of actors have portrayed Holmes – some doing a fine job, while others have unfortunately been absolutely terrible.

However, the efforts of these actors and artists, both good and bad, all add to The Great Holmes Tapestry to some greater or lesser extent, continuing to promote awareness of Holmes into each new year. Usually their representations include some aspect that reminds us of Holmes. The deerstalker may not make an appearance, but the magnifying glass might, or even various characteristics of Holmes’s personality will be included, and that will be enough to suggest a whole range of associated images and emotions.

One of the most important aspects of Holmesiana is the sense of time and place in which The Master was in active practice – the latter Victorian and early Edwardian eras, in the London of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was a time when the Industrial Revolution had changed England in ways that would have been unimaginable to those of just a few previous generations. That setting has become as unforgettable as Holmes is himself. Islands of gaslight and thick fogs, dark streets and muffled shapes passing by, moving from darkness to the pooled illumination under a streetlamp, and then back again into the mysterious London nights. The thought of Sherlock Holmes immediately brings such a place to mind.

And no painter captured this better, and has been more associated with that period, than John Atkinson Grimshaw.

The Victorian Painter of Light

Grimshaw was born in 1836 in Leeds, England. At around twenty years of age, he married his cousin, and then settled into the life of a railway clerk, while he spent his free time exploring his interest in painting. In 1860, he quit his job – the dismay of his parents – and devoted himself to becoming a full-time painter. It wasn’t a mistake – he had a successful exhibition just two years later.

As his skills improved, he began to focus on a specific style of paintings. Although he produced portraits, interiors, and even illustrations of fairies, he is best known for his incredible depictions of twilight or nighttime scenes, often illuminated by moonlight or gas streetlamps, with the light taking on an incredibly life-like appearance. Often there is a sheen of dampness, as if from the atmospheric fog or a recent rain.

Grimshaw was ahead of his time in the use of modern technology. Like the later realistic painter Norman Rockwell – another favorite of mine – who used photographs of models in order to provide images from which to work, Grimshaw made use of a camera obscura to project an image onto the canvas, from which he would then paint his various realistic subjects. Sometimes he would even paint over photographs. This helps to explain why so many of Grimshaw’s paintings are of the same settings over and over again – specific city streets and country lanes and docks – with each having repeated perspectives, but still having variations from painting to painting in both light and condition.

Grimshaw lived worked in several locations throughout his career, including Leeds and London’s Chelsea district, and he was acquainted with a number of contemporary artists who admired his unique style. He was quite successful for a number of years, and at times very prolific, sometimes producing a painting every week. Yet much of his life remains an enigma. Unlike other famous painters, he kept no letters or journals. Instead, he simply continued to hone his craft, making a living as a professional painter for over thirty years, until his death from tuberculosis in 1893.

A great deal of his work can be found at this invaluable website, John Atkinson Grimshaw – The Complete Works:

Several of his children became painters, and his son Arthur produced works that were very similar to his father’s in terms of style and content. Interest in Grimshaw has waxed and waned over the years since his death, and there have been several exhibitions of his work. There are at least two books related to Grimshaw’s paintings, as well as a number of recent e-book titles, but none are complete or satisfying. In fact, some of these have inexplicably chosen to present a number of Grimshaw’s paintings in black-and-white, rather than using color plates to display the man’s incredible skill when painting light. This is like having a favorite food from which the flavor has been removed, leaving only the structure.

Having collected and read literally thousands of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes since I was a boy in the mid-1970’s, I can state that – so far – I haven’t seen any indication that Atkinson Grimshaw’s path crossed that of Sherlock Holmes, either casually, or in the case of Grimshaw specifically needing assistance from the age’s greatest detective. However, I’m keeping my eyes open, and it’s entirely possible that in the future, one of Holmes’s investigations in which Grimshaw is somehow involved may very well turn up. Indeed, as I haven’t yet gone through all of the various Watsonian notes and manuscripts that I obtained during one of my Holmes Pilgrimages to London, something could be discovered any day . . . .

Perfectly Atmospheric Book Covers

In recent decades, Grimshaw’s works have been the go-to painting to be used as book covers when the wish is to invoke the Victorian era, both in mysteries and other more general classic literature. A number of volumes of Sherlock Holmes stories, both original Canon and newer pastiche collections, have featured Grimshaw paintings. Curiously, a number of the paintings used for Holmes books have been scenes from Leeds or Liverpool, rather than London, that city most associated with Sherlock Holmes.

This change of location doesn’t seem to matter. Grimshaw’s mysterious lighting, with shadowed figures moving in and out of the gaslight while hansom cabs containing dark occupants rattle by, invokes powerful feelings of intrigue and even danger, no matter which city is shown. The people portrayed in Grimshaw’s paintings are never identifiable – their faces shadowed or unknown as they walk toward or away from us. No painter better conveys the sense of mystery needed on the cover of a Sherlock Holmes book.

What follows is an examination of some Grimshaw covers . . . .

An important book in my collection is that incredible volume, The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories (1997) edited by Mike Ashley. It contained a plethora of new Holmes adventures, and they were arranged chronologically, something that was so pleasing to me that I’ve continued to follow that pattern while editing the various volumes of The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories, and also the anthologies Holmes Away From Home,Sherlock Holmes: Before Baker Street, and an upcoming volume of Canonical Sequels.

This is how the initial version looked, featuring a detail from one of the many variations that Grimshaw painted of the Liverpool Docks:

A few years later, the book was reissued, this time with a different Grimshaw painting, a portion of Grimshaw’s “Reflections on the Thames, Westminster” (1880):

Here’s how the original painting looks:

You’ll see this one again in a bit. It, like several others are used more than once.

In 1981, Peter Haining edited a collection of apocryphal Holmes items. The initial edition, which I snapped up at the time, featured a Paget drawing of Holmes and Watson, and there have been other versions since, such as one with a Jeremy Brett cover, but a 1995 edition had Grimshaw’s “Humber Dockside, Hull” (1881) on the cover:

My father, not knowing that I already had the previous first version, bought me the second as a Christmas gift, and it’s one of my treasures. I don’t have room in my vast Holmes collection to have multiple versions of a lot of different books, but in this case, I’m very glad to have both copies of this book.

As I continued to collect, I saw that there were other Holmes covers that made use of Grimshaw’s excellent and atmospheric works. In 1996, Wordsworth produced a three-volume hardcover set of the complete Canon, as taken from the original Strand versions of the stories. These books, individually called The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, each featured Grimshaw paintings: “On the Thames, Barnes” ()1886); “St. Anne’s Square, Manchester” (Date unknown); and “Liverpool from Wapping” (1875), respectively:

It was with these three specific volumes in mind that I must use Grimshaw as the cover artist for the ongoing series The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories. And after all, considering that he’s my favorite painter, and that his works capture The World of Holmes so well, was there any other choice?

As I’ve related elsewhere, in early 2015, I awoke early from a dream in which I’d edited a book of new Sherlock Holmes adventures. If I’d gone back to sleep, the idea would likely have vanished. But I got up, looked around at my Holmes collection, and realized that I was acquainted with a number of Sherlockian authors. I admired many others, and if I contacted a number of them, surely some would write new stories. I initially conceived the book as a push-back against a specific modern television show that has terribly misappropriated the good name of Sherlock Holmes and tried to present him as a murderous sociopath. But in addition to that aspect of the anthologies, it was also decided that the book could support another good cause, with author royalties going to the Stepping Stones School at Undershaw in Hindhead, England, one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s former homes.

As word about the book spread, it became more and more popular, and numerous authors wanted to join the party. What I’d initially envisioned as a single volume, probably paperback, and containing about two dozen stories, quickly became two hardcover volumes, and then three. In the end, the three-volume set contained sixty-three new Holmes stories, the largest assemblage of its kind ever. After its release in October 2015, a number of other people still wanted to participate. With the hard decisions having already been made in terms of formatting and production, it was easy to continue. Currently, the series is up to ten very hefty volumes, with Parts XI and XII already in preparation for 2018, and no end in sight. The books have raised over $30,000 for the school, and there are always new and talented Sherlockian authors joining the more-than-one-hundred-thirty already in the fold.

I originally knew that I wanted a Grimshaw painting for the cover, much like on that original Mammoth collection and the three-volume set of The Canon. By the time the first book had grown to two volumes – but not yet three – I was ready to share my idea. Before his tragic passing, MX’s talented cover artist was Bob Gibson. In mid-2015, I sent him an email with my initial sketches of how I’d envisioned the covers of Parts I and II, as made with Grimshaw paintings that I’d opened with Microsoft Paint before awkwardly sketching in Holmes:

. . . and . . .

I wanted Holmes to be a prominently displayed but still shadowy figure, in that same way other figures were represented in Grimshaw paintings. He would be observing, and would only be distinguishable from the rest by his representative deerstalker.

Bob’s finished versions looked like this, along with the third volume that had eventually joined the first two:

All told, there have now been 30 volumes, some constructed by Bob, and most by amazing cover artist Brian Belanger, who took over the cover duties after Bob’s death. In each case, I initially pick a Grimshaw painting that speaks to me, and seems appropriately Holmesian. Then I locate Holmes in the correct spot, as well as settling any other questions that need to be decided, such as which detail of the painting to use, and whether to put a Star of Bethlehem in the Christmas cover, and so on. Then the finished product is revealed:

For the record, the paintings used for the MX volumes are:

• Part I: 1881-1889 – “London, View of Heath Street by Night” (1882)
• Part II: 1890-1995 – “Reflection on the Thames, Westminster” (1880)
• Part III: 1896-1929 – “Shipping on the Clyde” (1881)
• Part IV: 2016 Annual – “Park Lane, Leeds” (1882)
• Part V: Christmas Adventures – “The Old Hall Under Moonlight” (1882)
• Part VI: 2017 Annual – “Old Chelsea” (1893)
• Part VII: Eliminate the Impossible 1880-1891 – “The Haunted House” (1874)
• Part VIII: Eliminate the Impossible 1892-1905 – “A Wet Road by Moonlight” (1872)
• Part IX: 2018 Annual (1879-1895)“A Moonlit Lane” (1874)
• Part X: 2018 Annual (1896-1916) “Briggate, Leeds” (Last Quarter of the Nineteenth Century)
• Part XI: Some Untold Cases (1880-1891) “Scarborough Yew Court” (1874)
• Part XII: Some Untold Cases (1894-1902) “The Figure at the Gate” (1881)
• Part XIII: 2019 Annual (1881-1890) “St Anne's Square, Manchester” (Date Unknown)
• Part XIV: 2019 Annual (1891-1897) “Boar Lane, Leeds” (1881)
• Part XV: 2019 Annual (1898-1917) “Full Moon behind Cirrus Cloud from the Roundhay Park Castle Battlements” (1872)
• Part XVI: Whatever Remains . . . Must Be the Truth (1881-1890) “Blackman Street London" (1885)
• Part XVII: Whatever Remains . . . Must Be the Truth (1891-1898) “Liverpool From Wapping” (1875)
• Part XVIII: Whatever Remains . . . Must Be the Truth (1899-1925) “Whitby Harbor by Moonlight” (1870)
• Part XIX: 2020 Annual (1882-1890) “London, Pall Mall, and Saint James Street” (1880)
• Part XX: 2020 Annual (1891-1897) “The Turn of the Road” (Date Unknown)
• Part XXI: 2020 Annual (1898-1923) “Wharfedale” (Date Unknown)
• Part XXII: Some More Untold Cases (1877-1887) “Humber Docks, Hull” (1884)
• Part XXIII: Some More Untold Cases (1888-1894) “A Manor House in Autumn” (Date Unknown)
• Part XXIV: Some More Untold Cases (1895-1903) “Canny Glasgow” (1887)
• Part XXV: 2021 Annual (1881-1888) “Moonlight on the Lake, Roundhay Park, Leeds” (Date Unknown)
• Part XXVI: 2021 Annual (1889-1897) “Woman on a Patch by a Cottage” (Date Unknown)
• Part XXVII: 2021 Annual (1898-1928) “The Turn of the Road” (Date Unknown)
• Part XXVIII: More Christmas Adventures (1869-1888) “Lovers at the Gate” (Date Unknown)
• Part XXIX: More Christmas Adventures (1889-1896) “Waiting” (Date Unknown)
• Part XXX: More Christmas Adventures (1897-1928) “November Moonlight” (Date Unknown)

The next MX books are already in preparation: Part XXXI (and Parts XXXII and XXXIII too?)- the 2022 Annual in May 2022. I don't know what Grimshaw covers that I'll pick next, but luckily there are a great many to choose from.
In the case of the most recent volumes, Parts, XXVIII, XXIX, and XXX, More Christmas Adventures, the original Grimshaw paintings were given Christmas alterations by way of snow and shading - in addition to the addition of Holmes's silhouette - by cover artist Brian Belanger to make them more seasonal.
For instance, "Lovers at the Gate" became Part XXVIII:

"Waiting" became Part XXIX:

. . . and "November Moonlight" became Part XXX:

Other Holmes Covers by Grimshaw

There are many other instances of Grimshaw covers on Holmes books to consider. For example, in 2001, the two Dr. Mortimer books by Gerard Williams, Dr. Mortimer and the Aldgate Mystery and Dr. Mortimer and the Barking Man Mystery, were published. The second of these had one of the many variations of Grimshaw’s “Heath Street, Hampstead”:

A third book in the series, Dr. Mortimer and the Carved Head, using “Park Row, Leeds” (1882) was promised for publication, but it never actually appeared:

For a bit more about this book, see a different entry from my semi-Irregular blog, A Seventeen Step Program, specifically “Still Waiting . . . . (Some unpublished or lost pastiches that are out there . . . somewhere)

As late as 2008, I was still contacting the publisher regarding The Carved Head Mystery, and at that time, I was told that the author had become ill, and that the book never appeared. If any readers of this essay know Gerard Williams or his family, please reach out to them and urge them to release this long-missing third Dr. Mortimer novel.

Possibly the first Grimshaw cover I ever saw on a Holmes book (or anywhere) was when I purchased the hardcover version of Michael Hardwick’s Sherlock Holmes: My Live and Crimes when it came out brand new in hardcover in 1984, while I was still in college. It used Grimshaw’s “St. Paul’s from Ludgate Circus” (1885):

Other examples of Grimshaw Holmes covers that I’ve collected over the years include those excellent volumes by Donald Thomas, such as The Secret Cases of Sherlock Holmes (1997), which uses another variant detail of a dock scene:

. . . Sherlock Holmes and the Running Noose (U.S. Title: Sherlock Holmes and the Voice from the Crypt, 2001), again using “Reflections on the Thames, Westminster” . . .

. . . The Execution of Sherlock Holmes (2007), using nearly the same image as Hardwick’s Sherlock Holmes: My Life and Crimes, but with a Holmes silhouette in the background . . .

. . . Sherlock Holmes and the King’s Evil (2009), continuing to use Holmes’s silhouette, and featuring a piece of one of the many paintings that had a figure, often a girl, walking away in the distance . . .

. . . and finally, again with the silhouette, Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Bly (2010), with its atypical Grimshaw painting, “The Lady of Shalott” (1878).

Sherlockian pasticheur June Thomson used a Grimshaw painting for the 2001 U.S. edition of her 1995 biographical study, Holmes and Watson. In this case, it’s from one of the many similar paintings he did of Heath Street in Hampstead, north of London:

Sherlockian author extraordinaire Mark Mower has worked a Grimshaw into the cover his A Farewell to Baker Street, (2015), also using “Old Chelsea”:

And the use of Grimshaw’s paintings has continued to the present, with details appearing on the covers of Ray Ziemecki’s four Holmes books:

The Escapades of Sherlock Holmes – “Autumn Morning”
Sherlock Holmes: Gone in the Fog – “View of Heath Street by Night” (1882)
Holmes and Watson: Twilight Years – “The Sere and Yellow Leaf” (1879)
The Adventure of the Treasure From the Dark Streets – “Liverpool Quay by Moonlight” (1887)

Lyndsay Faye chose “The Broomielaw Glasgow” (1886) for her excellent collection of Holmes short stories, The Whole Art of Detection (2017):

Although it isn't confirmed at the time of this writing, it appears that another Grimshaw dock painting, this time quite shaded, is the cover of Lyndsay Faye's 2021 collection Observations by Gaslight:

And Grimshaw even shows up on covers of the actual Canon:

I’m sure that there are many other Holmes books with Grimshaw paintings, but I’m not aware of them . . . yet.

Non-Holmes Grimshaw Covers

It should be noted that Grimshaw’s paintings aren’t used exclusively for Holmes books. Anne Perry’s novels, set in the same period and featuring Inspector Thomas Pitt and his wife Charlotte, and also her other series about William Monk, occasionally appear with a Grimshaw cover to set the scene. For example, there is the Pitt novel Southhampton Row (2002), which also uses “Reflections on the Thames, Westminster” . . .

. . . and the Monk novel Execution Dock (2009), with a variation of one of Grimshaw’s many dockside scenes:

I'd like to point out that Inspector Pitt functions in the world of Holmes, and thus captures my interest, as revealed in the story, “The Baker Street Amateur” by author waiting4morning:

Although I don't own them and haven't read them, there are several novels by David Pirie that feature Dr. Joseph Bell and a young Arthur Conan Doyle solving mysteries:

There are many other volumes that make use of Grimshaw’s atmospheric paintings to set the scene and convey a mood about the book, such as Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) . . .

. . . and M.R. James Collected Ghost Stories . . .

. . . and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) . . .

. . . and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) . . .

. . . and M.V. Hughes A London Child of the 1870’s (1934):

. . . and finally Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), which might have been one of the greatest mysteries of them all:

Here’s my own personal copy of Edwin Drood, with a completely different Grimshaw cover:

In conclusion . . . .

This is only a scant survey of the works of Grimshaw when used on book covers, and I have no doubt that many other examples can be found, both of Holmes and non-Holmes volumes. (I’ll probably find another in my collection as soon as I end this essay.) What all of these have in common is that the authors, editors, or graphic artists involved have each recognized that the paintings of John Atkinson Grimshaw are invaluable in conveying the atmosphere and mood of the Victorian era, and that putting a Grimshaw painting on the cover will instantly tell the reader something of what to expect inside.

And when presenting a volume of Holmes adventures, using a Grimshaw painting to successfully set the scene and the mood is quite simply . . . Elementary.

©David Marcum 2018 – All Rights Reserved


David Marcum plays The Game with deadly seriousness. He first discovered Sherlock Holmes in 1975 at the age of ten, and since that time, he has collected, read, and chronologicized literally thousands of traditional Holmes pastiches in the form of novels, short stories, radio and television episodes, movies and scripts, comics, fan-fiction, and unpublished manuscripts. He is the author of over sixty Sherlockian pastiches, some published in anthologies and magazines such as The Strand, and others collected in his own books, The Papers of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes and A Quantity of Debt, and Sherlock Holmes – Tangled Skeins. He has edited over fifty books, including several dozen traditional Sherlockian anthologies, such as the ongoing series The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories, which he created in 2015. This collection is now up to 21 volumes, with several more in preparation. He was responsible for bringing back August Derleth’s Solar Pons for a new generation, first with his collection of authorized Pons stories, The Papers of Solar Pons, and then by editing the reissued authorized versions of the original Pons books. He is now doing the same for the adventures of Dr. Thorndyke. He has contributed numerous essays to various publications, and is a member of a number of Sherlockian groups and Scions. He is a licensed Civil Engineer, living in Tennessee with his wife and son. His irregular Sherlockian blog, A Seventeen Step Program, addresses various topics related to his favorite book friends (as his son used to call them when he was small), and can be found at Since the age of nineteen, he has worn a deerstalker as his regular-and-only hat. In 2013, he and his deerstalker were finally able make his first trip-of-a-lifetime Holmes Pilgrimage to England, with return Pilgrimages in 2015 and 2016, where you may have spotted him. If you ever run into him and his deerstalker out and about, feel free to say hello!

His Amazon Author Page can be found at:

and at MX Publishing:

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