A 3 or 4 or 5 pipe problem?

When you think of the classic image of Sherlock Holmes (the Victorian one) the two items that leap to mind are the deerstalker hat and curved pipe.

The classic image
The amusing thing is, as most Sherlockians know, that neither was an explicit creation of Arthur Conan Doyle. He referred to a “close-fitting cloth cap” in The Boscombe Valley Mystery but it was illustrator Sidney Paget who interpreted this as a deerstalker.

When it comes to the curved pipe, this is generally accepted to be the idea of actor William Gillette. Gillette found this kind of pipe the easiest to hold in the mouth and yet still be able to speak without requiring a hand to support the pipe. Two of the most iconic elements of Holmes were provided by people other than the author.

Gillette with the curved pipe he so favoured

But let’s stick with the pipe for a moment. If you look across the various screen adaptations, Holmes is most often depicted with the curved pipe, favoured by Gillette, or the long stemmed churchwarden pipe. Yet in the stories it is only clear that Holmes has more than one pipe.

The churchwarden pipe style

We learn in REDH that Holmes uses a black clay pipe.

In TWIS we learn that he has a briar pipe.

In COPP we learn that he has a long cherry wood pipe.

In VALL there is a reference to Holmes’s “unsavoury pipe” but this could be any of the above or a different pipe altogether.

In THOR we learn that Holmes has an “after breakfast pipe” which, again, could be any of the above.

A clay pipe (yes I know it's not black)

All of this gives us very little solid to go on. A black clay pipe could conceivably be of any length although they tended to be short. Briar (which is a type of wood) could be used to make pipes of any length. Only with the cherry wood pipe do we know that it was long. It is probably from this that the common use of the churchwarden pipe came.

However the various Paget illustrations tend to suggest that a short black clay pipe was Holmes's actual favourite.

The black pipe appears a lot

Yet this is the kind of pipe we see the least in adaptations. The most notable exceptions being Jeremy Brett's and, perhaps surprisingly, Robert Downey Jr's.

Proper piping on display

Written by Alistair Duncan
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  1. The fine hand of Les Klinger with Downey's pipe? I'm inclined to think "yes". It is interesting that Doyle does mention the meerschaum pipe in other stories but not the Canon (I'm thinking of "The Tragedians", especially). My understanding is that it was a very popular type of pipe, but perhaps Doyle thought it did not fit with Holmes' personality.

    I've always felt that Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes, with his sharp, eager face framed in his earflapped travelling cap" from "Silver Blaze" was as close as he came to acknowledging Paget's contributions to the Canon in print as we'll get.

    Another solid post, not "disputatious" at all.