The world’s most famous detective was probably fiction’s most famous violinist, but a further look at the influences behind these timeless novels places the young George Wulme Hudson closer than expected to the influences of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Sherlock Holmes aficionados have long speculated on the link between Conan-Doyle as a medical student in Edinburgh and the Scottish writer of police novels, James M’Govan (McGovan) who began publishing his work in 1881, a full six years before the first Sherlock Holmes episode went to print. In fact, M’Govan was a pen-name for the New Zealander, William Crawford Honeyman who became a well-known Edinburgh figure given to wearing velvet jackets and a black artistic beard. He was likely as obsessed by the violin as Sherlock Holmes turned out to be. Honeyman’s house was Cremona Villa, in Newport, Fife, and as a noted authority on the violin and violin playing. He collected violins, including a 1742 Del Gesu, and his published works on the violin, including The Violin: How to Choose One, are as numerous as his detective fiction.
Parallels between the genuine velvet-jacketed violin-playing Honeyman and the fictitious Holmes are striking. There is a more-than-plausible case that he was a model for some elements of Holmes’ character, and that references to the violin were a constant acknowledgement of Conan-Doyle’s debt to the novelist that inspired him. Sherlock Holmes retirement to Sussex to keep bees is just as likely a shrouded reference to Honeyman. Holmes’ own foray into writing, a Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen mentioned in His Last Bow serves as a parody of the titles of Honeyman’s own instructional books on violin playing. Conan Doyle’s method of creating the character of Sherlock Holmes depends on fleeting descriptions of the elements of his personality that make him more than just a detective. His addiction to opium, his near-non-existent love life and his obsession with violins are all dealt with through fleeting disinterested yet penetrating observation. He never engages in a first hand narrative of the actual events, but uses Watson’s experience in order to weave a more textured biography of the human being that exists beyond the immediate super-sleuth, but each time the effect is to convey an impressive depth of knowledge that the reader can take for granted. Take Study in Scarlet where the depth of Holmes’ knowledge is taken for granted. The tediousness of it, viewed through the long-suffering eyes of Dr Watson, is not.
It was a foggy, cloudy morning, and a dun-coloured veil hung over the house-tops, looking like the reflection of the mud-coloured streets beneath. My companion was in the best of spirits, and prattled away about Cremona fiddles, and the difference between a Stradivarius and an Amati. As for myself, I was silent, for the dull weather and the melancholy business upon which we were engaged, depressed my spirits. “You don’t seem to give much thought to the matter in hand,” I said at last, interrupting Holmes’ musical disquisition.
In The Adventure of the Cardboard Box written in 1892, we discover how Sherlock Holmes acquired his Stradivari: We had a pleasant little meal together, during which Holmes would talk about nothing but violins, narrating with great exultation how he had purchased his own Stradivarius, which was worth at least five hundred guineas, at a Jew broker’s in Tottenham Court Road for fifty-five shillings. This led him to Paganini, and we sat for an hour over a bottle of claret while he told me anecdote after anecdote of that extraordinary man.
Tottenham Court Road was already a well established area for the musical instrument trade, but then as in now it was predominantly a focus for lower end instruments, so the possibility of finding a fine Italian violin amongst the pawn shops and ancillary businesses in the area was not beyond the realm of fantasy when Conan-Doyle was writing, although nearby Wardour Street had become a thriving centre for the violin trade, making the possibility of a stray Stradivari seem more remote than in any other part of London. Pawn shops themselves were not always the shady and iniquitous dens that popular myth suggests. For sure, even in William Hogarth’s time, the last resort of pawning an inheritance becomes central to the moralistic tales of Beer Street and Gin Lane from 1751 (or Charlie Chaplin’s The Pawn Shop from 1916). However, in a time before easy access to money and credit, the cash advances offered through the pawn-broker system were a far more necessary and accepted evil of society. The ability to pledge goods against loans providing a vital service for the population at large and at the same time, pawn brokers developed into becoming hunting grounds for second hand goods of all sorts. Inevitably boundaries blurred between the ability of a pawn broker to provide access to cash, and the possibilities of serving a retail market. Pawn shops existed at all levels of society from the gentrified to the slums (even King Edward III and Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I pawned the crown jewels at one time or another). An edition of the London Illustrated News from December 1891 seemingly sums up the environment of bric-a-brac and curiosities in which a violin – possibly by Stradivari – could be found.
The real life circumstances of George Wulme Hudson counterpose Conan Doyle’s world of the violin, as he experienced it from Honeyman, and expressed through Dr Watson’s despairing comments. His writing comes at a time when a burgeoning literature demonstrated a fascination for the violin, and the activites of the trade revealed opportunities for increasing skulduggery. Hudson was born in 1862 making him only a few years younger than Conan Doyle. His father had been a freelance musician from the north of England who had settled in London before he was born. At the age of twelve he was put to work at a pawnbrokers shop in the Hackney Road as a ‘living in’ apprentice with his bed under the back counter. This gave him endless access to old musical instrument from penny whistles to violins, pledged by their owners. At the age of fourteen he was able to earn a few coppers a week by helping the junior assistant (aged sixteen) to make new violins look old by all sorts of devious means. Meanwhile his woodworking and carving skills were honed at the bench to repair objects brought into the shop and to make replacement parts as necessary.
The musical interests of the pawn shop evidently meant that they handled better instruments from time to time. One of his assignments was to a Edward John Payne, a respected expert and dealer, and father of Arthur Payne (onetime leader of the Proms Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood) who later gave violin lessons to Hudson at the Guildhall School of Music. By the 1890s Hudson had left the pawn shop and had become a freelance violinist and conductor. However, his experiences and training focussed his occupation towards violin making. By his own account, Hudson didn’t start violin making until 1897 – five years after Conan Doyle wrote of Holmes’ pawn shop triumph, but nobody in the violin world could have been better attuned to this part of the market. Immediately that Hudson became a violin maker, the old tricks of the trade that he was accustomed to played their part. It is rare to find a straightforward violin by Hudson and most of them are either copies of Italian instruments or Italian fantasy violins designed to fool an unsuspecting buyer. The more I get to see of Hudson’s work (I have six of them in the showroom as I write) the more I learn to appreciate his incredible sharpness and intelligence as a maker and as a rogue and his endless ability for reinvention and deception – without doubt a man that Holmes would have revelled in knowing, and perhaps the sort of man that Conan Doyle did. Postscript: It may seem beyond wildest imagination for a Stradivari violin to appear in a pawn shop in Tottenham Court Road for fifty-five shillings, but in 2010 almost exactly that happened. The day after Min-Jin Kym’s 1698 Stradivari violin was stolen from her at Euston Station, the two thieves went to an internet cafe in Tottenham Court Road to find out what it was worth. In the end they offered it for just £100 to another man in the cafe who turned it down because his daughter played the recorder, after which the case went cold for over a year. The criminal mastermind behind the heist, John Maughan had over 40 different aliases, 26 different dates of birth and over 65 convictions for theft. Not exactly Moriarty, but sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.