A 3 Pipe Problem: On the Evolution of the Detective's Pipe

Since Doyle's famous "consulting detective" entered the canon of Western literature in 1887, his impact has undoubtedly cemented itself in the very fabric of popular culture. Listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the "the most-portayed movie character," Sherlock Holmes has seen over 70 actors don his signature deerstalker and Inverness cape, including, most famously, the late greats Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett, and, more recently, actor Benedict Cumberbatch. This most recent iteration of the sleuth's adventures with his partner, Dr. John Watson, sees the story updated to a present day London setting.

However, in honor of a special episode that once again places our heroes back in their native time, that of Victorian and Edwardian era England, we thought it might be fun (and interesting) to take a look at how a now-iconic personal accessory carried by Holmes has changed over the years, evolving into the distinctive image we know today. Yes, we're talking about his pipe.

I asked my two fellow writers, Andy and Eric, to contribute their expertise and experience to a brief exploration of the pipes of Sherlock Holmes, and to see if we could track down some modern equivalents. It also made for a convenient excuse to get Eric to wear the deerstalker.

Andy - Basil Rathbone

Starring in fourteen Hollywood films between 1939 and 1946, Basil Rathbone's portrayal of our venerable detective is one of the genre's most iconic. Being a pipe smoker himself, Basil brought his experience and expertise to the screen — noticeably in the way he smokes and handles his pipes. While other designs appeared throughout his films, there are two very distinct shapes practically ubiquitous to the famed actor.

Dunhill "LC"

Perhaps the design most readily associated with the actor, the very first pipe we see accompanying Basil Rathbone is a sinuous, deeply bent Billiard shape — most recognizable by its low-slung transition and highly gestural profile. Though the pipe featured in the films was never clearly identified, many have attributed it to the Dunhill "LC" or some taller variant of the classic "02" bent Billiard — finished in a dark sandblast similar to that of the Shell Briar line.

Closest Equivalent: Peterson Rathbone or "XL20"

While finding a Dunhill "LC" nowadays is a challenge in-and-of-itself, Peterson created their own version of the design for their own Sherlock Holmes lines — fittingly coined the "Rathbone." The bowl forms are slightly different from the pipe featured in period stills, yet it does do an excellent job at capturing that iconic silhouette. Since its debut, the "Rathbone" has also been featured in other lines as well — most notibly as the "XL20" in the Kinsale series.

Eric - Jeremy Brett

I drew Jeremy Brett. Or more accurately, Daniel told me he thought I would do Rathbone, and I corrected him that I would be covering Jeremy Brett. As you may already suspect, I have a certain appreciation for how he played his final role, that of Sherlock Holmes.

Pipe-wise Brett's depiction was the most accurate to the source material:

"He curled himself up in his chair, with his thin knees drawn up to his hawk-like nose, and there he sat with his eyes closed and his black clay pipe thrusting out like the bill of some strange bird."

This was Holmes' smoker of choice in more meditative moods. An "old briar pipe" is also mentioned in the original stories, as is a cherrywood Churchwarden which Sherlock reserved for when he was feeling more argumentative (the extra length of stem I suppose was useful for gesturing about and pointing for effect at those he was arguing with - usually Dr. Watson). Brett's depiction stuck to these by and large, the Calabash appearing only, as I recall, in The Final Problem.

It was the clay shape I sought a match for, whether Cutty or Belge, or clay-like Dublin, and here is what I came up with:

Closest Equivalents:

For the readily accessible, in terms of both price and production, there's the dainty Savinelli "402". Also readily accessible in price, but less common, Genod makes a rather interesting, and deep-chambered Belge that should suit well those longer meditative moods, and a bent Dublin Churchwarden that is one of the closer matches I could find to Brett's pipe proportions-wise. My personal favorites though would be the Ropp "428B" and "32S". The horn stems avoid any accusations of anachronism, plus I just like the shapes. On the downside, once Chapuis-Comoy runs out of old-stock stummels and stems we may never see these again.

If you want something really fancy, made by the hands of a single artisan, I say Gian Maria Gamboni is the way to go.

Daniel - Benedict Cumberbatch

Cumberbatch's portrayal of Holmes could be seen as a more cerebral, internalized approach to the character, and something of a Rathbone-inspired take, though updated in terms of speech and physicality. The story being viewed through a modern lens, the show's creators chose to relieve Sherlock of his trusty briar (much to our chagrin) though thankfully, with the upcoming 19th Century-era special (set to air January 1, 2016), the detective has reacquired a taste for pipe smoking.

Peterson "Le Strade"

The shape seen here is directly out of Peterson's original Sherlock Holmes series shape chart (albeit as the "Le Strade"). Named for the police inspector frequently annoyed with Holmes' antics, this robust bent Apple rendition features shaping characteristics which are quintessentially Peterson, such as the pure visual weight of the shank in relation to that of the bowl, which distinguish the marque's shaping cues from what are commonly thought of as those of the classic English school.

Closest Equivalent: Peterson XL02

This shape is easily one of the most popular of Peterson's current offerings, so much so that the marque chose to include it as a mainstay of their collection, now known as the "XL02". The series writers' decision to feature this bent shape is an apt one, as Peterson is the marque most commonly associated with Holmes. Though the stain seen appears to closely resemble that of Peterson's "Aran" series, what's interesting is the absence of the familiar domed mount which would likely be seen on a Peterson from this era, though it could have possibly been omitted due to a trademark issue during filming. Either way, it's a clear nod to the bent shapes of Holmes' past, and makes for a lovely way to maintain that familiar silhouette, yet in a style and take that is uniquely associated with this fresh, sleek depiction.

Well, as you've probably deduced, despite the all-too-familiar image of our sleuth with his faithful oversized Calabash, it's clear that Sherlock Holmes has had nearly as many different briars in his rotation over the years as he has had actors speaking his lines.

While many of these designs are no longer extant, there are quite a few briars on the site currently that share similar themes and aesthetics. So feel free to browse the site or use our pipe locator to find your next "Detective's" pipe. And don't forget to tune in to the special Victorian episode of Sherlock on January 1st, 2016.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Pipe Culture


    • Jerry Roman on November 20, 2015
    • I enjoyed the review of the evolution of the Detective's Pipe, it was quite interesting and and very thorough. Thanks for such a great article from a devoted pipe smoker.
      Jerry Roman

    • Bruce P on November 21, 2015
    • When I was 12, I was intrigued with Sherlock Holmes and decided to read all of Conan Doyle's work. Later I watched all of the Basil Rathbone films depicting Holmes. I thought the full bent pipe added a unique philosophical note to his character. When I turned 18, I bought my first pipe, a Peterson bent Dublin in rusticated finish. I am sure the Holmes novels shaped my thoughts. Today I still prefer bents, although I also like churchwardens. First impressions last a long time.

    • Abdrew on November 21, 2015
    • remember Sherlock wrote a paper on tobacco ash over 50 different kinds, don't think he would have a collection of pipes for that test, we all know Sherlock he can be a little OCD, love the article, Carolina boy from Summerville.

    • Andrew on November 21, 2015
    • The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes | Season 02 Episode 04 | The Resident Patient. Jeremy Brett about 8 min into it y'all will see his pipe collection on the wall of 8 pipes and one churchwarden and he is lighting another churchwarden, its all awesome.

    • SnowyOwl on December 9, 2015
    • In Robert Altman's Gosford Park (2001), Stephen Fry enters, as Inspector Thompson, puffing away on some sort of long small pipe. Looks something like a Peterson Belgique or small Churchwarden.
      He's there to solve a murder where just about everyone is a suspect and he wants to suspect no one, as he overlooks every clue before him. As he is more interested in tending to his smoke.
      I have made a few screenshots... if Pipeline is interested in this.

    • ole time smoker on July 11, 2016
    • As to the matter of the pipes of S. Holmes, also available are actual clay pipes, in many styles, and of reasonable price. Like wise there are a good many cherry wood pipes in short and church warden versions , I own several clays and cherry woods. The briars recommended in the article are fine, But for the real deal experience a clay and a cherry wood pipe are a must.

    • Rick Dunn on June 22, 2017
    • Can anybody tell me anything about the pipe which Vasiliy Livanov smokes in the Russian series "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson"? There is an excellent picture of it on the cover of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" episode.

    • Adam O'Neill on June 23, 2017
    • @Rick Dunn That's an odd one, Rick. Kind of a mix between a Danish Horn and a Calabash. Closest I can think in modern terms is a Stanwell Horn or the Peterson Mycroft (though the latter lacks those sweepeing lines).

    • William Woodward on July 6, 2017
    • I have watched the movies many times. I contend that Holmes smoked a Peterson System 307. It is rusticated with a nickel band. I would put money on this!

    • Tim Bonine on October 22, 2017
    • Besides the (surmised) Dunhill LC, the other pipe used by Basil Rathbone was a, now discontinued, Peterson 4AB. The closest modern equivalent is the Peterson System 309. If you can find one, many pipe repair shops can re-shape the flared vulcanite stem of the 309 to approximate the 4AB shape. Check this website: https://petersonpipenotes.wordpress.com/tag/peterson-4ab-pipe/

    • Adam O'Neill on October 23, 2017
    • @Tim Bonine Thanks for the input and tip, Tim :D

    • Linwood Hines on November 12, 2018
    • for further information, find a copy of Mr. John Hall's "140 Varieties" - which discusses much re Holmes' and Watson's tobaccos, pipes, etc. and the mentions of such in the Canon.

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