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Art in TV and Film: Turner’s Reichenbach Falls

Although I enjoy scripted television shows, I often find myself disappointed with how they handle fine art. This is not because I need everything to be perfectly art historical just for the sake of it. Rather, I think that a little verity would yield interesting ways to enhance the stories. Therefore, I truly appreciate when a show does a good job with art. Here is one stellar example.

I’ve recently been watching Sherlock, the popular 2010-2017 BBC television series about Sherlock Holmes. This intelligent and engaging show included paintings in multiple plots and handled all of them pretty well. Most notably, a work by English landscape painter Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) appears at the beginning of the episode entitled “The Reichenbach Fall” (series 2, episode 3).

This article contains spoilers for the episode of BBC’s Sherlock entitled “The Reichenbach Fall”, as well as for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Final Problem”.

The Great Falls of the Reichenbach by Turner
Joseph M. W. Turner, The Great Falls of the Reichenbach, 1804. The Higgins Bedford, Bedfordshire, UK.

Turner’s painting appears within the first few minutes of the episode. The scene is a ceremony in which Sherlock Holmes (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is honored for his success in recovering this artwork. The painting appears in the scene, as does a large poster of it. A newspaper article that briefly flashes on the screen says that Holmes found the “Turner masterpiece” ten days after it was stolen from an auction house. While the Turner doesn’t appear on screen for very long, references to it continue throughout the episode. The attention that Sherlock receives for saving the painting incites the plot’s main events.

The painting is Turner’s 1804 watercolor The Great Fall of the Reichenbach, owned by The Higgins Bedford museum in Bedfordshire, UK. (The show calls it by a slight variation on that title.) Turner painted it based on sketches he made during an 1802 trip to Switzerland, where the falls are located.

At first, I was thrown off by the fact that the painting shown is a sizable easel picture, clearly larger than a typical watercolor. I first assumed that the reproduction used in the show was enlarged for greater effect, then realized that the watercolor is genuinely quite large, at 3.35 feet high by 2.26 feet wide. Interestingly, the fictional newspaper article in the episode values the painting at £1.7 million. Turner’s real-life auction record when this episode aired in 2012 was £29.7 million for an oil painting. A watercolor would definitely sell for less than an oil painting, but I’m not sure if the £1.7 million value is realistic.

The Great Falls of the Reichenbach was the perfect artwork to include in this episode. The 1894 Sherlock Holmes story “The Final Problem” ends with Holmes and his arch nemesis, Professor Moriarty, supposedly falling to their deaths over the Great Fall at Reichenbach, the exact spot Turner depicted. Sherlock’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, later claimed that Holmes only faked his death, then continued to write more stories about the famous detective. Subsequently, Reichenbach Falls has been popularly linked with Sherlock Holmes. Of course, Turner knew nothing of this future association, since he died eight years before Doyle (1859-1930) was even born.

Fittingly, the Sherlock episode in which the painting appears deals with Moriarty and “The Final Problem”. Since this show never adapted its source material literally, its version of Holmes and Moriarty’s final confrontation takes place atop a London building instead of a Swiss waterfall. Therefore, Turner’s painting is a nice Easter egg referencing the original location of this struggle.

According to The Higgins Bedford, Turner’s The Great Falls of the Reichenbach has become very popular since appearing in this episode in 2012. That’s certainly not surprising! It appeared in a 2014 Museum of London exhibition dedicated to Sherlock Holmes.

You can read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “The Final Problem” online via the University of South Florida. You can watch the BBC television series Sherlock on Netflix.

Update 6/29/20: I received a lovely message from Victoria Partridge, who works at the Higgins Bedford. She confirmed that a reproduction – not the original – was used in filming. I’ve updated this article to reflect that. Also, I’ve watched a few more Sherlock episodes, and Turner’s painting appears again in series 3, episode 4, “The Abominable Bride”.

– “J.M.W. Turner and The Art of Watercolour“. The Higgins Bedford, 2015.
– “Reichenbach Falls“. Wikipedia.
– “Turner masterpiece sells for record £30m“. BBC News online. December 4, 2014.

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2 thoughts on “Art in TV and Film: Turner’s Reichenbach Falls

  1. Thank you for writing this, I work at The Higgins Bedford and we were all very excited when we found out they were going to use it. They made a reproduction of it for the programme, the real one was safe in Bedford. It’s been a really good way of introducing the picture to a different audience.

    1. Hi Victoria. Thank you for stopping by and commenting! They must have made a very high quality reproduction. Usually, I can tell a mile away with that sort of thing, but this one was quite good. Alexandra

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