Drawn in the dock: the story of courtroom illustration
Exploring the crazy process and unique aesthetic of this art form, as the arrival of cameras in British courts threatens the future of the rare discipline.
In the UK, a courtroom illustrator is an incredibly niche trade, and a dying one. There are four professional courtroom sketch artists in total: Priscilla Coleman, Siân Frances, Julia Quenzler and Elizabeth Cook. Not only are they a rare breed, but the trade’s very existence is also now under threat as new laws were passed in January 2020 allowing cameras into the country’s Crown Courts, including the Old Bailey, to broadcast the sentencing remarks on high-profile criminal cases.
If you’ve read a newspaper at some point in your life, you’ve most likely seen the work of one of these four women, and would recognise the style anywhere: busy, emotive and dynamic, all for good reason. What most people don’t realise is that drawing in court – or making an image of any kind, be that a photograph, doodle or otherwise – is illegal in British courts. So these artists not only have to be expertly skilled portraitists but also have elephant-like memories for faces and spaces. To make their artworks, they take written notes during the case, before running outside to the press room to draw and paint as fast as possible, usually with an hour or two deadline to make it to their client, the publisher or broadcaster.
Priscilla Coleman has been doing this job since the 80s, when she moved over from the US following a career as an art director with ad agencies and print companies. Her mother was a fashion illustrator, another industry trained in high-speed draftsmanship, and she grew up “seeing artists depict the Watergate hearings”. With newspapers wanting to show the inner workings of courts more heavily on their pages, Priscilla took a chance commission from ITN to draw the Jeffrey Archer libel case, and hasn’t looked back since. Her portfolio features depictions of Rose and Fred West, Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr, Barry George and Harold Shipman for ITN, Channel 4 and others.
In the context of such horrific crimes, a recounting of the artist’s working day makes for brilliantly light relief. Priscilla has countless anecdotes about the mad scramble to make her work, often under almost comically difficult circumstances. “It’s as if you’re memorising for a test,” she tells It’s Nice That. “You forget the details so you have to write something that will trigger your memory. Once I had to draw a line of airline hijackers, and they all had black hair but different hairstyles. One had long sideburns so I wrote Elvis, one was skinny so I wrote ‘skeleton man’, for others I wrote ‘potato nose’ or ‘fried hair’ or for another, I wrote the name of an ex-boyfriend he reminded me of! People’s faces are fascinating.”
Sometimes Priscilla would only see defendants for a few moments before they sat down in the dock, and that’s all she had to go on for their portrait. On plenty of occasions she couldn’t see over the person sitting in front of her so started bringing a big book or bag to sit on. Once when documenting an IRA case, Priscilla had to battle to find anywhere to sit at all. “The nuns want your seat and those old ladies are vicious,” she laughs. “It’s like every man for himself. Basically, I’m trying to work and I’ll do anything to get a better view.”
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Priscilla Coleman: Notebook Pages
Once notes are made, the fun begins, as artists make their way to what Priscilla describes as the “primitive” press room to quickly try to encapsulate the people – the prosecution, the judge and the defendant (not the jury) – and the atmosphere of the court in one image. Priscilla uses water-based inks and oil pastels, and sometimes huge sheets of paper as wide as her arm span, standing over the page to survey it in full. Her drawings can be defined by the vibrant colours and white outline around her forms, making them more animated.
“Priscilla’s drawings show movement, and the white pastel outlines are almost like caricatures,” comments the House of Illustration’s Katie McCurrach, who is curating the gallery’s upcoming show exploring illustration in the criminal justice system, Forensic Art: Illustrating Justice (due to open 22 May, or later in the year if the current lockdown is still in place). “It’s so busy in court, very cramped and full of people. The way her illustrations are composed reflects the atmosphere of the courtroom. The edges aren’t quite defined, they’re almost dreamlike.”
In contrast, Julia Quenzler and Elizabeth Cook’s drawings, also pastel, are more static. “Julia chooses to focus on one or two of the key characters while the background fades out,” says Katie, “like she’s focusing on the key detail of a memory.” John Hewitt, an illustrator and senior lecturer in illustration with animation at Manchester School of Art, who did a PhD in the subject of courtroom sketches, says Julia and Elizabeth’s styles are equally fitting of the in-court atmosphere. “Courts are very still places,” he describes, “it’s better for memory, lawyers can recite their lines.” By contrast, Siân Frances’ drawings are more conventionally illustrative, as she uses pencil lines and washes of watercolour – “also a skill to do so quickly,” says Katie. “She renders the whole courtroom to the edges of the page, showing urgency and speed.” Siân learned the trade from her father, also a courtroom artist, while Julia apparently trained by drawing portraits in nightclubs. All four artists are self-taught.
Prior to his career as an illustrator and lecturer, John worked as a clerk for solicitors, so for his PhD subject he chose to focus on one of the few places the worlds of law and art intersect. He researched particular cases, one being the Soham murder trials in which Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr were tried and eventually convicted. John chose this because it was so heavily reported in the media. “45 drawings were published over 16 days. It was intense, I’ve never seen courtroom illustration used in such a way, before or since.” From John’s perspective, while the press generally demonised Carr and called her “the new Myra [Hindley]”, the courtroom artists portrayed a more measured view. “[The artists] said there are limitations to self-expression in what they do, and that it was important not to sensationalise, and to be truthful.”
Making an image in British courts was banned following the 1922 trial of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters, a British couple eventually convicted of murdering Thompson’s husband Percy. The couple was young and glamorous, and therefore attracted a fashionable crowd to the court. The press began to report the trial as if it were an event of high society, with photos of the attendees, and eventually, the judge complained that the media circus was interfering with the fairness of the trial. As a result, in 1925 it was made illegal to make any image in court in the UK. Similarly in the US, the trial of OJ Simpson and its ensuing media frenzy led to cameras being banned from many courts, and a resurgence of illustration. This is exactly the cause for concern around cameras being allowed into the British courts.
“A charismatic criminal is a gift to the media,” John says. “Cameras are another layer of vanity potential. Plus if we lose courtroom drawing, we lose the last grip of the regularity of an artist being part of news reporting. The memory of the trial is considered to be owned by the artist, and it validates the use of memory as an evidential tool. The illustration is a narrative, a visual story, all the moments are conflated, unlike a photo which just shows one moment.”
Barrister Anna McKenna QC says that letting cameras into the Old Bailey is just one step in an ongoing project to make the legal process more transparent to the public, which will likely lead to more courts allowing filming. “It’s a helpful way of the public seeing the system, and you’ve got to start somewhere,” she says. “It’s counterintuitive to start with a boring case at Bromley County Court, for instance. If you show high profile cases at the Old Bailey, people will be interested and it will attract attention. To me, public enquiries seem the obvious place to start having cameras, because they are of broad public interest.”
One of the concerns of the legal profession, Anna says, is that cameras are used responsibly, otherwise it could reduce the seriousness of the legal process or even affect security. She explains that one of the reasons barristers and judges wear wigs and gowns is to create “the solemnity of the court”, but it’s also for anonymity, “so if someone doesn’t like their sentence, they can’t chase the judge or barrister down the street.”
There’s also the impact on witnesses, who Anna says already struggle to give evidence in the public arena of the court, never mind in front of cameras. “It’s right we allow openness to happen, slowly, with no suddenness. But scrutiny on witnesses and victims would have an impact on the ability to speak freely. Participants need protecting.” For now, though, the cameras will only show sentencing remarks, which could have the opposite effect. “A lot of it is really boring,” she laughs. “Everyone thinks it’s going to be like Judge Rinder, but that’s so far from reality! Illustrations always capture the most dramatic moments, with more emotion and body language than a camera could.”
So allowing cameras into courts could, in fact, have the opposite effect and show how dull courtrooms can actually be, whereas courtroom artists “are looking for a moment of drama,” John says. “Cameras will be a poor replacement.” Priscilla’s view is that it’ll be “chaos either way! Give us all a break, it’s too much hard work anyway!”
The reality is that publishers and broadcasters might still use both, depending on editorial decisions and budgets. Now, in the era of social media, editors can grab photos of a prosecuted criminal online and therefore don’t need a courtroom artist nor even a photographer to stand outside the courts waiting for the shot. But they may still choose to use courtroom artists because of the historical and social significance they have accumulated over the past century. “It’s showing a scene and an atmosphere to the public, it’s a completely unique insight,” Katie says. “These illustrations are still in the papers, this is how most of us see trials, so there’s familiarity and weight to them. It gives the case formality and solemnity and there’s reverence there. Glum photos might take away some of that weight.” Priscilla says, though it's a tough gig, it's ripe for younger artists to take it in a different direction. “I'd love to see some great art in courtroom illustration.”
Priscilla Coleman: Trial of Rose West