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Sketching the Famous and the Infamous

Sketching the Famous and the Infamous

 Sketching the Famous and the Infamous


HAVE you ever tried to sketch a human face? It is not easy. But what if you needed to draw the likeness of a person you have just seen for the first time, and then for only a few minutes? Making it more difficult, you have to work only from mental notes of the features you have seen. Finally, your pastel color sketch, drawn from memory, must be ready for a waiting television crew within 30 minutes!

It would be impossible for most of us to meet such a challenge. Yet, in Britain a handful of men and women specialize in this work. Who are they? Court artists.

Legal Restraints

Court cases readily capture the imagination of the public, and in many countries television and photographic coverage of such cases is common. But in Britain it is different. People are strictly forbidden to “attempt to make in any court any portrait or sketch, of any person”​—including that of judges, jurors, or witnesses as well as defendants or prisoners. * This is where the skill of the court artist comes in, recording for the media the proceedings of a court in action.

To learn more about this fascinating work, I visited an art and design fair held in London. At a popular stand, I met Beth, one of this elite group of artists. “How much time do you have in court to look at a defendant?” was my first question.

Time and Purpose

“When a prisoner stands in the court’s dock for the initial hearing, he is usually there for little more than two minutes, but that is enough,” Beth assured me. “It gives me time to identify the characteristics of the head and hairstyle and the shape of the nose, eyes, lips, and mouth. I must also mentally note the width of the face, the length of the forehead, and the size of earlobes as well as any additional features, such as a beard or spectacles. Only then do I have the basic information for an accurate drawing.

“At times, my work becomes more difficult. For example, in a recent case, there were 12 men in the dock! Admittedly, they were there for up to 15 minutes, but to get 12 faces in one drawing takes a lot of concentration. I have what you would call a visual memory, but I have had to develop it over the years. When I leave the courtroom, if I close my eyes, I must clearly recall the faces I have seen.”

“How much time do you spend researching facts about the characters you will encounter in court?” I asked next. Beth’s answer came as a surprise.

 “Unlike a reporter, I do no research at all. I come to court fresh, with a clear mind, making a conscious effort not to put any interpretation into my work. I endeavor to record the court’s proceedings, where expressions can differ from day to day. I must remember that the jury may see my drawings, either on television or in a national newspaper, and I do not want to influence any one of them to say, ‘What a guilty expression he has!’ In this vital aspect, court art is quite different from portrait painting.”

“The Moment”

When I asked Beth what the secret is of her success, she replied: “I look for a moment​—‘The Moment,’ I call it—​that captures the atmosphere of the proceedings. For example, when one accused buried his head in his hands, his gesture summed up the case against him so well. On another occasion a woman’s facial response to the question, ‘Are you a good mother?’ answered better than her reply. In the same way, a handkerchief wiping away a tear can reveal inner emotions.

“A court artist also has to capture the atmosphere of the court, which means drawing the judge, the lawyers, and the court officials, as well as the books, the lighting, and the furniture. Such a complete picture is something most people will never see for themselves, so it intrigues them. Where do I do my drawings? Sometimes in the court pressroom, but more often than not, sitting on a quiet flight of steps somewhere. But then I have to rush back to add more faces to my picture when a new witness is called or when the defense lawyer addresses the court.” Smiling, Beth added: “Oh, yes. I am aware that many of my drawings now hang in lawyers’ offices.”

I looked with interest at the pictures on her stand. They all brought back vividly to my mind court cases involving both the famous and the infamous that I had read about in recent years. After ten minutes or so, when I prepared to take my leave, Beth kindly handed me a pastel sketch. It was of me.


^ par. 6 This does not apply in Scotland.

[Pictures on page 14, 15]

A courtroom sketch and how it appeared in a newspaper (left)

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© The Guardian