Inside Story: Captured for posterity

As long as cameras remain out of courtrooms, the only images of proceedings come from artists. Sophie Morris on how three leading exponents rise to the challenge

Monday 22 January 2007 01:00


Cook says she has been fascinated by faces from a young age. She grew up sketching everybody she could, from her family to whoever was sitting next to her on the bus. In the days when she used to stroll along Devon's beaches selling her portraits to the bathers, she never imagined spending her adult life staring down the likes of Harold Shipman and Kenneth Noye.

Cook discovered her niche when she went to listen to a local murder trial in Devon and sketched the protagonists on the back of an envelope. She didn't know then that it is against the law to draw in court. A journalist saw her likeness of the man on trial and used it in the news that evening. Cook now has contracts with Sky News, ITV West and Press Association, and her illustrations are used in the national and international press.

"I've been to the trials of rapists, babysnatchers, murderers, paedophiles, drug dealers and muggers. It can be very depressing." She is sometimes spared the gruesome details of a murder case because she has so little time to focus on her subject before rushing out of court to draw their likenesses for the lunchtime news. Cook doesn't even have anything approaching an office. She occasionally sits on the steps outside the High Court, sketching in pastels on blue or grey paper - "best for showing the drama of the barristers' white wigs".

She draws whatever the journalist wants to illustrate their piece. "They look out for a journalistic moment where something dramatic has happened. [The defendant] might wipe their eyes or show a look of surprise and that's the moment I'm waiting for. I'll look over to my journalist and get an imperceptible raise of the eyebrow which will tell me that's the thing to draw."

Rolling news means Cook is working against the clock more than ever. She will do single portraits in just 20 minutes, but prefers several hours to draw a full courtroom with the defendant, judge and barristers. She takes notes and stares intensely at her subject, relying on memory to recreate the image. "In my mind I'm saying 'square head dropped forward, very dark hair, short sideboards, thin top lip'."

Work as a court illustrator is in decline as photographs and graphics are being used in their place more and more, and the age of cameras in the courtroom is on the horizon. "I think there won't be any more court artists after us," says Cook. "People have learnt to expect new technology, something whizzy and zingy. It will be a sad day when they move on from court art." To prepare for the slump in business, Cook also works as a fine-art restorer and makes clay models of heads which she then casts in bronze.

What stands out from her 15 years as a courtroom artist? "Not many people get to stare so intently into the eyes of a murderer on such a regular basis as I do. All I can tell you is that on the whole a murderer doesn't look as you would expect a murderer to look. He or she looks like an ordinary, run-of-the-mill person. The sort you'd meet on the street or in the shops. Harold Shipman looked such an innocuous, kindly gentleman. I could understand why so many people saw him as their angel of mercy."


Coleman learnt everything she knows about drawing from her mother. "I just imitated her," says the Texan. But where her mother was a fashion illustrator for glossy magazines, Coleman has found her own, rather grisly niche sketching the features of mass murderers, terrorists and others who find themselves in the dock.

Coleman began working in television news in the 1970s in Texas, where she was an art director preparing news graphics. On the days an interesting court case was taking place, she would be sent off to draw the defendants. She also produced illustrations of death-row prisoners being given lethal injections, for which she worked from reference photos and accounts of the executions.

After moving to London with her British husband, Coleman continued to draw court scenes and soon became ITN's official court illustrator, although she learnt the hard way that you cannot sketch in court as you can in America: "I got a ticking-off from the judge and it was really embarrassing. It certainly made me remember it."

She adapted easily to drawing from memory and her sketchbook reveals surprisingly little evidence of the detailed characters she later creates in bold oil pastels. A page in her book resembles a dot-to-dot puzzle accompanied by scant notes in her own shorthand and a few arrows. Coleman's love of colour is evident in the vivid reds of the robes she draws and the dense green of the leather courtroom chairs.

One of the aspects she likes most about working in news is the pace. "You get to finish things by the end of the day, and you get to start over again the next day. You're not meant to spend loads of time on the pictures and I like the speed and immediacy. It's fun to have a bit of a panic, too."

The work is dictated by the news agenda: there was little around at the height of the Iraq conflict, even if interesting trials were taking place. Coleman's main employment is with ITN, which produces ITV and Channel 4's news programmes, but she can sell that work to newspapers and non-rival broadcasters, such as CNN. The court work has decreased as the use of graphics and photographs has proliferated, and Coleman has sidelines selling portraits and colourful canvases.

Out-of-town assignments include the Omagh bombing trial in Belfast, the PC Beshenivsky case in Newcastle and the trial of the Lockerbie bombers in the Netherlands.

Some cases are harder to stomach than others. During the trial of Ian Huntley, the accused's bath was brought into the courtroom so that jurors could see the condition it was in when the murders took place. Rose West sticks in Coleman's mind as someone who "didn't look out of the ordinary. But she did change the way she looked from the first time we saw her as the trial went on. She wore an old T-shirt at first and from then on she dressed like a school mom - she was quite dowdy and wore glasses which added to her not-very-threatening look."

A more enjoyable case was the recent one involving the copyright dispute over the Procol Harum song "A Whiter Shade of Pale". "They had an organ in the court and the judge knew all about music. Matthew Fisher [the claimant] got up there and played the melody. That's unusual."


Julia Quenzler paved the way for Britain's court illustrators and has presided over the BBC's courtroom portraits for two decades. English-born, she emigrated to the United States in the late 1970s and settled in Arizona, travelling around the reservations doing portraits of native Americans, which she then sold in galleries. A move to California led to some court illustration work for NBC and when she returned to the UK in the Eighties she badgered the BBC for commissions. The head of Newsnight finally agreed to meet her, and sent her on a job the very next day.

Quenzler uses her time in court to build up strong mental images of her subjects and rarely falls back on her notes. "It's amazing how long you can hold people's faces in your mind," she says. "Not hours or minutes but sometimes days or weeks. The notes are there in case you lose something in your mental image, or if for example you have 11 or 12 defendants in the dock you've never seen before - was it defendant number three in the blue shirt? And defendant number five with the massive moustache?"

When witnesses take the stand later than expected, Quenzler might find herself with just five minutes to study the person's features and a further 15 to get her drawing done and taped up on the wall outside the court building, ready to be filmed for the news. But time constraints sometimes come as a blessing. "They focus your mind and you don't get bogged down in unnecessary detail and overwork the picture. A large part of what I look for in drawing is not just the resemblance but the body language and demeanour - that's what brings the drawing alive."

In her opinion, computer graphics will never adequately replace court illustrators. "They can and do serve a useful purpose in many respects but there is no other way of capturing the dramatic moment than with a courtroom artist." During her more than 20 years sitting in the public gallery, Quenzler has caught that "dramatic moment" on hundreds of faces, including those of Tony Blair during the Hutton inquiry, General Pinochet in his only court appearance, and the three British soldiers who were court-martialled in Osnabrück for mistreating Iraqi prisoners, where Quenzler was the only court artist present.

Other memorable trials are those of the Lockerbie perpetrators and of Beverley Allitt, the nurse convicted of killing four children. She pays as much attention to the barristers and judges as she does to the criminals: "Each barrister's wig has a character of its own and that's important to capture."

Quenzler balances out her somewhat macabre speciality with a fondness for wildlife art and she is currently working on writing and illustrating two children's books. She also sells her court illustrations to newspapers and foreign broadcasters.

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