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On being a courtroom illustrator

July 8, 2013

All images in this post have been posted with permission from the artist. Copyright is held by Vincent de Gouw.

I was working in a partnership in Canberra as illustrator and Graphic Designer when I was first called upon to do a court sketch. There weren’t many freelance illustrators in Canberra at the time and this work found me.

Dame Kiri on breach of contract charge/ image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

Dame Kiri on breach of contract charge/ image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

It was August 1986 when The Australian Newspaper called asking if we had anyone available to draw Justice Lionel Murphy as the next day would be his final day sitting on the bench of the High Court. In the lead up to this Murphy, former Attourney General in the Whitlam Labor government, was in the news with rumours that he had perverted the course of justice in cases involving friends who had come before the court. In the previous month he had also made it known that he was dying of cancer.
The journalist with the Australian gave me a quick briefing into the formalities of the court, bow to the bench when you come in and bow when leave. This seemed awfully formal, old fashioned if a touch pompous and religious, bowing to a row of gentlemen in robes and wigs. I sat next to the only other artist there on the day, Geoff Pryor, the editorial cartoonist from The Canberra Times. I think I was working with dipping pen and ink, which can be messy if not careful.

I haven’t seen the drawing I produced since that day but do recall that Channel 10 used the image on TV for the evening news and it appeared on the front page of the Australian the next day. Early the following October Lionel Murphy died.

Leo Sylvestri - person of interest at the Di Brimbel inquest / image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

Leo Sylvestri – person of interest at the Di Brimbel inquest / image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

In the late 80’s I moved to Sydney to work solo and early in 2001 as work was quiet I sent letters to all the TV news services asking if they had any need of court artists. I knew how to bow. I hadn’t realised how very few sketch artists were working or needed in Sydney; and that the only other artist at the time had just been quickly called to Germany as his mother had died.

Dame Kiri on breach of contract charge/ image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

Kelli Lane base sketch/ image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

Kelli Lane, charged with daughter's murder, applies for bail. Video link from prison/ image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

Kelli Lane, charged with daughter’s murder, applies for bail. Video link from prison/ image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

In the twelve years from my first Sydney case, in the beautiful old Darlinghurst Court, I have carried my sketchpad, pencils and sharpener to dozens of courts in the city and surrounds. The work is generally requested by one of the free to air television stations, normally on the morning of the case, with most courts opening at 10.00am. If it is a particularly interesting case some of the other stations or daily newspapers will request my drawing too.

If the person is appearing for the first time before court they generally hope to be granted bail. The journalists and artists may have to wait through hours of other cases till our quarry appears. I try to get a pencil sketch done quickly as I never know how long he or she may be before the court. I have had the person appear before the magistrate for half a minute, when told bail won’t be considered they turn around and return to the holding cells. At times like this I need to memorise as many details as possible while drafting a quick indication of size, shape, facial details and pose of the person.

Magistrate Jackie Millendge - Brimble inquiry/ image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

Magistrate Jackie Millendge – Brimble inquiry/ image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

On a final appearance in court for sentencing, I can have up to an hour to produce several refined pencil sketches of the subject, or do additional court scenes with the judge and council with their robes and wigs. Generally I try to get as much information down quickly, remembering the colours of the court, layout, where the light falls, clothes, people and furniture. I tend to leave the court before the journalists do, to go back to my studio, (or the back of my car when pressed for time), to complete the image in watercolour and refining the details to the portrait.

I’ve had people ask if court artists ever deliberately make people look more guilty or evil, but generally we are too busy getting as much drawn, quickly, in the time available. We don’t have time to do anything other than produce an accurate portrait.

Matthew Newton online from USA / image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

Matthew Newton online from USA / image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

Celebrity pictures tend to be of more interest to the media. Recently I drew the actor Matthew Newton, when he appeared by video link from New York. He had to face charges for assault in Sydney and the link seemed to show a man refreshed and confident in his rehabilitation at the Betty Ford Clinic. The drawing went around Australia in all the print and TV media.

Alexander Downer

Alexander Downer, Minister for foreign affairs at the Australian Wheat Board investigation/ image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

Many years ago I was called to the Cole Royal Commission on the Australian Wheat Board to draw the leader of the National Party, Mark Vaile. Over the following days I also drew both the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer and the then Prime Minister John Howard.

PM John Howard at AWB investigation/ image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

PM John Howard at AWB investigation/ image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

Interestingly security was less than I’d expected. At local courts most people have to walk through metal detectors but I was surprised that this wasn’t required with the appearances of the first two senior members of the Federal Government. When Mr Howard appeared before the commission before any one was allowed into the court we had to wait for Police dogs to give us all the sniff of approval. All they seemed to find was a ham sandwich in the bag of fellow illustrator, Rocco Fazzari from the Sydney Morning Herald.

 Gough at Balibo 5 inquest / image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw


Gough at Balibo 5 inquest / image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

A few years ago I was asked to be at the Glebe Coroners Court to draw former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, when he appeared at the inquest into the death of the “Balibo Five”, the group of Australian journalists. They are believed to have been killed by Indonesian soldiers in East Timor in the late ‘70s. He was called to appear before the court to tell what he knew and what he and his government had done, in light of our security forces intelligence at the time. This was in 2007 and Mr Whitlam would have been in his late 80s, but his mind was as sharp as most remember. He read excerpts from an autobiography about these days in government, he turned to the people in the court and recommended the book, as it was so well written!

Every so often I get requests for the original drawings I do in court and this time the Magistrate presiding asked if she could buy the drawing with her and Mr Whitlam in the same picture. Whether you are a Labor supporter or not, this man is a significant Australian at a time in his life when his public appearances increasingly rare.

Occasionally the court cases are funny in a quirky way. I was called to the Downing Centre for a case where a young man had threatened people with a knife and broken Tazer stun gun. It turned out, he was robbing people to maintain his fish tank. His parents refused to give him any more money to maintain his fish tank but to get a job instead. Outside the court I was talking to one of his lawyers who said, having just come back from Queensland, this man’s fish tank would rival the Barrier Reef.

Woman who tried to hijack a car/ image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

Woman who tried to hijack a car/ image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

There was a delicate, attractive young woman in one of the courts on charges of attempting to hijack a car, in one of the Southern suburbs. She had pulled the female driver from her car, leapt in, then realised the car was manual and she couldn’t drive a manual car. In a few minutes a group of people surrounded the car while they waited for the police to arrive.

A case with similarities happened in western Sydney. A man tried to rob a bank with a Tazer. Things didn’t go as planned in the bank so he took a hostage. Walking out of the bank in front of a crowd of shoppers, a Tazer held at the woman’s neck, one onlooker yelled out, “ that’s not a Tazer… that’s a torch!” Apparently, many men in the crowd decided to “vigorously restrain” the robber while waiting for the police to arrive.

One case that intrigued me was in Fairfield Court. A man was charged with trying to firebomb his dentist’s house and dental practice. It seems he wasn’t happy with dental work he’d received. Police caught him between the two sites with a range of explosives on the passenger seat of his Porsche.

Roger Dean when first charged with starting a fire in a Quakers Hill nursing home / image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

Roger Dean when first charged with starting a fire in a Quakers Hill nursing home / image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

Roger Dean, male nurse admitted guilt to causing the deaths of many residence in nursing home fire. / image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

Roger Dean, male nurse admitted guilt to causing the deaths of many residence in nursing home fire. / image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

Over my time in Sydney I’ve been to court more than 250 times. Often they are drawings of the same people at differing stages of the legal process, as from first appearance to final sentencing can take many years.  As people change, the TV stations will ask me to draw the person again, or as happened a few times, the person has had a haircut and now looks different.  I recently drew Roger Dean a man with a long fringe sweeping to the side of his face, on charges of causing a fire in a nursing home. When I first drew him about two years ago, he had a notable mound of bright red hair instead of a fringe.

In Australia, court artists have a comparatively easy job. In the UK there are only three remaining working court artists and they are not allowed to draw in court. They may take a note book and write descriptions, colours and details, but the drawing has to be done outside the court. I have seen images by one of these women (all are women) of the dock during the trial of the Locherby bombers. There were thirteen men in the dock, all looking “Middle Eastern” and she would have had to remembered details of each person, knowing she could differentiate them in the final drawing.

In the US courts the judges decide whether to allow cameras or not. I’m lead to believe the precedence was set in the trial of the accused kidnapper / murderer of aviator Charles Lindberg’s son Charles Jr. The judge declared that there were too many photographers in court, and asked that artists only be used. Artists there stay in court for as long as they can, not whishing to miss any detail. They seem to use dry methods of illustrating such as pastels, marker pens or colour pencils on tinted papers. From what I’ve read, in US courts there can be so many artists vying for the few available seats they don’t drink water, for fear of loosing their seat while off to the bathroom.

I’m not really sure why Australia still restricts the use of cameras in court. Every few years various states reassess the use of drawings in court over photographers. In the past decade New Zealand has allowed the use of fixed cameras and West Australia was considering it. Objections are made that by allowing cameras, the barristers, lawyers, witnesses and the accused will preform to the cameras instead of addressing the judge and jury. In the US there are professional to advise people going before the court. When Winona Ryder appeared in court on shoplifting charges her counsel organised a clothing adviser for a more sympathetic response from the jury. She wore a discreet dress, long sleeves, buttoned collar, demure necklace, unlike her first appearance when she wore the short, revealing, expensive flamboyance of a film star.

A similar situation arose when cameras were fitted in the federal Parliament. Within a few days, then PM Paul Keating complained that the cameras caught the light reflecting from his bald spot. The members started to smarten up their fashions. Men bought more than one suit and soon viewers noticed that the more attractive members of the house were moved into the camera’s field of vision, behind the speakers.
 

Vincent de Gouw

Self-portrait/ image courtesy of Vincent de Gouw

I don’t know why cameras are not allowed in courts, but I am so grateful they aren’t!

Vincent de Gouw is the art director/illustrator for Adgraphics and a lecturer/tutor at the University of Western Sydney. You can contact Vincent at adgraphics@bigpond.com

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