LONDON, U.K.—From singer Amy Winehouse, to disgraced entertainer Rolf Harris, and infamous serial killers Rose and Fred West, Priscilla Coleman has been to their court cases and has memorised their facial expressions.
Artists have been banned from sketching in English courts since 1925, so as a courtroom artist, Texas-born Coleman takes notes to help her memorise the scene, then draws outside the courtroom – with sometimes only 15 minutes to complete the drawing from memory.
Her notes are a compilation of observations: cryptic memory prompters, statements said in court, pointy arrows, and descriptions like “laughs”, “grey”, and “pursed lips”.
“It’s like studying for a test, over and over and over. And after a while you don’t even have to think about it anymore. Then when I go away to draw, it’s in my head,” she said.
In her east London studio Coleman has a vast collection of the historical moments she has captured in court using a combination of oil pastel and water-based sticks.
At the News International phone-hacking trial, she particularly enjoyed drawing Rebekah Brooks. “She has a fantastic head of hair and I don’t always get to draw women, so that was really nice,” she said.
In 2009, Coleman illustrated Amy Winehouse, who was accused of hitting a fan. She drew the moment when Winehouse showed Judge Timothy Workman her flat ballet shoes to make the point she was only small, didn’t wear heels, and was just trying to defend herself. Winehouse was acquitted of assault
“That’s part of the challenge really, to get someone everyone knows and make sure it looks like them,” Coleman said.
She drew Rolf Harris in court, now jailed for abusing four young women. In one image he is straining to hear while wearing his signature colourful tie.
And she was in court for Sir Paul McCartney’s divorce case from Heather Mills. She said they entered through different doors – McCartney came across as serious and sad.
She’s also observed some of the most notorious court cases including those of Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, and Rose and Fred West.
“She looked kind of like a librarian or a school teacher,” said Coleman, speaking of serial killer Rose West, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1995 for 10 counts of murder.
“Who would have thought looking at her that she was that type of person? She looked safe and it’s just shocking really.”
Courtroom artists are also tasked with capturing the movement and mood in court cases in one drawing. Such drama is seen in a scene from the sentencing of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale for killing British soldier Lee Rigby.
“They just go nuts,” she said referring to Adebolajo and Adebowale. “The glass is so strong nowadays. They can just hit it really hard, and just do it with their fists. This guy’s giving it a real bash.”
“Sometimes we get some quite frightening people in court. So, I think, I’m glad I’m seeing this person here and not just out and about,” she added.
Entering the World of Courtroom Drawing
When Coleman first started out in England, she found out – the hard and embarrassing way – that sketching was banned in courtrooms. Someone in the public gallery saw her sketching little drawings on her notepad and reported it to the court clerk, who spoke to Coleman sternly, saying she could be fined and not let back into court.
“Then I really cottoned on. I’ve gotten used to it now, it just seems normal,” she said.
Her career in courtroom drawing started in Texas, where artists are allowed to sketch in court.
She studied Graphics and Fine Art at college, and after some on-call courtroom sketching, she worked for a television company as art director, sketching as a courtroom artist when needed and working on their graphics.
She met her English husband, David, at a cricket dinner in Texas and after 3 months came to England, wanting to work in the arts field.
The unexpected happened. Coleman started watching the British news and saw a court case was going on at the Old Bailey. So she headed there and spotted two reporters and approached the one who looked friendly. It was Simon Cole – a reporter with ITN. She asked him if ITN could use her court sketches and he recommended she see the news editor, who said, “Yeah, let’s have a go.”
Over 20 years later Coleman is still sitting in court with the reporters taking notes for drawings.
“I try not to do that habit that artists have of looking up and down and up and down and drawing, because that can make people nervous. I try to look like the reporters look: they are just writing and writing. So I try to just blend in and be invisible,” she said.
In 2013, Coleman was the first courtroom artist to be allowed to sketch in the Supreme Court for almost 90 years, something that is still unheard of in other English courts.
What’s the Future for Courtroom Drawing?
Digitalisation and the use of film in some English courts is inevitably resulting in less work for courtroom artists; however, Coleman supports the idea of filming proceedings for the public.
“What would be really nice is if they would show every single court case going on. That way people wouldn’t have to try and squeeze into a courtroom that’s not big enough,” she said.
Coleman’s work is also affected by the news. If there is a big election, for example, then the news won’t always cover an important court case. She didn’t get much work during the Gulf War.
Yet what has impacted her profession more in recent years, she says, is the economy – with newspapers and television companies not having as much money in their budget, they have to cut back.
It’s something that Arthur Lien, who has been a courtroom artist for over 40 years in America, echoes.
“Every TV network used to have their own artist under contract. Today, as far as I know, I think I am the only person [in America] who is under contract,” he said.
Lien is based in Maryland and has worked almost exclusively for NBC since 1980.
“It’s a dying art for sure. It’s not just that more venues are open to cameras, it’s also a matter of economics, and it’s also a matter of technology. It’s kind of looked upon as being archaic,” he said.
American law allows drawing in the courts in most cases, so Lien can take his materials into the courtroom, but the pressure is still on to get the drawing out fast.
He explained that at the Boston marathon bombing trial the judges allowed electronic devices, something that rarely happens. No cameras were allowed but Lien took his hand-held scanner. When he’d finished, he just ran the scanner across his completed courtroom drawing, plugged it into his phone, and sent it out. “It was almost real-time,” he said. He added that the trial was very emotional and very hard.
Lien has worked with a variety of drawing media in the past; at the moment he uses pencil and watercolour.
“It’s valuable,” he says of drawing. “It’s something that’s gone through a human being and come out.”
“I think you can tell a story better sometimes with a drawing – but there is so much you can get from a photograph too.”
Coleman also made the point that different ways of capturing moments complement each other. At least for now, courtroom drawings are still a part of recording history.
“They do say that about drawings in television and magazines, it’s a relief for the eyes to see a bit of photography, a bit of print and a bit of sketch, something done with a human hand. It’s nice to see a bit of everything,” she said.
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