Martyn Chalk

Mario Minichiello

I can know: he was there.
Brief thoughts on drawing in court


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Photography is not allowed in a court of law in this country.1 But some cases of are particular legal significance, or involve celebrities, and artists are commissioned by the media to make drawings of the proceedings as a substitute for the photographs which accompany news reports.2 Only written note taking is allowed in court so the drawings are made from memory.

The special nature of the trials selected for recording by drawing means that the genre is limited in size, but from the examples available it is possible to envisage some of the formal and technical expectations at work in the editing room, even if these are tacit.3 Above all, and irrespective of any protocols about confidentiality the drawings will have 'captured the likeness' of those involved. Although the work may have been speedily executed from memory, caricature is presumably not acceptable, as this suggests a lack of objectivity, which the press may not like to admit.

A recent drawing published as part of the case of the conjoined twins is typical.4 The work is in pastel on toned paper. Three judges sit among legal books, desk lamps and high backed chairs. Areas of shading give some solidity but the faces are drawn primarily with line and emphasise profile as a simple way to record likeness and expression.

The recognisability of the participants (to those who know them) appears to establish some sort of credibility and the intention is to allow us to see justice being done, as we might had we been in the public gallery. But such images can make the event and the participants too special and may risk confusing the operation of the real courts with fictional representations making the participants into actors and the assumed drama more important than the process.


Mario Minichiello was commissioned by the BBC to record the Spycatcher trial. But the drawings he made are not quite as one might have expected from looking at other examples of the genre. Minichiello has not pretended to objectivity and presents rapidly executed images which are energetic responses to being present in the court. He has not made attempts at passive likeness, although his command of drawing means that one does not doubt the verity of body shape, pose and expression. It is precisely because the work is filtered through his reactions that we are able attend the court by proxy. Minichiello`s responses model what our own could have been, while more apparently objective representations of appearance debar us from participation precisely because they ignore the artist.

Enquiries to the Lord Chancellor's Department 6 produce surprisingly little detail about the reasons for banning photography in court although one intention is to protect witnesses and the vulnerable. The Appeal Court deliberations over the conjoined twins already cited involved the production of a photograph of the babies to assist in arriving at a decision which had far reaching ethical implications. At least one drawing of this photograph7 was used in the press and on television and this must raise issues of the vulnerability and right to privacy of the babies and their parents.

During the case the babies were frequently called 'Siamese twins', in reference to a funfair sideshow of the nineteenth century, rather than 'conjoined twins'. Some concern was expressed over this insensitive and inaccurate use of terminology yet I have seen no expression of concern over the publication of the drawing. The coarseness of the work itself and the inclusion of the artist's signature merely add to the intrusiveness. It is hard to see how the 'right to know' has been advanced by this drawing which is neither objective medical illustration, which might have been acceptable, nor humane response to a tragic situation. By adding nothing to our understanding it forces us into voyeurism.

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Martyn Chalk

Copyright Martyn Chalk

October 2000

Martyn Chalk is a practising artist and holds a visiting professorship at University of Derby

  1. Criminal Justice Act 1929
  2. 'The right to open justice is fundamental. Apart from any statutory exception, the onus is always on the courts, should they wish to exclude any part of proceedings from public scrutiny, to demonstrate that this is necessary..' Press Notice 14 April 1999, Lord Chancellor's Office.
  3. op cit 'The media act for the public, but it is not the same as the public. Inevitably all forms of media reporting involve some editorial process, a selective filter, which chooses and shapes what it reports. That process of filtration is increasingly subjected to economic, market pressures'.
  4. Guardian 23 September 2000, page 5
  5. Telephone conversation with the Press Office 5 September 2000
  6. Guardian 22 September 2000 page 41