Courtroom artists on their toughest cases: 'It's a compelling, sometimes upsetting job'


Elizabeth Cook on the Stephen Lawrence murder trial, 2011

I've attended hundreds of trials over the years and drawn hundreds of people, so it was difficult to choose one drawing. My first instinct was to select one that was amusing, but it's quite hard to find a lighthearted moment in the trials I attend. There was Charles Ingram and his "coughing" accomplice Tecwen Whittock in the . When Chris Tarrant appeared as a witness and said he had been unaware of any coughing, the ranks of the journalists took to mass coughing. We thought it was very funny but the judge wasn't amused.

The picture I've chosen, drawn in November 2011, shows Gary Dobson and David Norris on trial for the they had committed 18 years previously.

In the picture, the defendants are completely overshadowed by Stephen's parents, Doreen and Neville Lawrence, who sat just a few feet away. As the evidence unfolded, they relived those terrible events. You can see Neville closing his eyes, trying to shut out the details of the evidence he is hearing. The picture shows the passive faces of the defendants contrasting with the acute distress on the faces of Stephen's parents. When I saw that in court, I knew I had to draw it.

In the long years between Stephen's murder and this trial, there had been a public inquiry, a private prosecution and a change in the law allowing a retrial to take place. For the Lawrence family, this trial was the culmination of 18 years of absolute anguish, waiting for justice.

Looking at the Lawrences, I was very touched – I think we all were. They attended every day and heard every detail. They conducted themselves with great dignity. I didn't ever see them look at the defendants, and neither did I observe the defendants looking at them.

I had drawn the defendants many years before at the Macpherson inquiry, where they were young men, and very bold and cocky. Here, as older people in their mid- to late-30s, they were a little bit more dignified. They were very composed and didn't seem overwhelmed by the packed court, which was full of journalists.

I was sitting about 12ft away from the Lawrences. I brought the picture closer in order to get the detail of the expression. I find I have to do that with most trials – imagine I'm a bit closer. Some courtrooms are vast and the press benches are quite a way away from the defendants, or family.

I don't spend a great deal of time in court because I need to go and draw – you are not allowed to draw in court. I rely on my memory. As I'm looking, I divide the face into three. I take the first third as the shape of the head and the hair. The hair is very important. Then I note what shape the brows are and whether the eyes are deep-set or lined. The next third is what I would call the muzzle – the tip of the nose, the mouth and the chin. That contains a lot of the expression and identifying features. That's all I need, though I will make a note about the clothing. The grief-stricken expression on Neville Lawrence's face was seared into my mind, and that's what I drew.

Nigella Lawson during the trial of her former assistants.
Nigella Lawson during the trial of her former assistants by Elizabeth Cook

If there are several defendants, as in the Oxford child grooming case last year or in the phone hacking trial, that's a bit more difficult, so I take more written notes.

There is always pressure because everything has to be got out as quickly as possible. Leaving the court at a convenient moment where the judge won't frown at me, rushing to the press room, getting my pencils and paper out, packing it all up again – those things take time, but the actual drawing can be quick. With the Stephen Lawrence one, I haven't really finished off the colouring to the lefthand side, the lines are rather scribbled, so it's not a very finished drawing, but I think people understand that it's a quick drawing, of the moment.

This has been my job for a long time and I've noticed over the past five to 10 years everything has changed in court. The judges used to laboriously write notes with a fountain pen, now they use a laptop. Journalists are allowed to tweet from court. In a recent trial, there were eight TV monitors showing evidence instead of solicitors having to wheel in boxes of files. I recognise times are changing and I'm sure cameras will be allowed in court very soon, but there will probably always be a case for the court artist.

Some of the cases are historic and compelling, but mainly they are extremely upsetting, because you get to hear all the details. The Lawrence family fought hard battles over those years. They had to cope with the grief of losing their son, and with the fact that nothing seemed to be being done. They had changed. As you can see, Neville Lawrence is white-haired now. Everybody in this picture had changed from the first time I drew them. Here they are after 18 years of waiting for justice.

Priscilla Coleman on the trial of Rose West, 1995

Rose West by Priscilla Coleman.
Rose West by Priscilla Coleman.

I attended the hearing of , and the most unforgettable thing about that was their first appearance together. He was reaching out to her, trying to get her attention. He didn't have much time because the guards were just pushing him on through. He was having no luck, even to look her in the eye. She wouldn't even look at him, she just turned her head.

I was surprised that she was so ordinary looking. You would never notice her; she would blend in with the crowd no problem. She wore great big spectacles and her hair was cut in a really traditional way. You can see now how anyone would think it was safe to get in the car with her and Fred. It was perfect for what they were doing – to get girls and women to trust them.

But you could see a flicker of that anger in her. , who is now a judge [and who presided over the press-standards inquiry], was prosecuting and he would ask her really tough questions that she didn't like at all. She became aggressive with him, which I think is what he wanted to show – that she did have this other side. When her own barrister was asking her questions, they were sympathetic and drawing her out as a soft person. She would cry.

She got on with her guards very well. You would often see her siting with her female guards, having a chat and smiling. I suppose they develop a rapport after a while.

I was seated behind the witness box, against the wall. They had put in some special chairs, so that when I had to leave to work on the drawing I could pick a moment when the jury wouldn't be distracted. I make notes and catchy things to help memorise what I've seen. With Rose West, I probably wrote something like plump, frumpy, dumpy, lumpy; something that rhymed so it stuck in my mind. Everything about her was round – even her hair looked to me like a ball. When Fred was trying to reach her, that just clicked in my mind like a flash because it was so vivid.

Amy Winehouse Acquitted of Assault
Amy Winehouse, on trial for assault in 2009 by Priscilla Coleman

I leave the court and find somewhere to draw. I try to find a room, or at least a table. At the high court and the Old Bailey they have a press room, but in that case I had to find some space on the floor and work there. I try to be out of the way so I don't attract attention and have people asking me questions. There isn't much time and I have to concentrate on the drawing.

With Abu Hamza, I always remember how fat he was. I remember him before he was ever the subject of a legal process. He was a character witness for a preacher who was on trial at the Old Bailey and I did a drawing of him in the witness box. His mobile phone went off. Everybody just sat there and it was ring, ring, ring. He didn't try to answer his phone, and someone went over and took it and dealt with it.

He was huge; a real presence, though later on, when he had been arrested for his activities and was the , he had lost a lot of weight.

I studied fine art and graphic design. I discovered I could do these drawings really quickly for television news. I really like the speed of things and I've been doing this since . I also had to do work on the floor at the trial of the boys who killed . There were masses of journalists and other people. Outside it was chaos; some people were attacking vans. It's nice to have a whole hour to draw, but I remember that first Bulger day, I had about 15 minutes.