Depictions of the English legal system in art are rather less common than, say, its appearances in legal dramas or novels. This is surprising, given the opportunities it affords for the study of human nature in crisis.
The explanation may have something to do with the historic ban on image capture – drawing, painting or photography – in court. Or it may simply reflect a lack of interest by British artists themselves or their patrons or collectors. Whatever the reason, such depictions as we have tend to be confined to hurriedly executed ATE (after the event) courtroom sketches prepared for news reports, or humorous treatments such as the judicial caricatures by Spy and his imitators and our own Nick Chambers‘s somewhat more lateral-thinking conceptualisations. It was therefore something of a pleasant surprise to find, in the Getty Center in Los Angeles, this pair of paintings by the 19th century British painter, Abraham Solomon.
“Waiting for the Verdict” (1857) shows the family of the unseen accused waiting anxiously outside the courtroom while his barrister stands before the open doorway of the court awaiting news of the jury’s deliberations. You can see through the open doorway into the interior of the court, where a judge in red robes sits in an elevated, God-like position as other barristers confer or perhaps make submissions in the next case.
“Not Guilty (The Acquittal)” (1857) shows the relief and jubilation as the accused, released from the dock, is now reunited with his family, while his father congratulates the brief. One assumes any money passing hands will do so via the attorney (not shown) who instructed the barrister. Through an open doorway on the left you can see the light and air of the world outside. This vision of freedom mirrors the glimpse into the courtroom on the right side in the first painting, where the light appears to emanate from the no doubt distinguished and impartial judge, an idea reinforced by the painter’s surname.
The style is glutinously sentimental but that sort of thing was popular with the Victorians. We know nothing about the offence charged, but the assumption is that Justice has been done and a Moral shown (trust the Law to defend the Truth).
It’s worth remembering that at the time there was no possibility of an appeal in criminal cases. In the absence of procedural complaint or reference on a point of law, the jury’s decision was final.
Now one puzzle remains. This pair of paintings, hanging in the Getty Center in Los Angeles, is said to have been the “Partial and promised gift of Barbara and Norman S Namerow”. Yet the same two paintings appear on the Tate website as part of its collection, “Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and the Sue Hammerson Charitable Trust 1983”. One can only assume the images proved too popular to remain unique, and that the artist painted more than one copy. Or is one pair not quite as genuine as the other?
Answers on a postcard, from wherever you are.