I am a member of London Historians, a group of like-minded London history enthusiasts. Director Mike Paterson invited me along to one of its tours: The Royal Courts of Justice in The Strand. I have a keen interest in history and am an artist who is enthusiastic about architecture so this tour was not to be missed.
I’ve often passed this imposing building while riding buses and the goings-on are a common feature on the TV news, ranging from infamous cases such as the Leveson Enquiry on the media’s alleged misdemeanours to the rather bizarre incident of Heather Mills throwing a jug of water over Paul McCartney’s lawyer, Fiona Shackleton. Heather was apparently dismayed at only receiving a £24.3million divorce settlement compared with the £125million which court papers revealed she had demanded. Life can be so very tough.
The courts were designed by architect George Edmund Street. Work began on the huge 6 acre site in 1873 and was officially opened in 1882 by Queen Victoria. Over the years extensions have been added, so currently there are 78 courts within. There was potentially a great deal to get through and so our guide creamed the very best to put in our 90 minute tour.
Our guide for the day was Colin Davey, a qualified City of London Guide Lecturer, City of Westminster Guide Lecturer and National Trust Guide, as well as being a fellow London Historians Member. He has also spent many years as a practising lawyer so proved ideal for this tour adding much detail and knowledge beyond that of the average guide. We began our tour in the Great Hall. Colin initially gave us a quick overview of the building’s history and function.
I was surprised to hear that they do not hold criminal trials at the RCJ: these take place at criminal courts such as the Old Bailey or equivalent. In the RCJ they deal mainly with Civil Law, dealing with matters such as inquests, high value divorce proceedings as well as intellectual property and other commercial disputes. The Royal Courts are, however, courts of appeal, hence the necessity for cells on the premises.
Colin went on to tell us about the numerous paintings and statues of past judges and various other law related cognoscenti who have made a name for themselves over the years. We then moved around the corridors and rooms, learning about the functions and histories of each. Highlights included the ‘Bear Garden’ which neither contains a garden or – you will be relieved to hear – any bears either. It’s an elegant galleried Gothic room, called the ‘Bear Garden’ supposedly by Queen Victoria who said that the bickering barristers sounded like a bear pit or garden where the hapless bears were goaded to fight dogs. Adjoining this is the resplendent ‘Painted Room’ in glittering Victorian green, red and gold über camp. If Liberace were still with us this is where he would like to do lunch. It is however used as the judges’ robing room.
Once the tour was complete we continued the law theme with lunch at Middle Temple Hall on the other side of the Strand. It’s an original Elizabethan hall measuring 110 feet long and spanned by a blacked double hammer-beam roof. It has been in continual use as the eating and mooting hall of the Middle Temple since its inception in 1573. Shakespeare buffs might know that the first recorded performance of Twelfth Night too was played in the Middle Temple Hall.
This was a particular treat for us as the general public is not routinely allowed to walk in off the street. But Mike had booked one of the large refectory tables and we sat down for a hearty lunch at a pretty reasonable price. It is not often you can eat while musing over a collection of original Van Dykes staring down at you.
The tour of The Royal Courts of justice was a real treat and big thanks to Mike Paterson and Colin Davey for an excellent afternoon and plenty of subject matter for my sketchbook.
You can see more about London Historians here.
The watercolour painting
I could have painted the whole of the building though I felt the characters would get lost in the immensity of it all, and it would somehow dilute itself in the process. After some musing I decided to paint the great arched entrance to the front façade. This is where much action takes place, a gaping mouth of a door where all the journalists, cameramen and crowds gather to get the latest on the progress within. It’s also where all the winners and losers spill out to give their side of the story or to dash off as quickly as they can to reassess their thoughts and wallets. To begin my drawing I positioned myself across the street outside the George pub. I had the occasional company of the pub’s smokers and it also afforded me a little bit of cover as the weather was utterly foul.
I got the bones in of what I needed fairly quickly, I needed to hurry as even with my modest shelter the rain was still coming in and my paper was turning to soggy loo roll with my pencils either slipping across the top or gouging messy holes. This picture would have to be finished off in the studio. And so it was.