Back to top
Article

A brush with the law

1 January 04

Profiles of lawyers who combine their work with an artistic talent

by Roger Mackenzie

If you overheard mention of Caravaggio or Vettriano in the common room at Glasgow Sheriff Court you could be forgiven for assuming you had in fact misinterpreted a discussion about the Old Firm’s dealings in the January transfer window.

Listen again and you might just find that talk of the Dutch Masters or Italian Renaissance isn’t a reference to Scotland’s playoff drubbing or Milan’s prospects of retaining the Champions League. Scots lawyers are closet art lovers, both as collectors and, in some cases, passionate exponents of a skill that often mirrors their day job more than you might imagine.

Having run a successful practice in Glasgow’s East End, Brian McConville’s “road to Damascus” moment came at an evening art class. Armed with his trusty sketch book and pencils, he was hauled out of his comfort zone and told to paint. It was his first experience with oil paints and in a sense he’s never looked back.

For him, art has never served as a therapeutic escape from an arduous day in the office –  it was a chance to prove something to himself and provide that hinterland which so many in the profession lack.

“You are trained to run a successful office and that’s what you’re meant to do. You don’t get a pat on the back for doing that. What counts is that wee bit extra you do with your life. I think it’s great when you see someone like Len Lovat, he was a tremendous fiscal and sheriff, but he also climbed mountains and wrote books on mountaineering. That was his other dimension. It’s inspiring when you see people doing their job well but they also have that other side to them.”

Ironically, and unknown to him for months, the first of his paintings to be sold at a commercial gallery was purchased by another lawyer who bought it for moving to a new house.

“The more lawyers who got to know about it, it was quite amazing how many are interested in art. Harry Joseph, for example, does not show his material but he’s a first class painter. I could name numerous lawyers who collect art.”

Austin Lafferty’s recently opened office-cum-art gallery in Giffnock exhibits his own portraits in addition to selling an eclectic mix of work by other Scottish artists.

With a sideline in illustrating books (and readers may also recall his portrait of Past President of the Society David Preston which appeared on these pages), Lafferty regards drawing and painting as the “quintessential relaxation”.

“Artwork is concentration intensive. You can exclude all other humdrum matters while you apply graphite or paint.”

Both lawyer-artists agree that there are parallels in the disciplines of art and law.

Lafferty observes “it is interesting to compare the portraitist’s art and the study of clients across the table”.

“Lawyers are trained to be de facto psychologists, judging human personality and character by body language, facial expression and verbal usage. I don’t know whether this enhances one’s ability to draw faces accurately or art experience helps you to get inside the client’s head via their face, but both are equally true. Knowing the personal drama that can hide behind the face of a client who presents an ordinary face to the world is an invaluable tool for both lawyer and artist.”

For McConville, the feeling of a blank canvas is comparable to the feeling he still gets when making a jury speech.

“Even to this day I still get that burning in the stomach: it’s not nervousness or anxiety, but a feeling that you know what you want to say, but it is how you say it that counts. I feel the very same when I am sitting at a blank canvas. I know what I want to do, it’s how am I going to approach it? Getting a result from a no hope case is a bit like when you do a picture and find out someone has bought it.”

In fact, Lafferty thinks it is unsurprising that lawyers are often also creative, be it in painting, music, writing or whatever.

“The public perception of lawyers as somehow dull is utterly wrong. The law is all about creativity, taking someone’s present situation and moving it on to a different one. In whatever field of law, creativity is a must if you are going to be successful.”

Lafferty is of the view that a gallery sits comfortably within a legal office. As he’s paying the overheads for the office, piggy-backing a gallery on the back is cost effective. And purchasing a work of art is a natural next step in the process of celebrating buying a house or “getting rid of a husband”, he reasons.

One of Brian McConville’s proudest achievements is in utilising his office in Dennistoun to double up as what he thinks is the first gallery in the East End of Glasgow which is available for local artists to exhibit their work. He doesn’t take any commission on sales, seeing it instead as offering opportunities to artists who would otherwise struggle to gain acceptance in conventional galleries.

A variation on the theme of lawyers’ offices showcasing art can be found at private client specialists Turcan Connell in Edinburgh. The firm is thought to be the only one so far in Scotland to have initiated an artist-in-residence project, which saw them act as patron to Thomas Aldridge, a young artist who at the time was attempting to establish himself as a full-time painter.

The result is that the firm now boasts a unique collection of oils and sketches for their offices in Edinburgh and Guernsey. Staff were able to watch the artistic process take shape and although there was some initial scepticism as to the merits of the project, the firm has been met with frequent requests from arts organisations and others keen to come in and have a look at the results.

Denise Gibbons of Turcan Connell comments: “Due to the confidential nature of our work, ground rules were laid down, for example to keep out of the areas where clients would be involved in meetings with their lawyers. Tom managed to fulfil the brief of capturing the building, the views, and the staff working, without anyone complaining that he had been intrusive or in the way. Quite an achievement in such a busy office as ours.”

For Brian McConville, painting has become more than a sideline or hobby. He is now semi-retired and enjoys a lifestyle which sees him divide his time between law and art. While he couldn’t live off his painting sales, and in any case wouldn’t want the pressure that would bring, his operation is now sufficiently slick that he has moved on to selling his work through a website, theartmasteronline.com, which serves as a brochure and sales point for his original work and prints.

Yet his example is more than the story of a lawyer with a flair for art who is indulging his hobby. It is instructive as to how lawyers can make a genuine lifestyle choice. He enthuses about the profession and the life it has offered him, but is happy at 50 to have reduced his commitment to a part-time basis.

“I thought by the time I turn 50 that is enough. I’m chief cook and bottle washer, I bring the clients in and do the work. I love that multi-tasking but I do not want to do it until I drop, start making mistakes or become bitter. Many fellow lawyers have said to me I wish I could do that. Well, I’m not saying everyone could, and I have a great respect for my brethren, but while so many can manage other people’s affairs, they often can’t apply that business sense to their own lives. There is a very fine line between need and greed and before you know it your working day is 10 or 12 hours, extending into the weekend, and you’re never home at night to read the children their bedtime story, or are too tired to go out. Nowadays when I sell a painting for £45 that’s what I come home and tell my family about.”