Convict portraits in miniature

Trial Bay in northern New South Wales houses the remains of a sandstone gaol, finished in 1886 and built by the convicts who were incarcerated there. It is a remote and beautiful spot, overlooking the ocean. The gaol was used in World War I as an internment camp for German nationals.

Visiting there last year I was captivated by a display of some of the convicts’ mug shots, along with their charge sheets, beautifully written in copperplate, listing their crimes, mostly petty – drunkenness, larceny, vagrancy, but some were murderers or charged with assault or ‘wounding with intent to murder’. The faces in the photos were very distinct, ranging from heavy-set thuggish faces to delicate, youthful and frightened ones.

The three images below are based on these, but I have not tried to faithfully capture each one, but to create new characters. They each have some charges listed behind them, intentionally not decipherable. They are miniatures, 10 x 6 cm, pencil on drafting film.

TrialBay1web TrialBay2V2web TrialBay3V2web

Below are my original roughs – when I am drawing miniatures I usually do large roughs, scan and reduce them, then work from those, adapting them as I see fit. The roughs are about A4, in pencil in a sketchbook.

TrialBayrough1webtrialBay2roughwebTrialBayrough3web

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21 thoughts on “Convict portraits in miniature

  1. What an interesting idea. The miniatures look not unlike bank notes.
    The bigger pictures you drew cast my mind back to visiting Auschwitz and seeing mugshots all over the walls of inmates (all of who died, not surprisingly). Your inmates look much healthier and fuller-of-face than those poor souls in Auschwitz – except perhaps for your bottom drawing of the man with the sunken eyes.
    Did you do those big sketches while you were actually at Trial Bay Gaol or from photos after you got home?

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    1. Bank notes – you are absolutely right! They do have that feel to them. It must have been heart wrenching to see those photos in Auschwitz. These were from hard times, but not like that. I did the drawings from photos – we had limited time there unfortunately but I took photos of the display of inmates. I forgot to take pictures of the buildings which were great, austere but imposing.

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      1. Yes it was heart wrenching. Another way those portraits in Poland were different to yours was that everybody, male and female, had their heads shaved.
        Your three men all look very hapless – each in his own way – and don’t they look like they are from another century too; which of course they are. Well done!!!

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        1. I think I would find it too hard to draw the concentration camp faces, too raw. These do look hapless! Sort of ‘oh no, in trouble again’! There are more that I may draw, one is a real Gentleman Jim, with swept back hair, a twirled moustache and disdainful air!

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      1. Maybe, but I was thinking of your lovely necklaces you made. You could put these behind glass ( maybe there a bit big..?) And make a jewelry line called ‘convictions’ or something like that…
        : )

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  2. These are lovely Anna, I like the thought of miniatures done of the lower end of society rather than the top as it was in their day. I liked the way the idea was sparked by your experience and how you made it come alive. Karen

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    1. You know, I hadn’t thought of the social aspect of these but you are absolutely right. I really like that – it gives these men a dignity that they wouldn’t have had in life. Thanks Karen, you are very insightful!

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  3. What an intriguing idea! I think your occasionalartist friend above had quite the insight, and yes, it’s thought provoking to wonder how much these fellows were marginalized in life and why, and whether that might in fact have shaped their histories and helped to lead them to gaol—or, hopefully, successfully away from it, eventually. So much history and mystery in the faces of the past. Well done.

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    1. These men would have had a hard life, some of it self-induced no doubt, but quite a lot from being on the margins of society. Desperation would have driven some of their crime. This gaol would have been a hard place to be, right on the ocean, it would have been freezing in winter and very hot in summer. I’d like to think some of them managed to move into a happier life one way or another. I think there is a story in every face – I’d like to think this immortalises them just a little bit. Thanks for your comment Kathryn!

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  4. It’s hard not to *feel for these men somehow Anna .. perhaps the hollow eyes and a life weariness about them … I can’t think of these as murderers ….or don’t want to more like !
    Lovely pencil sketched miniatures !

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