Monday, 22 August 2011

The trial of Sarah Malcolm

In 1733, a 22 year old Irish laundress was found guilty of theft and three murders, and hung at Fleet Street for her crime. Her name was Sarah Malcolm and she makes a small appearance in the graphic novel I'm doing. Here are some images from her scenes, which are still work in progress.

Sarah put up a remarkable defence in court, and is one of the three cases examined in last week’s Voices From the Old Bailey on BBC Radio 4. She admitted to the theft of 45 guineas (equivalent to a year’s salary) after being found with the money, but denied the three murders until the end. The transcript from her trial in the Old Bailey’s online archives shows her as a fiery character - she even conducted her own defence.

Two days before she was hung, William Hogarth and his father-in-law James Thornhill visited her in her cell to make sketches for her portrait.

(work in progress)

I wanted to include this scene because it shows Hogarth in a cynical light (the pages following this scene will explain why). The dialogue for the prison scene was difficult and in the end I settled for very little speech, because anything else felt too forced.

Her painted portrait hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Hogarth made a print of this painting (see below), which looks a bit demonic by comparison. He had little sympathy for her, and was alleged to have said that

"this woman by her features is capable of anything".

"A Lady Macbeth in low-life." - John Ireland


  1. I also find this an interesting story-to the extent I wrote a book about it. I like the illustrations you have done.

    1. Thanks for your kind comment. Is there anywhere that I can find your book?

  2. amazon kindle and print. The Painter the Laundress and the murders at the Inns of Court.

  3. That sounds like a really interesting story. The engraving does make her look sharper and harder - her fingers even look a little like talons. She looks older than 22 in Hogarth's painting/engraving! I'd have put her at late 30s early 40s. But maybe that's down to a combination of hard work, poor diet and gin...and clothes tend to bulk people out and make them look older too. Of your illustrations, I think I like the first one best - the images and the text boxes fit together really well, and I like how you've focused on her hands and her rosary.

  4. Thanks! Yeah you're right, she does look older in the print... I hadn't noticed that before. Though that could just be Hogarth's depiction. I think when he doesn't want you to like someone, he'll play up the worst aspects of his sitter... like with his portraits of John Wilkes or Lord Lovat.