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The Scene of The Crime: Police Photographs, Visual Culture and Sexuality

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 March 2015


Visual materials are often neglected by legal researchers. However, as Dominic Janes explains, attitudes to appearances played an important role in the way in which many criminal investigations were undertaken, notably in the years prior to the Sexual Offences Act (1967). Analysis of aspects of visual culture played a role in the detection of many forms of illegal behaviour and the resulting materials provide a valuable resource for the contemporary researcher. These issues are explored through a case study that involves reading between a painting by the British expressionist Francis Bacon (1909–92) and a photograph in the National Archives taken during a police raid on a London flat in 1927.

Law, Gender and Sexuality: Sources and Methods in Socio-Legal Research
Copyright © The Author(s) 2015. Published by British and Irish Association of Law Librarians 

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1 Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. (2008) Epistemology of the closet. Berkeley: University of California PressGoogle Scholar [1st ed. 1990].

2 Janes, Dominic. (2015) Picturing the closet: male secrecy and homosexual visibility in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University PressGoogle Scholar.

3 Norton, Rictor. (1992) Mother Clap's molly house: the gay subculture in England, 1700–1830. London: GMP. 58Google Scholar.

4 For connections between legal and cultural unspeakability see Bartlett, Peter. (1998) Silence and sodomy: the creation of homosexual identity in law. Modern Law Review 61(1), 102–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Moran, Leslie J. (2001). Dangerous words and dead letters: encounters with law and ‘The love that dares to speak its name’. Liverpool Law Review 23, 153–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 List of exhibits in Rex v. Britt and Others (National Archives, London, CRIM 1/387) and Houlbrook, Matt. (2005) Queer London: perils and pleasures in the sexual metropolis, 1918–57. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 131–3Google Scholar. Houlbrook gives detailed readings of the sexual identity politics of the time but does not focus on visual and material culture issues.

6 Statement, Chief Inspector Robert Sygrove, Met. Police D Division, 8 January 1927 (CRIM 1/387).

7 Statement, Chief Inspector Sygrove, 2 Feburary 1927 (CRIM 1/387).

8 Statement, Sergeant Arthur Spencer, 3 January 1927 (CRIM 1/387).

9 Vassal, Gabrielle (1922–4). ‘Annam I: its quaint folk, civilized and savage’, in Hammerton, J.A. (ed.). Peoples of all nations: their life today and story of their past, vol. 1 [of 7]. London: Fleetway House. 1922–4Google Scholar. 121–66 at 147.

10 Janes, Dominic (2012). Frederick Rolfe's Christmas cards: popular culture and the construction of queerness in late Victorian Britain. Early Popular Visual Culture 10(2), 105–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 115–7.

11 Report of the Street Offences Committee (1928). London: HMSO. 48. See also Moran, Leslie J. and McGhee, Derek (1998) ‘Perverting London: the cartographic practices of law’. Law and Critique 9(2), 207–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Houlbrook, Matt (2007) ‘The man with the powder puff in interwar London’. Historical Journal 50(1), 145–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 For an interesting range of approaches to the role of appearances in various aspects of the legal process, albeit from American perspectives, see Post, Robert with Appiah, Anthony, K.; Butler, Judith; Grey, Thomas C., and Siegel, Reva B. (2001). Prejudicial appearances: the logic of American antidiscrimination law. Durham, N.C.: Duke University PressGoogle Scholar.