Sir Kyffin and Mr Fox by Michael Mansfield

1st April 2016 at 00:00
The barrister recalls an art master who showed him how to look at the world, and a history teacher who taught him how to see himself

Kyffin Williams, art master at Highgate School, was Welsh, a Royal Academician and a painter of seascapes. He was an eccentric: plus fours, tweed jackets that never quite fitted, an RAF moustache and swept-back hair.

He encouraged us all not to be straitjacketed by conventional wisdom. We spotty teenagers thought we’d be splashing paint around in a soft option. He disabused us of that notion straight away, saying: “You won’t be picking up a paintbrush this term. Mansfield! Stand up! How did you get to school today? What did you see? What did you really see?”

Eventually we got the point. Kyffin wanted people to look more carefully at their surroundings, at the unobvious. We began to look for things that nobody else would see.

At the end of term, he said: “I want you to paint or draw those impressions that have stood out to you.” I thought it an amazing technique, because he was encouraging us to think, rather than to copy.

Today, I do walk around and look at everything. The sky, odd things at the tops of buildings, little alleyways, the backside of some building that tells you a lot more than the front. That’s really been a trademark for me, and has informed and influenced the way I work.

I am constantly trying to find new ways of approaching the analysis of a case, to work at it from a different perspective that will sometimes raise different questions from the ones already being asked.

When I did jury trials and had an opportunity to make an opening or closing speech, I’d want to find some way of making the 12 people sitting there sit up and listen. I used paintings a lot for that.

For example, look closely at Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières and you can’t tell what it is. Stand back, however, and the pointillist dots come together. You need occasionally to stand right back and see what the detail might add up to.

Another teacher I’ve always remembered is T N Fox, who taught sixth-form history. He looked exactly like Tintin: a short, little man in thick spectacles. He had lost all his hair except for one curl.

In winter, if it was very cold, he would take off his socks and leave them to dry, steaming on the radiator.

He had an extraordinarily charismatic method of getting you interested. Like Kyffin Williams, he’d say, “Mansfield! Stand up! Why do we need passports?”

I answered: “So somebody knows who you are.”

He said: “Well, are you not somebody without a passport?”

And so, in one fell swoop, he would get you to think about questions of identity, nationalism and borders.

He picked a group from the sixth form and, once a week, we would go to a room above a Highgate Village teashop to debate intellectual matters. Because of the art master, I was already thinking outside the box; Mr Fox really got you thinking.

He came up to me after one of these discussions and said: “You are going to be a very fine lawyer.”

I said: “Why do you say that? I’ve no intention of becoming a lawyer.”

He said: “You have a skill at debating.”

I’d never thought that I did – I was absolutely dead scared of doing any of it.

Mr Fox said: “You have ability. Just concentrate on it and do it.”

Michael Mansfield QC was speaking to Lily Farrah. He campaigns to raise suicide-prevention awareness through the Silence of Suicide, an initiative set up after the loss of his daughter in 2015. Find out more at

Law and order

Michael Mansfield

Born 12 October 1941

Education Highgate School, North London; Keele University

Career Called to the Bar in 1967. Established Tooks Chambers in 1984 and became Queen’s Counsel in 1989. Notable cases have included representing Stephen Lawrence’s family, Mohamed Al-Fayed at the inquest into the deaths of his son Dodi and Princess Diana, and the families of Mark Duggan and Jean Charles de Menezes

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