Vast interiors

In a personal and at times very moving blog, writer/actor/director/singer-songwriter Gerda Stevenson reflects on some of the photographs in our When We Were Young exhibition, pairing them with her own poetry. Links for those affected by some of the issues raised can be found at the bottom of the page.

One of the first images to arrest us when we enter this beautifully curated exhibition is Diane Arbus’s extreme close-up of A Very Young Baby. The subject’s eyes are closed, and the impression is one of complete stillness. The photographer captures that moment which can often ambush a parent: ‘Is my baby still breathing?’ There’s a hint of the death mask in this portrait, as the commentary beneath it points out. I watched my first baby slowly slip into her death mask, ten days after she was born.

Co-Op Funeral Parlour


My heart stops

at the waxed apple cheeks, plump

and impossibly polished;

your head in my palm yesterday,

skull barely masked by paper skin,

you were undeniably mine.

An imposter lies in this small white box

we ordered - a collector's doll,

lace-framed face mounted

on a slice of shop-window silk.

I would strip the pinned folds, find

the miracle of your miniature hands,

blood cooled to blue beneath each nail,

but a tail of brown thread,

carelessly trimmed, curls

below the jaw's angle, like a worm

emerging from puckered skin.

I draw back, let panic drain,

search for signs of you,

and detect at last

the down-turn of your top lip -

my mouth's copy -

under a lipstick blur.

Edith Tudor-Hart, Music Lesson, Camphill School, Bieldside, Aberdeen, 1949, © Copyright held jointly by Peter Suschitzky, Julia Donat & Misha Donat

Further on, we find Edith Tudor-Hart’s unsettling images of young children with learning difficulties in a Camphill school near Aberdeen (1949), one child wriggling uncomfortably in a high-chair – unsettling because I’m reminded of what used to be a general assumption: that such children shouldn’t be brought up within their families, and so would be handed over to institutions at an early age. My thoughts return to sleeping babies, and my second daughter - her first few weeks, when I was getting to know her:



3am, and a globe of the world

illuminates your sleep.

Pentland rain beats on the slates

above the sphere of your head.


I saw you first on a screen –

sound brought you to light,

the curve of your brow

a distant moon; I knew

there was a chance

of that one chromosome.


I spin the globe

on its plastic axis,

oceans and continents

flicker over your face;

from the delicate slant of your eyelids

I’d guess Siberia or Tibet

If I didn’t know.

Like that butterfly in China

your breath taps the air,

and shells strung for your delight

shift slightly on their threads.


You fill a space too small

to pin-point on the map,

but your territories are vast,

unfolding before me

a unique identity.  

Throughout this exhibition we’re confronted by children - young beings with vast interiors - navigating worlds constructed by adults. Yet I can’t help wondering how many of them ever achieved their potential.

Edith Tudor-Hart, Child Staring into Bakery Window, London, 1949, © Copyright held jointly by Peter Suschitzky, Julia Donat & Misha Donat

Another Tudor-Hart image (1935) of a child staring into a bakery window is a heart-breaker – clothes full of holes, a mop of matted black hair framing her grubby face. Her eyes are two deep wells of resignation, her lips pursed in the certainty that she’ll never taste the mouth-watering confections piled up behind the glass she’s looking through.

But there’s defiance and joy here too – the boy leapfrogging a gravestone in a bleak London graveyard during the second world war; children fishing for minnows in a woodland river;

Bert Hardy, Boy leap-frogging gravestone, © Bert Hardy / Getty Images International
David Octavius Hill & Robert Adamson, Arthur, John Hope and Sophia Finlay, 'At the Minnow Pool', 1843 - 1847

and I’m thinking of my second daughter again:

Picking Chanterelles


Eyes bright with the search,

you clutch your small basket

under gusting silver birch,

summer’s last flush on your cheeks;

and suddenly our luck’s in –

a blaze of tiny can-can skirts

kick their hems at our feet.

Your pink fingernails plunge

their pocket-money glamour

into wet moss, your laughter

gold as the fluted flesh

you pluck from the earth.

The poems above appear in Gerda’s poetry collection IF THIS WERE REAL/SE QUESTO FOSSE VERO (Smokestack Books, 2013/Edizioni Ensemble, 2017), © Gerda Stevenson .


Links for anyone affected by some of the issues raised in this blog:

By Gerda Stevenson, 30 April 2018