Making Visible Embryos

‘Making Visible Embryos’ is a really striking project by Tatjana Buklijas and Nick Hopwood 2008–2010  (University of Cambridge and Welcome Trust collaboration)

I found that with early miscarriage one of the difficulties can be reconciling the depth of feeling and grief with a life that may have barely started (though start it did). This site provides a historical context for our relationship with embryos and has helped me understand the powerful effect of our ‘imaginings and visualising’ of the internal world 0f the maternal body and life within the uterus.

“Images of human embryos are everywhere. We see them in newspapers, clinics, classrooms, laboratories, family albums and on the internet. Debates about abortion, assisted conception, cloning and Darwinism have sometimes made these images hugely controversial, but they are also routine. We tend to take them for granted today. Yet 250 years ago human development was still nowhere to be seen.

Developing embryos were first drawn in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Modern medicine and biology exploited technical innovations as pictures and models communicated new attitudes to childbirth, evolution and reproduction. The German universities dominated research in the nineteenth century, the United States in the twentieth. After World War II embryo images became the dominant representations of pregnancy and prominent symbols of hope and fear. Wherever we stand in today’s debates, it should enrich and may challenge our understandings to explore how these icons have been made.” Text from website.



Artist in Residence at the M.A. – My first visit

Artist in Residence at the M.A. – My first visit, June 2014

Today was my first visit to the M.A. headquarters in Wakefield as their Artist in Residence.

I felt instantly at home in the offices at 17 Wentworth Terrace, partly as they are a converted house, but mostly due to the incredibly warm welcome from Ruth, Lisa and Ann and because of the significant role the M.A. has played in my own life.

During my journey to start a family, I had five miscarriages and was eventually diagnosed with a condition called Antiphospholipid Syndrome. Throughout this time the M.A. provided both support and valuable information.

Stepping into the M.A. felt so comfortable and familiar. There are cabinets and noticeboards, shelves laden with books and leaflets bursting with information. This is the world of miscarriage, one many of us enter unexpectedly as strangers but grow to know intimately.

It was a Monday and the office was very busy, so I could see first hand how the staff answered calls, offered support and dealt with challenging situations. The M.A. headquarters are modest and it has the feel of a family unit, but the work they do and the impact they are having is wide, arms reaching out in a myriad of directions.

Today was about getting a feel for this special place and I started taking a few pictures: details of things; filing cabinets carefully labeled, piles of books, posters and maps on the walls. Ruth and I also talked at length about some of the challenges inherent in representing pregnancy loss. I’m keen to explore different approaches to this both in my research blog and my own photography, but I am also aware of the sensitive nature of this subject.

I hope my work will take a metaphorical and poetic path aiming to explore feelings and emotions through still-life images and creative writing. I will also be undertaking interviews including visiting my Grandmother in Belgium who suffered recurrent miscarriage and who has been quite an inspiration for me.

I was slightly surprised to find myself taking a few self-portraits today and asking myself (as all artists do in moments of doubt!) “What if I can’t do this?” but as I focused on my reflection in the mirror, camera covering my face, I noticed my Celtic silver ring with the red glass heart, glinting on my finger. I had bought this from a local artist during a holiday in Scotland to commemorate my five miscarriages, a symbol of each pregnancy and what it meant to me. This moment reminded me that however challenging, this subject is really important and worth pursuing.

Thanks to Ruth, Ann and Lisa for today and see you all again soon!


JoyandSorrow          meandmirror

Work in progress – a few pictures

These photographs are an edit from one of my first attempts at creating imagery that responds to some of my own personal experiences of recurrent miscarriage. They are test shots and will probably be re-shot with more space around the objects!



‘Again and Again’ Marjolaine Ryley, 2014

This image is about trying over and over again, failing, and already having a child. The confusion and mixed emotions I experienced during this time when even some formula milk left over from my daughter’s last box caused me so much pain. 



‘Mourning Orchid’, 2013, Marjolaine Ryley

This orchid was given to me by a neighbour who had lost her baby at 20 weeks.  She knew my history of having had five miscarriages and came to see me after my son was (finally) born. I watched her hold the baby and wished I had the power to take away her pain and bring back her baby. I thought she was brave beyond belief. 


The Foundling Museum – threads of feeling

I am thinking about the significance of objects as ‘tokens’ and the potential for their use in still-life images for the project. The emotional power of objects is bought home in this collection of textiles shown as ‘Threads of Feeling’.

“The Foundling Museum undertook a remarkable collaboration with John Styles, Research Professor in History at the University of Hertfordshire  to curate the exhibition ‘Threads of Feeling’. John comments, “The process of giving over a baby to the hospital was anonymous. It was a form of adoption, whereby the hospital became the infant’s parent and its previous identity was effaced. The mother’s name was not recorded, but many left personal notes or letters exhorting the hospital to care for their child. Occasionally children were reclaimed. The pieces of fabric in the ledgers were kept, with the expectation that they could be used to identify the child if it was returned to its mother”. In the cases of more than 4,000 babies left at the Foundling Hospital between 1741 and 1760, a small object or token, usually a piece of fabric, was kept as an identifying record. The fabric was either provided by the mother or cut from the child’s clothing by the hospital’s nurses.  Attached to registration forms and bound up into ledgers, these pieces of fabric form the largest collection of everyday textiles surviving in Britain from the eighteenth century.” (text from website)

Image          Image


The above images show examples of textile tokens, either left with babies or cut from their clothes, from the extraordinary on-line exhibition ‘Threads of Feeling’


The Foundling Museum – exploring loss

My research is taking a winding and slightly meandering path as I get further into this project. I have started to look at different forms of loss and was extremely moved  to learn more about  the Foundling Museum. There were very resonant approaches taken by artists Tracey Emin, Paula Rego and Matt Collishaw in the exhibition: ‘Mat Collishaw, Tracey Emin & Paula Rego: At the Foundling’, 27 January 2010 – 09 May 2010

“Throughout the Foundling Museum, inside and outside, Mat Collishaw, Tracey Emin and Paula Rego installed works of art that resonated with the extraordinary story of the Foundling Hospital. Each of these distinguished artists has made remarkable works over the years with subject matter that lies at the heart of the Foundling story; pain and anguish associated with aspects of childhood, motherhood, abortion and loss. The exhibition included paintings, works on paper, bronzes and installations.”


This small bronze ‘baby mitten’ by Tracey Emin is part of the permanent collection at the museum and greets visitors as they arrive at the gates.


Extract from ‘Mourning My Miscarriage’ By Peggy Orenstein

The following is an extract from a piece entitled ‘Mourning My Miscarriage’ By Peggy Orenstein and tells the story of her experience of miscarriage while in Japan. She reflects upon her opportunity to say goodbye in the context of Japanese mourning rituals

Published: April 21, 2002 (New York Times Archive)

“EI heard the bells before I saw them, following the sound across the courtyard of Zozo-ji, a Buddhist temple in Tokyo. There they were, lining a shady path: dozens of small statues of infants, each wearing a red crocheted cap and a red cloth bib, each with a bright-colored pinwheel spinning merrily in the breeze. Some had stone vases beside them filled with flowers or smoking sticks of incense. A few were surrounded by juice boxes or sweets. A cap had slipped off one tiny head. Before replacing it, I stroked the bald stone skull, which felt surprisingly like a newborn’s.

The statues were offerings to Jizo, a bodhisattva, or enlightened being, who (among other tasks) watches over miscarried and aborted fetuses. With their hands clasped in prayer, their closed eyes and serene faces, they are both child and monk, both human and deity. I had seen Jizo shrines many times before. They’re all over Japan, festive and not a little creepy. But this was different. I hadn’t come as a tourist. I was here as a supplicant, my purse filled with toys, ready to make an offering on behalf of my own lost dream.”

Full essay link:

Jizo is the patron saint of travellers and the souls of deceased children. Many dolls commemorate babies lost through miscarriage or abortion. They believe the souls will not feel cold if they are dressed.

Jizo is the patron saint of travellers and the souls of deceased children. Many dolls commemorate babies lost through miscarriage or abortion. They believe the souls will not feel cold if they are dressed.

Jizo Sculptures at Zojo-ji temple

Jizo Sculptures at Zojo-ji temple