Imagined Lives Poetry Challenge

Young Poets Network collaborates with the National Portrait Gallery for a challenge inviting you to write a history for one of the unknown faces in the Gallery’s Collection.

Write Your Poem

Write a poem filling in the history of the unknown portrait. You could write it from the point of view of the man in the portrait, or from the point of view of the artist, or from the point of view of the painting itself. Who was he? You might want to think about whether he had family? Did he have friends? Why was he painted? Where did he sit to be painted? Why is he smiling and what is he looking at?

Look at the portrait carefully; you can see it here. Or why not visit the National Portrait Gallery and have a look for other portraits of unknown sitters? You can apply Ross’s questions to other paintings too. Listen again to Ross’s video and think about how you might answer his questions. Your final poem doesn’t need to answer them, they are ideas to help you start writing and you may prefer leave them out of your final draft.

Why not submit your responses to one of the publications or competitions listed on our Poetry Opportunities Page?

When the challenge first opened it coincided with the exhibition Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People at the National Portrait Gallery. The challenge was to write a poem specifically on the painting in the video (and linked to above). Ross chose six winning poems by Upasna Saha, Helen Zhou Huiwen, Amy Carter, Rhiannon Shaw, David Carey and Juan David Romero, which you can read here:

‘Observations from my Brush Strokes’ by Upasna Saha

‘Portrait of an Unknown Man’ by Helen Zhou Huiwen

‘My Eyes Roamed My Face’ by Amy Carter

‘The keepsake was for her to hang’ by Rhiannon Shaw

‘Running Through Crowds’ by David Carey

‘Illumination’ by Juan David Romero

Imagined Lives Poetry Project at National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery worked with poet Ross Sutherland on a free project for young people aged 14-21 between 13-15 February.
Find out more about Young People’s Programmes at the National Portrait Gallery.


Ekphrasis is process of using one artwork as the inspiration for another. Traditionally ekphrasis meant giving a voice, either dramatic or poetic, to visual art. In fact the word comes from the Greek, “phrasis” meaning “speak” and “ek” meaning “out”. However the term is now used more widely to cover a range of art forms, from painting to computer games!

One of the most famous examples of ekphrasis is John Keats’s Ode to a Grecian Urn, in which Keats draws on the fixed beauty of an ancient urn to think about the constant change in life.

Today’s poets use the tradition of ekphrasis to write about a range of subjects, from Don Paterson’s ‘Rain’ which draws on films, through to Simon Barraclough’s ‘Tetris’!

Ross Sutherland, Poet  Ross Sutherland was born in Edinburgh in 1979. He was included in The Times’s list of Top Ten Literary Stars of 2008. He has published three collections of poetry: Things To Do Before You Leave Town (2009), Twelve Nudes (2010), and Hyakuretsu Kyaku (2011), all published by Penned In The Margins. Ross is also a member of the poetry collective Aisle16 with whom he runs Homework, an evening of literary miscellany in East London.

Published February, 2012

13 thoughts on “Imagined Lives Poetry Challenge

    1. Hi Josh, thanks for pointing out the error: a half-term / reading-week challenge that ends a month after half-term! :S
      It should have read CLOSES 20 FEBRUARY!

  1. Severely bemused. Are we to base the poem specifically on the image Ross Sutherland discussed in the link above? Or can it be on any portrait in the exhibition?

      1. Your submission geliuidnes say nothing about not accepting previously published work. Do you accept submissions that were previously published online only (not in print form)?

    1. Hi Jack, we turn round the challenges as quickly as possible and let the selected poets know as soon as we have results. These poets receive a confirmation email before their poems are added to the New Writing section of the site. We haven’t set announcement dates for selections because we don’t know how many poem’s we’ll receive in advance and this makes a huge difference to the judging times. The poems for this challenge are with the poet Ross and we’re looking forward to the results.

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