Kettle, Alice

Posted in: Artists




United Kingdom



These works portray Alice Kyteler, or indeed Alice Kettle (an intriguing coincidence of name) – ‘the Kilkenny sorceress’ and the first recorded witch in Ireland. I first came across her on one of my visits to Kilkenny and indeed when I ‘googled’ my name (as you do) into the computer it was Alice the witch who appeared first, so I felt I knew her already. I know I have Irish blood, my grandmother was allegedly from Ireland, a tiny dark lady who was a tailor’s daughter, but a name gives you that spark of connection however shocking. I have discovered more about the wealthy Dame Alice Kettle; she was married 4 times and then accused by her children of poisoning and sorcery. In 1324 a case was brought of blasphemy, of heresy and of the sacrifice of cockerels and peacocks. She escaped on the eve before she was to be burnt at the stake, and Petronilla, her maid was burnt in her place. It is a powerful and rich story and within it the first recorded accusation to a witch lying with an incubus, a demon like figure.

I have portrayed the medieval Alice in a stitched portrait, reminiscent of Elizabeth I, the English Tudor queen of 2 centuries later, whose singularity, by contrast, defined her strength and power. “I will have here but one mistress and no master.” In doing so, I reflect on my own circumstance and marriage. The key work echoes the paintings of the Tudor Queen by Nicholas Hilliard and Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder which are iconic in their genre and decoration. The mask like face of the queen is dominated by her dress which is laden with symbols of power and majesty. In the background are backdrops of no man lands, but places which position the queen as a puppet. She is barely real or human and defined by others perceptions of her, much like Alice and myself. Both Elizabeth and Alice have intense vulnerability allied with power. In my portrayal of Alice Kyteler, I have hidden in her skirts the talismanic emblems of decoration and the celebrations of womanhood, made of fabrics from the dresses my mother made for my sisters and I, and pieces of wood and objects which concern my life of making and craft which have served to mend my own broken relationships. In the background are the husbands, again acutely vulnerable and swept up in the force of the accusations.

I keep a respectful distance from Alice Kyteler, since it is with a sense of unease that I connect with a witch. I know that in thread there is the magic to conjure up and lead to another universe with its power to transform. One work shows this alchemy of thread with test tubes filled with whispering threads and beginnings of the magic of making. The husbands are portrayed as broken men, yet reconstructed, and like me they are built through stitch. They are like assemblages of parts which represent our broken parts with beauty, longing and desire to be resurrected. They are hopeful and positive. All these references are my opportunity to be strong in what I do, who I am and to reveal the possibilities and alchemy of thread.

So to finish with a story called the golden thread.

An East European traditional tale tells of an old woman who lived in a cave, seeing the world through a small hole. She sends out white doves to collect good deeds in the form of golden threads, which the doves bring back and pass through the hole to the old woman. She embroiders the threads into a cloth which one day will cover the world with universal joy.


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