Southampton City Art Gallery/Alice Kettle (2019)

Odyssey, 2003 by Alice Kettle
Odyssey, 2003                                    © Alice Kettle

The above work measures 180cm by 395cm, and the media is a combination of stitching and embroidery, swathes of coloured fabric and painted background which incorporates rich hues and metallic sheen.

A grant of £3,500 was awarded to Southampton City Arts Gallery towards its purchase, with further contributions being made by Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Fund, the Art Fund; Contemporary Art Fund and the Local Authority.

The work takes Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, and provides a stitched response to it, depicting the story of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, and his ten year journey home after the Trojan War. What seems particularly relevant to this work is that the wife of Odysseus, Penelope, famously employed weaving as a means of protecting herself from re-marrying whilst her husband was away. The people of Ithaca urged her to re-marry and she promised to decide between suitors once she has finished weaving the burial shroud for Odysseus’s father. However, little did they know that she sat all day weaving the shroud, but at night she un-weaved it, so outwitting her suitors!

‘The Odyssey’ is considered one of Alice Kettle’s seminal works, with its delicate and intricate machine embroidery, and was the central piece in a touring exhibition, Mythscapes (2003-5), which brought together a body of her work in which the famous classic narrative was deployed to make connections with works on different scales and in two and three dimensional forms. With mythical events and storytelling as the starting point, the work reflects the human condition: struggle, triumph, loss, grief, and love.

In this and other works, Alice Kettle draws on references from the history of figurative textiles and narrative tapestry. She described her work as “carrying on the tradition of thread narrative in Britain, which began in the 11th century with the Bayeux tapestry, and with the histories of women who have long communicated their lives and experiences through textile art”.  She was trained as a painter and approaches the use of textiles, embroidery and stitching from that perspective, challenging the common perception of their use as a purely traditional medium. In her work she seeks to explore and extend the technical limits of stitching and embroidery, often doing so on a large scale. She has been described as UK’s most influential figurative embroiderer, and her work is regarded as boundary breaking with a unique place in this area of artistic endeavour.