Penny Burnfield – Costume for the Alchemist

2 minute read
Penny Burnfield - Costume for the Alchemist
Penny Burnfield – Costume for the Alchemist

Back in the ‘90s I studied for a City-and-Guilds qualification in Advanced Embroidery. I did this because I needed some kind of practical and mind-stretching challenge whilst bringing up our children. I found it an interesting hobby, and I had always enjoyed making things, especially out of textiles.

For the course I had to present a variety of items – 2D and 3D, and to include metal-thread work and references to the history of textiles. I was looking for a theme that would tie all of it together.

I decided on Alchemy: as a qualified doctor, I was interested in the role Alchemy had played in the development of science and medicine. (Isaac Newton was an alchemist as well as a great scientist.)

And in the mid-90s the manufacturers of embroidery threads had just brought out some beautiful and innovative yarns which I wanted to use. But all were ‘false gold’.
The theme allowed me to research the arts of the many times and places where Alchemy had been practiced, including ancient Egypt, China, the Arab world, and Mediaeval and Renaissance Europe. I focussed on Alchemists’ Books and Vessels, both of great significance in the practice, and I made a costume for Ben Johnson’s Elizabethan farce, ‘The Alchemist’ (1610). I also explored the ‘Alchemical’ effect that age and weathering has on surfaces, transforming them into things of beauty.

At the same time these investigations had a transformative effect on myself. In order to extend my studies I enrolled in various art classes – printmaking, painting and drawing – and I discovered modern art. It was a revelation to me. I had been to a highly academic school where we were taught much about English Literature and Higher Mathematics, but very little about Art.

Following this I was offered a place as a mature student at Art School, and I took a degree in Textile Art (textiles as fine art). Since then I have exhibited my work widely, both nationally and internationally and have been selected as a member of two prestigious Textile Art exhibiting/teaching groups.

My work has evolved: I now employ mixed media, and I use many materials and processes. My work often takes the form of installations, both large and small, these are often based around historical themes and the use of writing and texts. Each work is a kind of alchemical process – finding out how to transform ‘stuff’ into an art-work which expresses an idea.

The ancient Alchemists often believed that the transformation that they were seeking in their experiments would bring about a deep and magical change not only in their crucibles and retorts, but in themselves.

This has certainly been true for me. I left school thinking I was useless at art: I now call myself an Artist.

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