Read, Ailsa (2020) The Re-envisaging Of The Pendle Witches. Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield.

This practice-based Ph.D. examines the historic and current images of the Pendle Witches and re-envisages the portrayal of them through art practice in the light of understanding the suffering they endured. It investigates the transformation they have undergone, from being considered as potential sources of danger in the seventeenth century to becoming caricatural figures of entertainment. The study recognises that the Pendle Witches are now in danger of being consigned to history as mythologised and stereotyped people, who are often portrayed through a misleading set of tropes. It also identifies the current lack of recognition and appreciation by the public regarding the suffering these witches endured. This research uses contemporary art practice to re-envisage them by focusing on their humanity and explores the potential realities of these witches, as opposed to the way in which they are now portrayed. This investigation has explored the historical and cultural development of the visual codes used as a means of representing witches, which was initiated from the fifteenth century onwards by European artists and printers. These enduring images still remain a strong influence in the representation of all witches, including the Pendle Witches.

As a way of forming a personal connection to these witches this research engaged in the experiential method of walking the 51- mile route they were enforced to take across the Lancashire landscape from the village of their interrogation to the place of their trials and executions. This walk was a stimulus in establishing a link with the witches, thereby creating empathy with the hardships they endured, both as a means of research to inform my art practice and also as a creative practice in itself. This was documented through photography and a visual diary to verify the journey and used in future exhibitions. A journal was employed as a complementary tool and a spontaneous way to reflect thought processes by documenting responses to the landscape and later allowing a personal evaluation of the journey. It was also useful to record and highlight the complexities of the walk, as a framework for the thesis and as an aide memoire by linking personal thoughts and inspirations to my artwork. The project also used interviews with contemporary witches and a local landowner as research tools for contextual information to broaden the focus of the research. These provided background knowledge to give an insight into local witchcraft practices, as well as investigating the myths which have been fabricated around the lives of local witches. The research methods have been explored to disrupt the now firmly entrenched images of the Pendle Witches and the artwork re-envisages them through the technology of laser cutting as a reference to their vulnerability.

This artwork gives a currency to their recognised persecution and moves away from the sensationalism and fantasy with which they are usually associated. A commemorative trail of ash was scattered along the path during the walk as a performative expression in reclaiming the witches as individuals rather than as a mythologised people.

The research contributes to knowledge by providing visual images which challenge the artistic invention and imagination of previous artists to forge a broader appreciation of the persecution of the Pendle Witches. It disrupts previous historic or contemporary portrayals and argues that re-envisaging the witches informs a better understanding in reclaiming their image for a more accurate depiction, which gives humanity to their lives. The resulting artwork has been exhibited in both solo and joint exhibitions nationally and internationally during the research, where data was collected from the public. These exhibitions have highlighted the significance of the study by demonstrating the lack of information the public have in recognising and identifying the way the Pendle Witches have been continually misrepresented.

FINAL THESIS - AILSA READ.pdf - Accepted Version
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