Althea Marjorie McNish (1924-2020) was the first Afro Caribbean woman to gain international prominence in the British textile world, both for her furnishing and dress designs. Althea said she saw life "through a tropical eye" and most of her designs are based on nature though some use abstract and occasionally geometric themes.
Born in the Port of Spain, Trinidad and descended from the Merikin settlers (Afro American slaves) who had fought for the British in 1812*. Her father was writer, teacher and publisher, Joseph Claude McNish and her mother Margaret, a dressmaker. By the age of 16 Althea exhibited at the Trinidad Art Society and later worked as an entomological illustrator for the Briitsh colonial government. "I had to go into the field and do detailed drawings of insects to help in the sugar and cocoa pest control programme". When she was 18 her father had already moved to London, which probably prompted her to apply for, and win, a scholarship to study architecture at the Architectural Association. She moved with her mother to London, but had a change of heart and, instead of reading architecture chose to join a print studies course at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts (now London College of Communication). She moved to the Central School of Art and Design (now Central St Martin's) where her tutor was sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. He encouraged her to concentrate on designing and screen printing textiles. Postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Art and a career as a freelance designer followed.
The day after her graduation in 1958, McNish approached Liberty's with her portfolio, who immediately commisioned a range of furnishing fabrics, with a strong tropical feel. "As far as possible, the richness and the vibrancy of colour must remain" . She went on to supply Heals, eight designs for Hull Traders and in 1960 further designs for Cavendish Textiles. She produced dress fabrics for Zika Ascher, who supplied French fashion houses, and was regularly featured in glossy fashion magazines. Cardin, Dior, Schiaparelli, Givenchy and Lanvin became McNish’s clients. She designed laminate murals for the restaurants on ocean liner SS Oriana (1959), and a ‘Bachelor Girl’s Room’ for the Ideal Home exhibition in London (1966). She was also commissioned to produce velvet hangings for British Rail's London office at Euston station (1969) and a banner for London's Design Centre (1981)
McNish retained an artistic connection to the West Indies and was a founding member of the Caribbean Artists Movement (1966-72). She designed laminate murals for the interior of the Port of Spain General Hospital as well as fabrics for Queen Elizabeth's official wardrobe, during her 1966 visit to Trinidad and Tobago.
Her work was displayed in exhibitions at the Whitworth, Manchester, and in London at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Commonwealth Institute (1961), the Hockney Gallery (1997) and Somerset House (2019 )and MODA (the museum of Domestic Architecture). In America at the Cooper Hewitt and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Transforming the Crown: African, Asian & Caribbean Artists in Britain, 1966–1996 Caribbean Cultural Center. The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York. In 2003 she exhibited Althea McNish: My World of Colour: the international work and inspirations of a Black British Trinidadian textile designer. Ohio University, Athens, USA. There were also group exhibitions in Australia, France, USA and UK.
McNish was vice-president and fellow of the Chartered Society of Designers, and a trustee of the UK Design Council. She was awarded the Chaconia gold medal in Trinidad and an honorary doctorate in fine art in 2006 from the University of Trinidad and Tobago, whose students she mentored.
She was married to British jewellery designer and architect John Weiss.*
One can imagine the impact Althea's designs had on grey post war Britain. The sunflower design of this fabric pays homage to Van Gogh. "Van Gogh was one of my favourites – he was very tropical" commented Althea. This design was also printed in yellow and green.
The bands of bright green, blue green and white, hand screen printed cotton sateen with a design of stems of large black leaves sunflowers and feathery seed heads, pigment dyed on satinised cotton, the selvedges with Designed and hand printed by Hull Traders Ltd. A Time Present Fabric. Shrunk, Washable.
Two full repeats. Repeat 26 in; 66 cm.
5ft 4 in x 50 in; 1.62 x 1.25 m
Mint condition. Unused and straight off the roll.
One of the photos shows the white horizontal stripe as cream. It is not. Must have been the light when I took the photo.
McNish's fabrics can be seen at the Harris Museum, Preston, Lancashire; Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh; MODA, and V & A London.
Women Design by Libby Sellers
Revolutionary Fabrics and Furniture 1957-1980, Shirley Craven and Hull Traders, Lesley Jackson, Antique Collectors Club Ltd, 2009
All images and text © meg-andrews.com 2021