Althea McNish (1924 – 2020) was amongst the first, if not the first, designer of African-Caribbean descent to achieve international recognition. Her designs injected much-needed colour and life into the post-war fashion and textiles industry from the 1950s onwards.
Everything I did, I saw it through a tropical eye.
Dazzling contrasting colours, full of movement and expressive lines, Althea McNish's designs for furnishing and fashion fabrics captured attention from the moment she graduated. Her designs featured natural imagery drawn from the abundance of tropical flora and fauna from her native Trinidad, and a 'tropicalised' interpretation of the British landscape. Her designs also took the form of lively abstract patterns, bursting with energy and visual complexity.
In 1951, 27-year-old Althea McNish moved with her mother from Port of Spain in Trinidad to London, where her father was working. McNish's mother was a well-regarded dressmaker and dress designer and her father, a writer and publisher. From a young age they fostered their daughter's passion for drawing and painting. An aspiring artist, McNish was a junior member of the Trinidad Arts Society at a time when the country was a thriving cultural centre edging closer to independence, and she presented her first exhibition in Port of Spain in her teens.
McNish also developed a strong interest in construction and intended to study architecture on arrival in London, where she had secured a scholarship to the prestigious Architectural Association. But it was not to be. By her own admission, the thought of enduring harsh British winters throughout a seven-year degree led her to change direction and instead she enrolled on a print course at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts, now the London College of Communication.
Here McNish studied screen printing with many leading figures from industry and this important technical foundation gave the flourishing designer the distinct advantage to "talk to printers on their own terms". While exploring the London scene of the early 1950s, McNish discovered the textile work of students at the Central School of Art and Design, where renowned artist and Independent Group member Eduardo Paolozzi taught. After completing her undergraduate studies and taking night classes with Paolozzi at the Central School, McNish went on to complete a postgraduate degree at the Royal College of Art (RCA), then part of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Recognising her artistic talent and technical virtuosity, Paolozzi encouraged McNish to apply her skills to textiles rather than fine art. McNish was both an artist and designer, honing her aesthetic and talent for printing, textile repeats and colourways to a level that ensured her control over industrial production processes, and enabled her to achieve depth and form with distinct layers of colour.
Whenever printers told me it couldn't be done, I would show them how to do it. Before long the impossible became possible.
In 1957 during her final year at the RCA, McNish took a trip to the Essex home of her tutor, the painter and graphic artist Edward Bawden and his wife Charlotte, a potter. When walking in the countryside near the Bawdens' home, McNish encountered a wheat field for the first time, which for her recalled sugar cane plantations in Trinidad. This trip and the organic forms found in the English countryside made a significant impression on McNish, and in 1959 she used the wheat motif in Golden Harvest – her first design for commercial design company Hull Traders. Produced in four colours, the furnishing fabric of printed heavy cotton satin was Hull Traders' best-selling design when released the following year and stayed in production until the 1970s.
On seeing her graduation show at The Royal College of Art, Arthur Stewart-Liberty – chairman of London's Liberty department store – famously commissioned the young graduate to create new and exclusive designs for both fashion and furnishing fabrics. Consumers in Britain were ready for colour, and Stewart-Liberty recognised McNish's unique talent ahead of the rest. McNish's popular designs for Liberty included the abstract Cascade – a heavily textured cotton poplin fabric from 1959, featuring a black and blue background with small, overlaid circles repeated in bright reds, greens and blues. The pattern fizzes with energy and is reminiscent of observing a living organism under a microscopic eye.
Stewart-Liberty introduced McNish to Zika Ascher, a Czech émigré who, with his wife Lida, founded Ascher Ltd, a textile manufacturer known for its experimental and luxurious woven and printed fabrics. Ascher was also renowned for collaborations with artists, including the sculptor Henry Moore, who designed many printed fabrics for the company in the 1940s, and for connections to the world of Parisian haute couture. Zika Ascher admired the originality and exuberance of McNish's designs and immediately engaged her to work for the company. McNish's designs – typically produced in printed silk, such as Tropic – were chosen by many of Ascher's couture clients, notably Christian Dior. More contracts and commissions followed from the leading firms of the day – Heals, Danasco and Hull Traders, establishing Althea McNish as "Britain's first and most distinguished black textile designer" (Lesley Jackson, cited in Pop Art and Design, 2018). McNish's reputation was such that she designed fabrics for Queen Elizabeth II's wardrobe for the 1966 Royal Tour of Trinidad and the Caribbean.
McNish's versatile and striking designs were also sought for wallpapers and architectural murals. She received commissions from Wallpaper Manufacturers, Sanderson-Rigg and the modern, post-war design agency Design Research Unit, whose clients included British Rail and the Orient Steam Navigation Company. Their ship, the SS Oriana, launched from Cumbria in 1959 and carried restaurant murals by McNish including Rayflowers.
In 1966, McNish designed and dressed a 'Bachelor Girl's Room' for London's influential and popular Ideal Home Show. McNish's setting imagines a studio-like space for a creative woman much like herself. With its dense array of swatches, images and objects of fascination and inspiration, her room is for the independent woman of the sixties, pursuing her own interests and career, unshackled from the confines of traditional familial and social expectations.
She does not seem to have been interested in other people's perceptions of boundaries between fine art and manufactured textiles and simply continued working as a painter and textile designer side by side.
Althea McNish described herself as an artist. She continued to paint alongside her freelance work and never wavered from her commitment to freedom of creative and artistic expression for herself and others. She taught throughout her career and was an active member of the Caribbean Arts Movement (CAM), founded in London in 1966 with the aim of celebrating and promoting the work of artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians from across the Caribbean to the British public. In 1973 McNish featured in and designed the set for Full House, a BBC television programme on the Caribbean arts, which was produced by her friend, a writer and the founder of CAM, John La Rose. Her artwork featured in landmark exhibitions such as Paintings by Trinidad and Tobago Artists at the Commonwealth Institute in London in 1961; and in 1978 her paintings and drawings were shown here at the V&A.
McNish was also an important presence in the wider British design scene; she was a member of the board of the UK's Design Council, and a Vice-President and Fellow of the Chartered Society of Designers. Her contribution to post-war British design and pioneering creative vision changed the character of British Modernism. The inclusion of McNish's influential works in recent exhibitions such as Get Up Stand Up Now (2019) at Somerset House, has brought her practice to the attention of new audiences and attests to her enduring legacy.