‘Whenever printers told me it couldn’t be done, I would show them how to do it,’ said Althea McNish. ‘Before long, the impossible became possible.’
It’s a telling statement that sums up the spirit of the trailblazing textile designer and active member of the Caribbean Artists Movement, who is the focus of a major exhibition at London’s William Morris Gallery. It will have a wealth of vibrant, radical work to draw on and some of McNish’s most famous works will be on display, including designs made for Liberty, Dior and Conran that demonstrate her astronomical success as a commercial designer. These will be accompanied by experimental fashion fabrics, lavish wallpapers, screen-print designs and a Trinidad carnival costume from 1969.
The exhibition will also include items from Althea’s personal archive, such as personal photographs of her student years in London, her university dissertation and early scrapbooks.
Image: Horace Tonge. N15 Archive. The Althea McNish Collection
Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, she arrived in England in 1951 with a scholarship to study architecture, but ended up at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts, where she was encouraged by Eduardo Paolozzi to focus her talent on textiles.
It seems fitting that Liberty should be the first to reissue her work: it was then-chairman Arthur Stewart-Liberty who gave McNish her earliest commission. He must have decided her portfolio was too good not to share, as he promptly put her in a taxi to see textile titan Zika Ascher, who asked her to create designs for Dior. Work followed for Heal’s and Conran; she even produced fabrics for the Queen’s wardrobe for her 1966 trip to Trinidad.
Image: ‘Painted Desert’ textile design for Hull Traders, 1959. Printed cotton. Althea McNish: Colour is Mine at William Morris Gallery 2 April – 26 June 2022, © the Whitworth, The University of Manchester.
McNish found much to be inspired by in Britain, but visions of her native island were hardly suppressed by five decades in Tottenham. Possibly her most famous pattern, Golden Harvest sits at the centre of the exhibition – taking inspiration from the sugarcane plantations of her childhood in Trinidad. The pattern recalls the graphic repeats of wheat fields in Essex, which had sparked memories of sugarcane plantations. ‘Everything I did, I saw it through a tropical eye,’ she said.
Image: Golden Harvest, furnishing fabric, designed by Althea McNish for Hull Traders Ltd., 1960s, UK. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Drawing on extensive new research and her personal archive, Colour is Mine explores McNish’s extraordinary career, her transformative impact on mid-century design and her enduring influence today.
Althea McNish: Colour is Mine is on display at the William Morris Gallery until 11 September 2022.
Find out more at: www.wmgallery.org.uk