Image: Detail of exhibition poster, Althea McNish: Colour is Mine.
The much-fêted, landmark retrospective of the work of Althea McNish (1924-2020) arrives at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, UK, this week. Colour is Mine is part of a three-year research, exhibition, and archiving project generously supported by the Janet Arnold Award through the Society of Antiquaries.
Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, McNish moved to the UK in 1950, completing a postgraduate textiles degree at the Royal College of Art before rising to prominence as a pioneering Black female designer. On graduating, McNish began designing bestselling furnishing and fashion fabrics for iconic firms including Liberty, Dior, Heal’s and Hull Traders, for whom she created one of her most famous patterns, Golden Harvest, in 1959. As her extraordinary career progressed, McNish took on major interior design projects and mural commissions around the world, as well as creating wallpapers for leading companies.
Image: Althea McNish. Golden Harvest. 1959. Screen-printed cotton satin. Courtesy of The Whitworth, The University of Manchester.
McNish’s painterly designs incorporate natural botanical forms from Britain and the Caribbean, using a riotous and transformative colour palette that overturned the staid rules of mid-century British textile design. Her technical mastery gave her the freedom to create ever more complex prints. “Whenever printers told me it couldn’t be done, I would show them how to do it,” she said. “Before long, the impossible became possible.” McNish was the first Caribbean designer to achieve international recognition and remains one of the most influential and innovative textile designers in the UK.
Image: Althea McNish in the 1970s, photographed by Bill Patterson.
Highlights of this unmissable exhibition include previously unseen items from McNish’s recently uncovered personal archive, examples of McNish’s original designs and, of course, her most celebrated textiles and wallpapers.
Image: Althea McNish, Van Gogh textile for Hull Traders. Courtesy of MoMA, New York.
Althea McNish: Colour is Mine is curated by Rowan Bain, Principal Curator at the William Morris Gallery, and Rose Sinclair, Lecturer in Design Education at Goldsmiths, University of London.
The exhibition will close at the Whitworth on 23 April 2023, but for those unable to attend in person, Liberty Fabrics, one of the exhibition’s sponsors, have reissued a capsule collection of her original fabric designs. Although the only book you’ll currently find is a volume to which McNish contributed her experiences of living as a successful Black woman in post-war Britain.
Image: Althea McNish. Blue. Liberty of London. 2022.
You can read three articles on McNish previously published by SELVEDGE: From the Windrush (2019); Althea McNish Remembered (2021); and our review of this exhibition’s first instantiation at London’s William Morris Gallery (2022).
Whether you visit, purchase, or read, Althea McNish deserves your recognition, and to be celebrated as the outstanding artist she was.