‘Althea was a design icon – but there wasn’t a single book about her work’

Angela Cobbinah visits an exhibition that belatedly celebrates the work of designer Althea McNish

Thursday, 28th April — By Angela Cobbinah

Althea McNish 95 wearing one of her silk scarves AKC

Althea McNish, aged 95, wearing one of her silk scarves. Photo: Angela Cobbinah

BOLD, mischievous and dreamy, Althea’s McNish’s personality was imprinted on her work, which trailblazed its way through the world of furnishings and couture during an extraordinary 60-year career.

Despite being acknowledged within the industry as one of the UK’s most innovative designers whose work collapsed the boundaries between fine art and manufactured textiles, McNish somehow escaped wider recognition, with not a single book about her and the subject of only a handful of solo shows.

Now, two years after her death at the age of 96, she has been honoured with a long-overdue retrospective, appropriately enough at the former home turned museum of the father of modern design, William Morris.

What a delight it is as a dazzling array of colours, textures and patterns bounce out at you. Amid the screenprinted cottons bearing repeated motifs of assorted fruits and flowers is McNish’s most famous piece, Golden Harvest, a tropically re-imagined Essex wheat field that became a best seller for industrial printmakers Hull Traders in the 50s and 60s as both a wallpaper and cloth. In sharp contrast the cascading stripes of Bezique, one of her first fabrics for Liberty, command your attention.

It was McNish’s kaleidescope eye for colour that prompted the department store to commission her as a designer in 1957 on the strength of her graduation show, generously sharing their big find with fashion entrepreneur Zika Ascher by despatching her to his offices in a taxi that very same day.

Golden Harvest, (detail) screen printed cotton, designed byAlthea McNish for Hull Traders, circa 1960s/ Private Collection

She became an overnight sensation, bringing sunshine to London’s smog with gorgeously hued prints inspired by her childhood in tropical Trinidad, something that she waxed lyrical about until the end of her days.

Her long list of clients would range from Dior, Cardin and Givenchy to P&O Ferries, for whom she first designed murals for passenger cruise liners, British Rail and Buckingham Palace – for the Queen’s official wardrobe during a visit to Trinidad in 1966.

Whether it was cotton, silk or laminate, McNish approached them all with an inventive eye, even experimenting with cellulose fibre for the “Dipso” paper dress. The sheer range of her work displayed in three small rooms is astonishing and it is easy to see how it would go on to inspire the likes of fellow RCA alumnus Zandra Rhodes, who attended the show’s private view earlier this month.

McNish had come to London aged 27 in the early 1950s having already made her mark as an artist, presenting her first solo show in Trinidad as a teenager. After studying both commercial graphics and textile design she specialised in textiles for her post graduate degree at the Royal College of Art. Her talent as a painter and designer were plain to see but what set her apart from her contemporaries was her ability to screen print and technical understanding of materials and dyes.

Bezique, Liberty fabric, 1958, originally printed on Sirocco cotton poplin. Photo: Angela Cobbinah

“This enabled me to preserve the integrity of my chosen colours so whenever printers told me it couldn’t be done, I would show them how to do it,” she once told me with one of her easy smiles.

I first met her in 2008 at an exhibition in Finsbury Park showcasing the work of the influential but shortlived Caribbean Artists Movement, which she was an active member of in the early 70s.

Introduced as the first internationally acclaimed black designer, I wondered why I had never heard of her, especially when she told me the V&A was planning a retrospective of her work. Clearly, nothing ever came of that.

“When I began studying textiles in the 1980s, I had never heard of her either,” Rose Sinclair, co-curator of Colour is Mine and a lecturer in textiles at Goldsmith’s university, told Review.

“Althea was a design icon but there wasn’t a single book about her work, just the odd chapter or footnote. There still isn’t any that I can refer my students to. She only ever had small exhibitions. Althea was always seen as a contributing factor to other people’s success.”

Part of the exhibition at the William Morris Gallery. Photo: Nicola Tree

She added: “This exhibition should have happened 40 years ago when she already had a body of work that was above and beyond.

“Golden Harvest alone was a seminal piece of work that had been decorating people’s homes for 20 years. But she did so much more than that. It is all about who writes the design stories.”

The sad irony of McNish’s presence but absence in the design canon is illustrated by the fact that when she died no formal arrangements had been made for her archive. Many of the items in the show were secured after a house clearance team cleared out her Tottenham home and studios.

Among the treasure trove are charming photos of McNish as a child and young woman, as well as those of her wedding to fellow designer John Weiss, who died in 2020.

“People have concentrated on her textiles not on her life,” said Ms Sinclair, who got to know McNish in her final years. “I wanted to concentrate on her as a person and what she did as an artist before she started her textile work and how she became an all round designer.

“Above all, I really wanted Althea’s voice to sing in the exhibition, I wanted to do her proud.

“She presents something rare, a black female face in the professional arena of national and international textile history. Her work is contemporary, as if it came out yesterday. It is timeless and that is the test of great design.”

Althea McNish: Colour is Mine is at the William Morris Gallery, Lloyd Park, Forest Road, E17 4PP, Tue-Sun, until September 11. Free entry

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