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  • Articles by Sonali

    Althea McNish: Colour is Mine

    ‘Everything I did, I saw through a tropical eye:’ the words of fabric designer Althea McNish whose vibrant, botanical, printed fabrics echo the warm colours of her homeland Caribbean island of Trinidad, were a highlight at the recent Life between Islands display at Tate Britain.

    Now McNish has her own exhibition entitled Colour is Mine at the William Morris Gallery and this is the first major retrospective of her work. She passed away at the age of 95 in April 2020 having won acclaim throughout her career.

    This exhibition is arranged over two medium sized rooms on different floors of the gallery, beginning  on the ground floor. McNish was born in 1924 in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. There are photographs from her idyllic childhood where she was a youth member of the Trinidad Arts Society.

    McNish moved to London with her family on 9 November 1950 to continue her education, first at the London College of Printing where she did a degree in commercial graphics. She went on to do a post graduate degree in textile design at Royal College of Art as advised by Eduardo Paolozzi, her tutor at an evening course. She continued to paint while at college and, on display, are pictures of scenes of day to day life in Trinidad, examples of her print work and watercolours of tropical flowers.

    She graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1957 and her introduction letters, written to various fabric manufacturers including Arthur Stuart Liberty, Heals, Cavendish and Hull Traders, are displayed. There was a new demand for bold colourful designs due to the boom in post war construction and interior design.

    McNish’s timing was perfect; recognizing this demand, Liberty instantly commissioned her colourful designs including Marina from her graduate collection. Thereafter the firm commissioned 60 other fabrics used for scarves, dresses and furnishing fabric. She initially worked out of her studio in her parent’s house in Stoke Newington, but later moved to South Tottenham where she lived for the rest of her life.

    Liberty in turn introduced her to Zika Ascher who produced textiles for the fashion industry. Ascher also commissioned McNish’s designs, supplying her fabrics to Dior and Balenciaga. He encouraged McNish to keep the excitement in. And she does just that.

    What follows is an exuberant display of panels of various fabrics showcasing her original designs. There is also a selection of framed monoprints of the individual designs. The panels are arranged across the wall like paintings focusing on McNish’s painterly botanical prints bursting with colour and movement. The prints are free flowing reflecting McNish’s background in fine art.

    Golden Harvest (1959), one of her earliest and most famous designs, was inspired by wheat fields in Essex but tropicalised (they reminded McNish of the sugarcane fields of Trinidad), Trinidad depicts the palm trees of her homeland. Theodoric a dynamic, abstract design for John Lewis was one of McNish’s most popular designs. She said ‘I used to see it in caravans and all over the place.’

    The exhibition continues on the second floor focusing on McNish’s ability to innovate and diversify her approach to design. When ICI created a new polyester fibre Terylene Toile, the first synthetic fabric, to take strong colour they invited McNish to design a range to promote the new fabric.

    Her designs were used for wallpaper and architectural murals. Working for the Design Research Unit, her work was commissioned by British Rail and by the Orient Steam Navigation Company when she designed murals for the restaurant for their ship HMS Oriana.

    McNish continued to teach throughout her career at art schools in Ealing, Hornsey, and the Walthamstow School of Art. She won various accolades including, in 1976, the Chaconia Gold medal of Trinidad and Tobago for ‘meritorious service to art and design’. She was also a member of the Caribbean Arts Movement (CAM) which promoted the work of writers and artists from the West Indies. But despite her many achievements she made only a few television appearances.

    One of these rare TV interviews was for a programme called ‘Whoever heard of a Black British Artist’ when she was interviewed by Brenda Emmanus in 2018 about her fellow artist Sonia Boyce. The video is played on a loop in a separate room on level 1. Here McNish shares her first impressions of the UK and the cold, ‘nice weather for ducks’.

    Nonetheless she received a warm reception while many of her compatriots arriving in Britain from the Windrush generation were met with hostility. Everyone was won over by the quality and originality of her work. The interview also provides an insight into a personality brimming with self-confidence and for this she commends her parents who had nurtured her artistic talents. When asked what was the secret ingredient to her success she replied, ‘my charm’.

    She was one of the few if not the only female fabric designer of Caribbean descent. She said ,‘I opened the doors so others could follow’. McNish is credited with bringing Caribbean colours from the margins to the mainstream in fabric design: ‘bringing sunshine to London’s post war fog’. She would certainly have been an excellent role model to others if she was better known but perhaps she preferred to live away from the public eye. The Colour is Mine exhibition is a perfect fit for the William Morris Gallery; McNish’s fabric designs reflect a shift in perceptions and cultural trends as a result of immigration to twentieth century Britain.