Earlier this year, on 16th April, another leading light in the world of art and design left us. Another trailblazer from an era that gave us a wealth of innovative design as vibrant today as it was over sixty years ago.
Born on 15th May 1924 in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, Althea McNish (or Dr. McNish as she would later be addressed) went on to have an internationally acclaimed career as an artist and textile designer that would span the course of those sixty years and leaves behind a lifelong legacy that will live for many generations to come.
Althea McNish's father was the writer and publisher Joseph Claude McNish and her mother Margaret was a dressmaker. From an early age, McNish helped with her mother’s dressmaking business by creating garment sketches. She was also a talented painter with a love for colour, becoming a member of the Trinidad and Tobago Art Society. Encouraged and inspired by artists Sibyl Atteck, M. P. Alladin and Boscoe Holder, by the age of 16 she was already showing her work in group and solo exhibitions. Her artistic talents would initially lead her to find work as an illustrator and cartographer for the British Government in Trinidad.
Her first solo exhibition in Britain seems to have been in 1958 at London’s Woodstock Gallery. She would continue to exhibit her work throughout her life, with group and solo shows across the UK, US, Caribbean, France, Netherlands, Italy and Australia.
McNish’s work is like a joint celebration of life in the Caribbean and Britain, with particular focus on their natural worlds. She brought Tropical colour to a post war Britain and combined it with traditional themes of the English countryside. She revisited Trinidad and Tobago often and her work exemplifies the inspiration it continued to offer her. In turn she became an inspiration for other women, particularly those of African Caribbean heritage for whom opportunities are still today scarcer than they should be. This was touched on in the oration given by Pat Bishop at the University of Trinidad and Tobago Graduation ceremony on 26th November 2006 when Althea McNish was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Fine Art.
In 1951 Althea and her mother went to live in London, joining her father who was already working there. Originally having achieved a place at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, there was a change of plan and McNish instead went to the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts. She then went on to study at the Central School of Arts and Crafts (Central St. Martins), whilst there she was encouraged by her tutor Eduardo Paolozzi to change course once again and would go on to specialise in printed textiles at the Royal College of Art.
As with Shirley Craven of Hull Traders’ fame, McNish studied under John Drummond at the RCA and similarly felt she was first and foremost a painter who was transferring her work via printing processes onto reams of textiles. As we touch on within our piece on Craven, the mid 20th Century gave rise to new printing technologies which gave painters like McNish a new way to express their work.
The RCA during the fifties must have been an incredibly exciting, albeit in many ways also intimidating, place to be. With places on the printed textiles courses being limited to only twelve a year it was bound to produce some of the best designers of a generation. Althea also studied under Sir Hugh Casson, Professor of Interior Design, who was the director of architecture at the Festival of Britain in 1951. If you take a look at the RCA website you will see alumni from this period include designers such as Barbara Brown, Roger Limbrick and Shirley Craven. McNish was part of a movement of young artists to emerge and change the landscape of industrial design in Britain into the 1960s and beyond.
Liberty and Dior
Graduating in 1957, Althea McNish attracted the attention of Arthur Stewart-Liberty who commissioned her work for Liberty, London. He would go on to commission many pieces for furnishing and dress fabrics, including Cebollas, Hibiscus and Chelsea in 1958, the latter of which was printed on cotton satin furnishing fabric and had large colourful abstract blooms. Cascade(1959) was a design of colourful dots on an abstract background printed on cotton poplin, Akarana(1960) cotton satin furnishing fabric featured anemones and thistles and Hula Hula (1963) featured swirling dashes on nimbus cotton.
Above 1958: Cebollas by McNish for Liberty
Above 1958: Hibiscus by McNish for Liberty
(Images: The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections)
Her work would appear in Vogue and Harpers Bizarre, not so surprising when one of her first commissions was for the esteemed Zika Ascher who commissioned her to create a collection for Dior. Work for Ascher included Tropic for Guy Laroche and prints for clients such as Cardin, Givenchy (see Audrey Hepburn’s costume in Funny Face) and Balenciaga.
Above 1959: Tropic by McNish, printed on silk dress fabric and manufactured by Zika Ascher
Although her life and work were always intertwined with Trinidad and Britain, Althea McNish thought of herself as a global citizen. In 1963, she undertook a European scholarship from the Cotton Board to look at the export potential for British cotton goods. She was noted as saying she left painting behind when she began working in industry, a business that saw her travelling internationally to meet with clients and manufacturers.
Above Design Journal ed. 234 June 1968 (The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections)
McNish designed for a range of firms including Cavendish Textiles and Heal’s, who produced Trinidad, furnishing fabric that featured a Tropical forest of palm trees. Tomée was designed for Danasco Fabrics in 1961 and Zircon in 1968 for Bridlington firm Sanderson-Rigg. This is just a small sample of her work.
Trinidad by McNish for Heal's
Tomée by McNish for Danasco fabrics
One of the first designs by Althea McNish to really attract attention was Golden Harvest, which she had designed in 1957. The warm colours and natural theme of the design combined imagery from the English countryside and the colours of the Caribbean. The design was inspired by an Essex wheat field near the home of her tutor Edward Bawden, which made her think of the sugar cane plantations she had grown up with.
Golden Harvest 1957
Althea McNish's first design to be produced by Hull Traders (1959) was screen printed on cotton satin. It continued to be manufactured into the 1970s.
McNish went on to create eight designs between 1959 and 1964 that were produced by the firm. These included Rubra, Oriana, Magi, Painted Desert and Gilia.
Painted Desert 1959
A glorious print of orange on shocking pink, Painted Desert is an abstract design depicting a cacti motif. This is one of our favourites of the McNish designs produced by Hull Traders.
In 1966, HM Queen Elizabeth II visited Trinidad and Tobago on an official visit. It would be Althea McNish that was commissioned to design the fabrics for her wardrobe, an important role that garnered international attention. You can see Pathé news coverage of the visit on YouTube.
McNish designed murals, Rayflower and Pineapples and Pomegranates, for restaurants on the last of the Orient Steam Navigation Company’s ocean liners SS Oriana, a new ship in 1959. Murals were also created for the Port of Spain General Hospital in Trinidad in 1960 as part of a refurbishment by architects Devereux and Davies. She would design further murals and wall hangings for commercial clients, which featured her experimental use of dyes on cotton velvet. In 1979 she produced wall hangings for the offices of the British Railways Board and for the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line ships Nordic Empress and Monarch of the Seas in the 1980s.
Caribbean Artists Movement 1966 - 1972
Althea McNish was a founding member of the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) and, in 1973, she brought together a collection of work for the BBC programme Full House, which shone a light on Caribbean arts in Britain.
In 2018, McNish was included in the BBC programme: Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain’s Hidden Art History. If you have access to BBC iPlayer, you can watch it on playback. The programme goes some way to explaining why time after time we read that Althea McNish was the first black artist to gain international recognition. Coming over to Britain in the early 1950s, the McNish family were one of hundreds being encouraged to migrate from the Commonwealth to help fill labour shortages and build a new Britain following the War. This was the Windrush generation we hear so much about today.
The Caribbean Artists Movement is said to have started in Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s basement in Bloomsbury, London. Brathwaite was an academic and poet who came over to Britain having won a scholarship in 1949 to study at Cambridge. Brathwaite said he was seeking ways to connect with other Caribbean artists. The movement became a place to meet writers, artists, musicians, film makers, poets and activists but was generally an inclusive space for anyone, Caribbean or not, who had interests in these areas. The other co-founders were John La Rose, who founded New Beacon Books in 1966 (the first specialist Caribbean publishing company in Britain) and the author Andrew Salkey.
CAM, and those involved, is well worth looking up. Described as a significant and influential cultural movement, it lasted only six years but was the first organised initiative to give a voice to Caribbean artists, raising awareness of their work within the wider British public. There’s a fascinating piece on CAM under the Windrush Stories section of the British Library website written by Errol Lloyd - you’ll also be able to spot McNish’s Trinidad print there too.
Above Design Journal ed. 233 May 1968 (The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections)
In 1969, Althea McNish married the jewellery designer John Weiss, whose death on 9th November 2018 preceded Althea’s by only a year and a half. They would go on to collaborate on many personal and commercial projects and were / are highly regarded and respected.
Weiss was also a historian and his book The Free Black American Settlers in Trinidad 1815-16 was published in 1995. Together they would speak at events about the Merikens, African American Marines who had fought in the 1812 War before taking their freedom and settling with their families in Trinidad. McNish herself was a member of the Meriken community, originating from the South Trinidadian villages, and they were both passionate about their work and personal relationships with other members.
In September 2011, McNish’s work featured in RCA Black,a collaborative exhibition between the Royal College of Art and the African and African Caribbean Design Diaspora (AACDD). The exhibition at the RCA celebrated sixty years of art and design by African and African Caribbean graduates and students. The show featured artists, designers and makers including the painter Frank Bowling RA, designer Simone Brewster, contemporary artist Faisal Abdu’Allah and silversmith Ndidi Ekubia, to name just a few.
More recently, in 2019, a body of work was exhibited at the Somerset House, London exhibition Get Up: Stand Up Now. The showcase featured approximately 100 artists from across art, film, photography, music, literature, design and fashion:
‘their work articulating and addressing the Black experience and sensibility, from post-war to the present day’… ‘The archives of Althea McNish, Britain’s first Black textile designer of international repute who brought tropical colour to British textiles and changed interior design trends, have been referenced for the exhibition.’
You can see more information and a full list of the artists included on the Somerset House, London website.
Althea was awarded many accolades over the years. From the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, she was presented a Chaconia Medal (Gold) in 1976 and Scarlet Ibis Award in 1993 for her long and meritorious service to art and design. As part of the 50th anniversary of Independence of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, she was presented with an award for Achievement in the Arts by H.E. Garvin Nicholas, High Commissioner for the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.
She was a respected member of industry, Designer of the Royal College of Art and a Fellow (and past Vice-President) of the Chartered Society of Designers. Her public work included being on the Board of the Design Council, and on the National Council and London Committee of the Design and Industries Association plus many more professional and educational bodies. She continued to work closely with the RCA and the University of Trinidad and Tobago throughout her life, both in a professional and personal capacity and mentored many. Often described as an ambassador for the UK’s fashion and design industries, she became an inspiration for young designers. What remains is a lasting legacy and body of unique work that seemed to seamlessly bridge Caribbean culture with life in Britain.
Image: Wikipedia, do contact us if you know the source
Althea’s life and work has featured across many publications. One of the first books to include her work was The Liberty Story by James Laver 1959. You can also buy Building Britannia: Life Experience with Britain in conversation with John La Rose 1999 from its original publisher, New Beacon Books. More recently, in 2018, Women Design by Libby Sellers also included a profile of Dr. McNish.
The website mcnishandweiss includes an extensive bibliography from 1956 to 2012.
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Described by the Irish Times as Ireland’s most famous furniture designer, Eileen Gray was born forty years before women in the UK gained the right to vote. She designed the world’s most expensive chair; shook up the Société des Artistes Français with her Avant Garde designs; mixed with Paris’ wealthy and intellectual set during Les Années Folles; flouted gender norms and was openly bi-sexual and became a successful designer, architect and business woman, despite having no formal training. Designer of the iconic E1027 side table and home and Transat chair, Eileen Gray forged a truly outstanding career from the elaborately ornate to pioneering modernist design.