A Spotlight On... Althea McNish
Paying tribute to iconic textile designer Althea McNish, whose painterly botanical prints continue to inspire.
Althea McNish revolutionised the world of postwar British design with her bold and beautiful prints – starting with her very first collection, created as a freelance commission for Liberty Fabrics in 1958. After moving to England from Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago in the early ‘50s, McNish studied printmaking at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts and the Central School of Art and Design, before completing postgraduate studies in Textiles at the Royal College of Art. The day after her graduation, McNish headed to Liberty to show chairman Arthur Stewart-Liberty her portfolio. He commissioned her on the spot, and a ground-breaking Liberty range soon followed – showcasing the designer’s unique eye for graphic, multi-layered prints in vividly tropical-infused shades.
McNish retained a lifelong creative connection to the West Indies – “everything I did, I saw it through a tropical eye,” she once explained. She was a key member of the Caribbean Artists Movement, which championed and defined the work of Caribbean writers, intellectuals and artists within the UK and beyond. From the start, McNish’s printed artworks sparked a powerful aesthetic change, appealing to young British consumers who were eager to escape the greyness and gloom of the postwar era. In the next decades her joyful, impasto-like designs appeared not only on dress fabrics for French fashion houses such as Dior and in publications like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, but also on the murals of ocean-liners and the wall hangings of railway offices – her fabrics were even used to dress the Queen during a Royal Tour of the Caribbean in 1966. Remaining a powerful creative force throughout her life, Althea McNish passed away in 2020 at the age of 95, having altered the design landscape with a powerful parade of prints that continue to inspire.
Created in 1959 and originally printed on cotton poplin, Cascade is an abstract geometric design featuring loosely painted trails of spots. These appear like neon pops of colour over a highly textured background.
Originally printed as a furnishing fabric on cotton satin, Akarana is a very large-scale pattern featuring impressionistic anemones and thistles. Three different colourways of the design appear in an archival Liberty furnishing book dating from 1960-1.
Hula Hula is an almost optical print, painted with energetic movement and colourful dashes creating a whirlwind of dense, spiral shapes. First created in 1963, it is printed on Nimbus cotton.
Chelsea is an abstract representation of flower bouquets created with an almost sponged effect, presented in an array of contrasting colour combinations. Created in 1958, it was printed on cotton satin as a furnishing fabric – appearing here in three different colourways, as found in an archival ‘60s Liberty furnishing book.