The Importance of Althea McNish
As the William Morris Gallery opens its doors to Althea McNish: Colour Is Mine, we explore the print designer’s lasting legacy on the past, present and future of British textile design.
Althea McNish is one of the most important names in British textile design history. With a career that began designing for Liberty Fabrics back in the 1950s, she was known for what she referred to as a ‘tropical eye’: a lively, riotous approach to pattern and colour that presented a more positive vision to the sombre post-war atmosphere of the time. Now, in the artist’s first major retrospective, the William Morris Gallery pays tribute to her transformative impact on design. Sponsored by Liberty Fabrics, Althea McNish: Colour Is Mine (open 2 April until 11 September 2022; wmgallery.org) showcases some of her greatest work, taking visitors on a journey through her uniquely creative mind.
Who was Althea McNish?
Althea McNish was born in 1924 in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago; her mother was a dressmaker and fashion designer and her father a writer and publisher. During her teenage years, McNish worked as an entomological illustrator, before she and her mother joined her father in London in 1951, where she went on to study printmaking at both the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts, and the Central School of Art and Design.
"On the day I saw Liberty, my professional life started"
Once Arthur Stewart-Liberty introduced her to fabric maker Zika Ascher, McNish’s client list rapidly expanded into the world of haute couture and she began designing dress fabrics for Dior, Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, Givenchy and Lanvin. She described herself as an artist, viewing her print designs as simply repeated paintings and ignoring the perceived boundaries between fine art and manufactured textiles. Her bold colourways, thick impasto brushstrokes and hand-drawn lines exemplified her sense of proportion and rhythm, her use of repeated patterns merged abstract shapes with natural, often botanical forms. Despite her death in 2020 at the age of 95, McNish remains an influential creative force to this day.
After visiting a student textile exhibition, she was advised by her tutor, artist Eduardo Paolozzi, to pursue a postgraduate degree in textile design. A wise career choice, indeed, as after her Royal College of Art graduation show, McNish’s audacious use of colour and refined technical skills were spotted by Liberty chairman Arthur Stewart-Liberty who proceeded to buy her entire graduate collection. Soon after, she was commissioned by Liberty Fabrics to design for the 1958 furnishing and fashion fabric collections, effectively setting the stage for the historic career in British textile design that followed. “On the day I saw Liberty, my professional life started,” she famously once said.
A legacy, remembered
Althea McNish: Colour is Mine presents a unique opportunity to celebrate McNish’s work in all its warm, joyous and vibrant glory, accentuating her role in British textile history.
“The true impact of Althea McNish’s influence has only just begun to become recognised,” says Rose Sinclair, the exhibition’s co-curator and lecturer in design education at Goldsmiths, University of London. “Althea presents a rare Black female face in the professional arena of national and international textile history.”
“The true impact of Althea McNish’s influence has only just begun to become recognised”
As well as iconic and popular works, the exhibition will display previously unseen items from McNish’s personal archive: photographs of her student years, early scrapbooks, and her postgraduate RCA dissertation. A major work and centrepiece of the exhibition is ‘Golden Harvest’ (1958), a print inspired by childhood walks through a former sugarcane plantation in Trinidad, rice fields and a visit to the Essex countryside.
Take a piece of McNish home
In honour of the exhibition, Liberty Fabrics has reissued a capsule collection of some of McNish’s most iconic designs, reinterpreted for the modern eye. From the intricate mark-making of Tepeaca Study to the kaleidoscopic patterns of Hula Hula via the whimsical onion motif of Cebollas Garden, her powerful prints (available soon) are bound to inspire interior and fashion projects of your own.
In a bid to continue the artist’s legacy, income generated from this capsule collection will enable the William Morris Gallery to not only support the exhibition, it will help fund educational projects for young people, encouraging a new generation of young artists and designers to follow in McNish’s (rather vibrant) footsteps.
'Althea McNish: Colour Is Mine' is open from 2 April until 11 September 2022, Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm; free admission (suggested donation £5); William Morris Gallery, Lloyd Park, Forest Road, Walthamstow, London, E17 4PP; wmgallery.org.uk