William Morris Gallery’s principal curator Rowan Bain on Althea McNish: Colour is Mine By Waltham Forest Echo
“Everything I did, I tropicalised.”
So said Althea McNish, the subject of a free exhibition at Walthamstow’s William Morris Gallery. Colour is Mine, which closes on 11th September, is a landmark retrospective of the first textile designer of Caribbean heritage to gain international recognition and one of Britain’s most influential and innovative designers. Her painterly designs took natural botanical forms to the edge of abstraction, using a riotous colour palette that overturned the staid rules of British post-war interior design.
Born in Port of Spain in Trinidad, McNish showed artistic promise from a young age and was active in the local art scene. In 1950, at the age of 26, she emigrated with her parents to the UK, settling first in Stoke Newington and later in Tottenham. She studied commercial graphics at The London School of Printing and Graphic Arts and, in 1954, won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, where she studied textile design.
McNish’s big break came just two days after graduating, when she attended a meeting with Arthur Stewart Liberty, chairman of the Liberty department store in Regent Street. Liberty recognised post-war Britain’s readiness for more vibrant, colourful fabrics and McNish proved the perfect person to deliver, creating more than 40 patterns for the store. In celebration of this achievement, Liberty Fabrics have collaborated with the William Morris Gallery and this spring relaunched a capsule collection of McNish’s original fabrics.
McNish’s hugely successful career spanned more than forty years and saw her work for Dior and Balenciaga, as well as Heals, John Lewis and Hull Traders. Her technical mastery of the production process gave her the freedom to create ever more technically complex prints. “Whenever printers told me it couldn’t be done, I would show them how to do it,” she said, “Before long, the impossible became possible.” A period teaching in higher education followed, including at Walthamstow School of Art (now part of Waltham Forest College).
In the late 1960s, McNish became a member of the Caribbean Arts Movement (CAM) in London, alongside other notable artists like the writer John La Rose, sculptor Ronald Moody and painter Aubrey Williams. CAM members forged what they considered a new and unprecedented Caribbean aesthetic across the arts. They wanted members to become acquainted with each other’s work and promote Caribbean art to a wider audience through literature, a journal and exhibitions.
Given McNish’s significance in the history of British design, it is perhaps surprising that this exhibition is the first ever retrospective of her career. Highlights include items from McNish’s recently uncovered personal archive – much of which has never been seen before – alongside her most celebrated textiles and wallpapers.
Visit Althea McNish: Colour is Mine at William Morris Gallery from 10am-5pm, Tuesday to Sunday