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Textiles designer Althea McNish fought to create her own vibrant career in 20 th-century London. Libby Sellers tells usher story.
Althea Mcnish was part of a wave of colonial artists drawn to the ‘mother country’ in the mid-20th century. Born in Trinidad’s capital Port of Spain, and living in London since 1951, Mcnish’s textiles ‘tropicalised’ the grey British landscape.
Yet, in comparison with her textile contemporaries, Mcnish’s contributions to the transformation of post-war Britain have only recently begun to be acknowledged. Descended from the Meriken settlers (former African American slaves who had fought for the British during the War of 1812), her father was the writer and publisher Joseph Claude Mcnish and her mother, a well-regarded dressmaker. She grew up in a world of words, ideas and fabrics which, she rendered through her passion for painting and drawing. Despite her prodigious fine art talent, she dreamed of construction and engineering, studying architecture with a local town planner. She applied for a scholarship, earning a place at the Architectural Association School in London’s Bedford Square. She had a seven-year course and a grant to last the duration, though dreading the cold, grey British winters Mcnish transferred to the (shorter) undergraduate courses at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts. Her interest in textiles was awakened. Determined to learn more, through her print studies at the London School of Printing, evening classes and a postgraduate degree, she mastered the medium, learning how to develop colourways, create repeats, prepare her artwork for production as well as learning the production process itself. This rare understanding of both the design and production sides offered Mcnish creative freedom, preserving “the integrity of her chosen colours”. Mcnish explains: “Whenever printers told me it couldn’t be done, I would show them how to do it. Before long, the impossible became possible.”
Mcnish is not easily discouraged; her forceful colours demonstrative of an equally forceful will. Her most celebrated design was inspired by the sight of the sun glistening over Essex fields: “In Trinidad, I used to walk through sugar plantations and rice fields and now I was walking through a wheat field. It was a glorious experience.” Through her colourful lens, this bucolic English idyll was transposed, resulting in the design for Golden Harvest (1959), see page 67. Soon, Mcnish prints were gracing European fashion magazines. In 1966, when Queen Elizabeth II visited Trinidad, Mcnish designed fabrics for her official wardrobe.
Taken from Women Design by Libby Sellers. You can order a copy at the special price of £15 (rrp.£20) with free UK p& p by calling 01903 828503 quoting ref QPG 501.