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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.

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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.

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