The House

Althea McNish: artist and textile pioneer

- Baroness Young of Hornsey Crossbench peer

“Why weren’t there more people talking and writing about this woman?”

“Everything I did, I saw it through a tropical eye.” Althea McNish, 2015.

e way in which the past is wri en up, and who it is wri en by, means that we are o en not aware of historical­ly signi cant Black individual­s of national and internatio­nal importance. ey are not known beyond a small circle of inquisitiv­e experts.

As we mark another Black History Month (and how I wish we didn’t still need to do this but, given how much there is still to learn and reveal, I’m glad we do) I’m struck by the continued absence of a ention paid to pioneering Black women.

Bruce Castle Museum is a To enham gem. Si ing on the edge of a park, the museum demonstrat­es how to serve and engage with local communitie­s by ensuring the richness of the area’s historic diversity is preserved for everyone. For years, the artist and designer Althea McNish lived less than a mile from the museum. McNish came to Britain from Trinidad in 1951, studying at the Central School of Art and Design, then at the Royal College of Art.

In 2019, the museum paid tribute to her achievemen­ts. But why weren’t there more people talking and writing about this woman? It is only more recently that McNish has become be er known.

Since she died, there has been a major exhibition of her work at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamsto­w, as well as essays in Vogue magazine and in the department store Liberty’s magazine for their customers. e Cra s Council, Goldsmiths University and e Guardian have also carried essays and tributes.

Like all good artists, she deployed her creative imaginatio­n in a variety of ways, stretching and challengin­g preconceiv­ed ideas. She designed and created a “bachelor girl’s room”, using the limited space to show o her eye for colour, sensing that young people in particular were looking for an escape from the drabness and sombre grey tones of post-war British design.

She also explored the concept of the paper dress, something which the fashion industry, in its quest for sustainabl­e clothing, is still exploring today. Her fabric designs in particular projected the tropical heat and amboyant abundance of colour in the ora and fauna of the Caribbean.

at Liberty took up her work is testament to her creative authentici­ty and design integrity, especially as the store is o en characteri­sed as quintessen­tially English. It is no exaggerati­on to say that McNish’s work revolution­ised fabric and interior design: it continues to be in uential today.

Since McNish died in 2020, the artist Sonia Boyce RA has been working hard to ensure that the legacy of this extraordin­ary artist and designer is preserved. As a source of inspiratio­n, who be er to celebrate than someone who not only created beautiful, compelling, designs but also spoke eloquently about her experience­s as a Black woman in the United Kingdom?

 ?? ?? Textile artwork from Althea McNish’s Colour is Mine exhibition
Textile artwork from Althea McNish’s Colour is Mine exhibition
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