“London, is the place for me,” extolled Lord Kitchener, one of Trinidad’s top calypsonians, as he disembarked the Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks in 1948. As part of a wave of colonial artists drawn to the “mother country” in search of London’s intellectual and creative center, Kitchener captured the optimism and joy the migrants brought with them. That this optimism infiltrated all corners of British life, and specifically the furnishing and fashion fabrics of homes from north to south, east, and west, owes much to Althea McNish. Born in Trinidad’s capital, Port of Spain, and living in London since 1951, within her textiles McNish “tropicalized” the gray British landscape with all the warmth, sunshine and vibrancy of fellow Trinidadian Lord Kitchener. Yet, in comparison with her textile contemporaries, McNish’s contributions to the transformation of postwar Britain have only recently begun to be acknowledged in her adopted country.
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 that, from as young as three, she rendered through her passion for painting and drawing. Trinidad at the time was undergoing a cultural renaissance, inspired by the growing demands for independence and the consequent need of its people to forge their own national and cultural identity. As a junior member of the Trinidad Arts Society, McNish was at the center of this thriving scene, staging her first exhibition in her teens and receiving encouragement from her elders including Sibyl Atteck, M. P. Alladin, and Boscoe Holder. Despite her prodigious fine-art talent (she later worked as a cartographer and entomological illustrator with the British government in Trinidad), she dreamed of construction and engineering, studying architecture with a local town planner and taking a particularly unusual interest in septic tanks (developing blueprints for a homemade tank in the family’s backyard).
It was on the back of this fascination that she applied for a scholarship, earning a place at the Architectural Association School in London’s Bedford Square in 1951. She had a seven-year course ahead of her and a grant to last the duration, though dreading the cold, gray British winters McNish transferred to the (shorter) undergraduate courses at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts. Her interest in textiles was awakened by a visit to an exhibition of student works at the Central School of Art, where British artist Eduardo Paolozzi taught textile design. Through her print studies at the London School of Printing, evening classes at Central, and then postgraduate degree at the Royal College of Art (RCA) she mastered the medium, learning how to develop colorways, create repeats, and prepare her artwork for production as well as learning the production process itself. This relatively rare understanding of both the design and production sides offered McNish inventive freedom, but it also safeguarded her inventiveness. Her ability to speak the printers’ language enabled her to “preserve the integrity of her chosen colors.” McNish added, “Whenever printers told me it couldn’t be done, I would show them how to do it. Before long, the impossible became possible.” At the time, the RCA’s studios were located within the Victoria and Albert Museum. That McNish had chosen to develop her artistic vocabulary surrounded by the museum’s collections, historically garnered from Britain’s Empire, was an awkward oxymoron she claims not to have noticed. Yet McNish is not easily discouraged; her forceful colors are demonstrative of an equally forceful will.
Her most celebrated design was inspired by a weekend visit to the home of her RCA tutors, Edward and Charlotte Bawden, in Great Bardfield, Essex. Sketchbook in hand, she was drawn to the sight of the sun glistening over the fields. As she said of the moment, “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 colorful lens, this bucolic English idyll was transposed, resulting in the design for Golden Harvest (1959). The design and its various colorways were later purchased by Hull Traders, who, through its continued patronage, were to become an important client for McNish, producing short runs of her avant-garde designs.
Her impressionistic lines and blaze of colors burned bright at the 1957 RCA degree show. Pat Bishop, the Trinidadian artist, described how, "Swinging London was on its way...McNish was there to satisfy that need with her big, beautiful splashy prints of every kind of flower and tropical pattern imaginable." Within a day of graduation, she was called to the offices of Arthur Stewart-Liberty, of the eponymous London department store. McNish recalls of the meeting, “He thought Britain was ready for color,” and through such designs as Cebollas (1958) and Hibiscus (1958), he made sure Britain could buy it through him. While her near contemporaries Lucienne Day (1917–2010), Jacqueline Groag (1903–1986), and Marian Mahler (1911–1983) were bringing much needed cheerfulness to the drab days of postwar Britain, McNish’s riot of color was like a volcano erupting through the center of conservative British modernism. “Color was mine,” she declared. Though Day, Groag, and Mahler were to be given more credit.
After their successful 1957 meeting, Stewart-Liberty sent McNish by taxi directly to Zika Ascher, the producer and retailer of extravagant and experimental textiles to the fashion industry. With clients including Cardin, Dior, Schiaparelli, Givenchy, and Lanvin, it was not long before McNish prints such as Tropic and Giselle of 1959 were gracing European fashion magazines. In 1966, when Queen Elizabeth II visited Trinidad in the early days of post-Independence, McNish designed fabrics for her high-profile, official wardrobe.
In her public and professional engagements, she was, as the author Alan Rice suggested, “a rare black and female presence.” Committed to developing her industry and offering a role model for future generations, McNish taught extensively and was a prominent member of various arts councils and bodies. As a founder member of the highly influential Caribbean Arts Movement (CAM) in the mid-1960s, she did much to promote Caribbean artists to the British public, including organizing works by herself and her peers for the 1973 BBC TV magazine program Full House, produced by John La Rose. Her position as the first black British textile designer of repute is something she shrugs off, claiming she never suffered any discrimination due to either her race or gender: “I was so rare, they were dumbfounded.”
In the 1960s, as textile manufacturing declined in the UK, giving rise to the import of plain cotton cloth, the demand for designers to produce patterns for the consumer boom grew. By offering complex patterns that she alone could achieve with the printers, McNish secured contracts with most of the UK’s leading firms, including Cavendish Textiles, Danasco, Heals, and the Wallpaper Manufactures Ltd. (for which she designed the Crystalline print for their Palladio range of 1960). On a 1963 Cotton Board scholarship she traveled to Europe investigating the state of British exports. It was not long before she was selling designs directly to upmarket European firms including Bucol in Lyon and Fede Cheti in Milan among others. Britain’s most successful postwar design consultancy, Design Research Unit, commissioned McNish to design murals for their public and corporate clients including British Rail and the Orient Steam Navigation Company. When the SS Oriana launched in 1959, she sailed McNish’s laminate panels, Rayflowers and Pineapples and Pomegranates, around the world on the walls of its restaurants.
While she effectively retired from textiles in the late 1980s, throughout the intervening years her works have been included in a growing number of exhibitions exploring the under-recognized influence of artists from the African diaspora within British art. Within this context, McNish’s “tiny flowers picked from the British hedgerow transformed into tropical exuberance” take on an entirely new significance, both for the history of postwar textile design and British modernism in general.
Libby Sellers is a design historian, consultant, and curator based in London. The above chapter is an excerpt from her book Women Design, which was published by Frances Lincoln in June 2018.