Saturday 21 May 2022

Althea McNish at the William Morris Gallery, London

Althea McNish - Golden Harvest (for Hull Traders)

Althea McNish's "Colour is Mine" exhibition at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London is her first major retrospective and shows her vibrant, colourful prints that revolutionised mid 20th Century British textile design.

Althea McNish

Born in Trinidad in 1924, she emigrated to the UK in 1950 with her family.  She was one of the first designers of Caribbean heritage to gain international recognition in the field of textile design and was one of Britain's most innovative and influential textile designers.  She claimed to see everything "through a tropical eye".  McNish's style brought together abstracted botanic designs with a Caribbean inspired colour palette.  This is true of her most famous design Golden Harvest, pictured above and is also shown in her sketchbook below...

Althea McNish - London College of Print & Graphic Arts Sketchbook

She studied at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts and in 1954 won a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art where, following encouragement from her tutor, Eduardo Paolozzi, she studied textiles.  Her talent was recognised by Liberty who commissioned designs from her graduate collection and for whom she went on to design silk scarves and dress and furnishing fabrics.  She also designed very successfully for Hull Traders.

Althea McNish - Cebollas for Liberty
Printed cotton furnishing fabric

McNish's original design for Painted Desert was quite large.  She liked to work at scale and then decide how to reduce the size for its intended purpose.

Althea McNish - Original design for Painted Desert

The 3 colour Painted Desert design for Hull Traders was produced as a heavyweight cotton satin furnishing fabric in 4 colourways: purple, green, pink and gold...

Althea McNish - Painted Desert (pink) for Hull Traders

Althea McNish - Wallpaper Design for Sanderson

She was a founding member of the Caribbean Artists Movement, active between 1966 and 1972, which sought to celebrate what it recognised as a distinctive Caribbean aesthetic.

McNish also designed murals for W
arerite plastic in the restaurants of the ocean liner SS Oriana which took her further into the world of interior design...

Althea McNish - Warerite Plastic Mural Designs Rayflower & Pomegranate for SS Oriana

McNish's painterly style worked well for the scarves she designed for Jacqmar...

Althea McNish - Scarf designs for Jacqmar

McNish loved fashion and in the 60s was asked by ICI to design for their new fabric - Terylene Toile and also designed for paper clothes which were made from a bonded cellulose fibre that could be washed upto 6 times.  She was frustrated that paper fashion never really took off.

Althea McNish - Fashion Textiles Terylene Toile & Paper Dress

Throughout her career Althea McNish taught at many of the UK's leading art schools. She was awarded the Chaconia gold medal in Trinidad for her contributions to art and design, and in 2006 an honorary doctorate in fine arts from the University of Trinidad and Tobago, where she mentored many of its student designers.

Even in her final years she continued to share her vast knowledge and experience of textile design with students and the wider public.  She died in 2020, aged 95, 2 years after her jewellery designer husband, John Weiss.

This exhibition is on until 11 September 2022. Well worth a visit!


Liberty have a range of Althea McNish fabrics (Tana Lawn and silk satin) for sale on the roll in store and online.  Some cut lengths are available in the William Morris Gallery shop.

The William Morris Gallery has a pleasant cafe.  The gallery is in Lloyd Park in Walthamstow and so is surrounded by green space.

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