Honouring and remembering Althea McNish, a tribute by Rose Sinclair

Internationally renowned textile designer and artist Althea McNish sadly passed away last week, according to an announcement made on Tuesday in the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday.

Last October during Black History Month, Rose Sinclair, Lecturer in Design (Textiles) at Goldsmiths led a special event at Bruce Castle Museum and Archive in Haringey, celebrating Althea’s life and work, her involvement in establishing the Caribbean Artists’ Movement and John La Rose, as well as the prestigious commissions for Liberty, Dior, Jacguar, Heal’s and Conran.

Rose Sinclair here very kindly shares her own personal tribute, in honour of Althea:

Althea (left) and Rose in 2018. Image copyright: Goldsmiths, University of London

“On 31st October 2019, Bruce Castle Museum held a celebration to close Black History Month. This event was to honour those in the community who in particular were inspiring to the next generation of emerging talent – but were equally an inspiration to us all.

The event was filled with song and laughter as well as members of the community and Friends of Bruce Castle who had come along to see personal treasures – such as an early West Indian Gazette on display in the Windrush Legends and Legacies exhibition – to hear the songs from Haringey’s youth choir and see the art works.

Me – why was I there – I was asked to present a talk about a local woman, who was a frequent visitor to Bruce Castle during the past five decades or so she lived in Tottenham. This was none other than Althea McNish (Althea McNish-Weiss).

Althea McNish travelled from Trinidad to England in 1951 on an architectural scholarship, but ended up completing a postgraduate textiles degree at The Royal College of Art (RCA) in 1957, thus becoming the first black student to gain a Textile degree from the college and placing herself in the history books. An amazing journey if it just ended there.

From then on, there would be no stopping her.

Harper’s Bazaar in December 1958 in its ‘Around the Galleries’ round-up noted how the Woodstock Gallery, with its steady reputation for showcasing lively work, would be displaying ‘the fabric designs of Althea McNish, a young West Indian whose brilliant compositions have already been taken up by Ascher’.

The Ascher Design House focussed on designing fabrics for the fashion world. This would see Althea’s textile designs – which she herself had envisioned for interiors – used to adorn the fashioned body, and being used by the haute couture fashion houses to become dresses.

Althea’s design work extended beyond Ascher to other design companies such as Liberty’s, Heal’s, Danasco and Hull Traders. Her technical eye for colour saw her work on the super new fabric produced for the famous ‘Terylene Toile’ range in 1966, by Hollins Thomson. It was featured in Harper’s Bazaar and photographed in her home country of Trinidad and Tobago.

Althea’s fabrics would also be used as part of Queen Elizabeth’s wardrobe, when there was a Royal Tour of the Caribbean in 1966.

It was during the 1960s that Althea became part of the CAM (Caribbean Artists’ Movement), working with other cultural activists such as the poet, writer and founder of New Beacon Books (in Stroud Green) John La Rose and others.

Althea always drew and painted. It was this and her experimentation with colour that would be the mainstay in all her work, extending her skills to working with the Research Design Unit and developing designs for both British Rail and P&O cruise ships.

Her extended skills saw her designing wallpapers, as well as room settings such as those seen at the Daily Mail Ideal Home exhibition in March 1966. It was in that exhibition where she would create the ‘Batchelor Girl Room’ for the ideal girl about town.

With her design prowess established, behind the scenes Althea was an avid and resilient person, active in education and professional development. She would mentor young designers and would work across the textiles sector in positions such as Vice-President of the Chartered Society of Designers, as well as being an external examiner and tutor at various colleges.

Stories of journeys

For me, as a designer, my greatest joy was to meet Althea and sit and talk to her about her work – what inspired her and enjoying her love of cloth and fabric. But more than that, it was hearing about her attention to detail. Even though it had been a long while since she had to do the rounds of visiting textile mills where her work was produced, she still carried in her pocket an Allen key. It was the one that she said she would use to change and adjust the fittings on silkscreen frames in the mills she visited to check production. She would amend the settings if she felt technicians had not laid out her designs with accuracy. Such hands-on attention to detail.

As I have researched more about Althea, it is ephemera such as the yearly greeting cards she made in the two images below from the archives of The George Padmore Institute in Stroud Green (which her friend John La Rose had co-founded) that are touching. They tell of journeys and friendships she made across Europe to the various textile mills, and stop-overs at cities and places. But more than that, they capture another side to Althea. Her love of animals – especially cats, of which she had several.

From the collections of the George Padmore Institute
From the collections of the George Padmore Institute

It is hard to begin to capture Althea’s crafting genius. She herself said to me she did not like to be classified as ‘just an artist’. She really loved to draw and paint, ‘and what would come, would come’. She loved colour and was not afraid to use it. She loved to experiment and use different materials. She refused to be pigeon-holed, determined – as she said – to walk her own path. And that she did.

Crafting genius …”

This text was initially written for the Bruce Castle Museum and Archive newsletter, and we are thankful to the Museum for allowing us to re-publish it. The recent Bruce Castle exhibitionWe Made It! – (now closed to the public due to COVID-19 containment measures) has a dedicated area for Althea’s work from their collections.

Three fabrics designed by Althea from the collections at Bruce Castle Museum & Archive, showing her famous Golden Harvest design (it was the best-selling fabric in the UK the year it was produced), alongside the purple and greens of her Painted Desert, and the sunshine of her Sunflowers. Designed for Hull Traders, 1957 – 1961