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‘Whenever printers told me it couldn’t be done, I would show them how to do it,’ said Althea McNish. ‘Before long, the impossible became possible.’ It’s a telling statement that sums up the spirit of the trailblazing textile designer and active member of the Caribbean Artists Movement, who is the focus of a major exhibition at London’s William Morris Gallery.
It will have a wealth of vibrant, radical work to draw on – there’s McNish’s personal back catalogue, preserved by culture organisation N15 Archive following her death in 2020, as well as the collections of the V&A and Liberty, which is reissuing a capsule edit of her fabric designs. Rich with Caribbean colour and vegetation, her prints must have been a revelation after the austerity of war.
Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, she arrived in England in 1951 with a scholarship to study architecture, but ended up at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts, where she was encouraged by Eduardo Paolozzi to focus her talent on textiles.
It seems fitting that Liberty should be the first to reissue her work: it was then-chairman Arthur Stewart-Liberty who gave McNish her earliest commission. He must have decided her portfolio was too good not to share, as he promptly put her in a taxi to see textile titan Zika Ascher, who asked her to create designs for Dior.
Work followed for Heal’s and Conran; she even produced fabrics for the Queen’s wardrobe for her 1966 trip to Trinidad.
McNish found much to be inspired by in Britain, but visions of her native island were hardly suppressed by five decades in Tottenham. Her popular ‘Golden Harvest’ pattern, designed in 1959 for Hull Traders, recalls the graphic repeats of wheat fields in Essex, which had sparked memories of sugarcane plantations.
‘Everything I did, I saw it through a tropical eye,’ she said. ‘Althea McNish: Colour is Mine’, from 2 April – 26 June 2022. wmgallery.org.uk