Fifty years ago, the Trinidad-born textile designer Althea NcNish became an overnight sensation with her brightly coloured floral prints
When she was a child, Althea McNish would love to walk into the bush and delight in the tropical vegetation about her. ‘I was attracted by the beautiful colours and would paint everything,’ she says dreamily.
‘My mother used to say I was born with a paintbrush in my mouth.’ A gifted artist who had her first exhibition at the age of 16 in the Trinidad capital Port of Spain, McNish’s vivid sense of colour and pattern was to turn her into an overnight sensation in 1950s Britain.
A graduate of the Royal College of Art, she had decided to specialise in textile design. The result was bold splashy prints that were immediately snapped up by upmarket store Liberty. England, then shrouded in post-war gloom, had never seen anything like it. ‘The place was so bloody cold and grey – I wanted to give people some colour,’ she laughs.
Now in her seventies and the likely subject of a V&A retrospective, she still exudes the same quirkiness of spirit and joie de vivre that mark out her work. The first black British designer of international repute, she proved immediately influential, helping to establish new furnishing trends as well as inspire more adventurous fashion designers further down the line like Zandra Rhodes.
Her output will be familiar to even those who have never heard of her by way of classic wallpaper and fabric designs. They include the popular Golden Harvest print, inspired by a day out in the Essex countryside.
‘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,’ she beams, still delighting in the memory. ‘I can feel it now, how the sun was shining down on me and how I seemed lost in the wheat. Nobody could see me!’
McNish also created wall hangings and murals and massive laminate panels for passenger cruise liners. Later in her career, she reverted to fine art – textile prints in her view being merely ‘repeated paintings’ – with a solo exhibition in 1997 in London’s Hockney Gallery.
The only child of well-to-do parents, McNish showed a precocious talent for art at her mother’s knee. ‘My mother made clothes, but she didn’t draw,’ she explains. ‘She would say “I want a round collar” and I would draw it. I was only four or five.’
Her forays into the bush near her home in Port of Spain fuelled her imagination and a few years later she landed a dream job as an entomological illustrator with the government. ‘I had to go into the field and do detailed drawings of insects to help in the sugar and cocoa pest control programme,’ she says, chuckling at the thought of working for the colonial service.
At the time, Trinidad was at the centre of a Caribbean cultural renaissance, propelled by the struggle for independence and the need to forge a national identity. This would throw up an extraordinary array of talent that would produce some 50 novels between 1948 and 1958 and several internationally renowned artists. As McNish says, ‘There was quite an artistic thing going on at the time.’
By now a junior member of the prestigious Trinidad Arts Society, it was inevitable that she would fall under the spell of its leading lights, the painters Sybil Atteck, Boscoe Holder and MP Alladin. She also enjoyed European modernists like Van Gogh and Gauguin. ‘Van Gogh was one of my favourites – he was very tropical,’ she says by way of explanation.
When she travelled to England in 1951 at the age of 18, it was to study architecture rather than art. However, this was quickly abandoned in favour of a course at the London College of Printing, where she discovered textiles in her final year. She took an extra course at the Central School of Art taught by the sculptor and pop art pioneer Eduardo Paolozzi, who encouraged her to specialise in textiles.
She learnt how to screen print and it was this technical skill that was to give her the edge when she ventured into industry. ‘I knew how to preserve the integrity of my chosen colours so whenever printers told me it couldn’t be done, I would show them how to do it.’
The day after graduating in 1957, she approached the West End store Liberty with her portfolio and was commissioned on the spot by the head of the firm, Stuart Liberty, to design a new collection. ‘He thought Britain was ready for colour and it was,’ says McNish, who is married to the jewellery designer and architect John Weiss
On that same day, Liberty despatched McNish in a taxi to fashion supplier Zika Ascher, who likewise immediately booked her to create a new collection, this time for Dior. This enabled her to indulge in her favourite fabrics, silk and velvet.
Later there were collaborations with industrial print manufacturers like Hull Traders and Heals. Working from her studios in the London home she has lived in since the 1950s, McNish would experiment with dyes and surfaces in order to faithfully replicate the sensations of nature.
Gaudy flowers and fruits painted with broad brush strokes, bearing exotic-sounding titles like Bousada and Savina, were her stock in trade, while Bezique, a cascading pattern of ‘free’ stripes, that is non-geometric, is an example of one of her abstract designs.
‘As far as possible, the richness and the vibrancy of colour must remain,’ she declares on a final categorical note.
Black History 365/Spring 08 edition/www.black-history-month.co.uk