In 1957 Liberty’s of Regent Street took on a new designer for its famous fabrics department. She was Althea McNish, who only the day before had graduated from the Royal College of Art and had already attracted the attention of store owner Stuart Liberty. Althea had taken a portfolio of her work to show him and was commissioned on the spot. Clearly happy to share his good fortune, Mr Liberty then sent her by taxi to fashion supplier Zika Ascher, who immediately booked her to create a new line for Dior.
Trinidad-born Althea, who has died aged 95, would go on to revolutionise British textile design and furnishings with her gorgeously patterned prints, attracting an impressive list of clients, among them Cardin, Dior, Givenchy and Heal’s. As a measure of her standing, she was asked to design fabrics for Queen Elizabeth’s wardrobe during her visit to Trinidad in 1966, while in 1975 her wall hangings were installed at the official London residence of Commonwealth secretary-general Sonny Ramphal. Althea loved working with velvet and silk but at the other extreme she also enjoyed creating massive laminate panels for passenger cruise liners.
Hailed as the first black British designer of international importance, her textile designs can be found in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Last summer she was given pride of place at Get Up Stand Up Now, Somerset House’s landmark celebration of 50 years of black artists in Britain. On display were colour variants of her famous Golden Harvest print, which was included in her first Liberty collection and also became popular as a wallpaper pattern. In 2018, she appeared on the BBC documentary Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain’s Hidden Art History.
The only child of well-to-do parents, Althea revealed her prodigious talents early on and held her first exhibition at 16 as a member of the Trinidad Art Society. After arriving in Britain in 1951, she studied at the London College of Printing before coming under the influence of Eduardo Paolozzi, who encouraged her to specialise in textiles at the Central School of Art. She went on to become a postgraduate student of the Royal College of Art where Hugh Casson, then professor of interior design, gave his bold and impulsive young student a free hand to experiment with her ideas.
I first encountered Althea in 2007 during an event celebrating the Caribbean Artists Movement that had been founded in London some 40 years earlier to promote the emerging black aesthetic that she was part of. I was struck by her dreamy joie de vivre and quirky spirit, qualities so clearly manifested in her work. Recalling that first meeting with Mr Liberty, she told me, “He thought Britain was ready for colour and it was. The place was so bloody cold and grey.”
As always, she was accompanied by her husband, the jewellery designer John Weiss, who managed her business affairs from their Tottenham home and studios. The two were devoted to each other and his death two years ago saw a decline in her own health. She lived out her final days at a north London nursing home, often cheerfully greeting visitors wearing one of the silk scarves she’d designed. She died on April 16 of a stroke.
This article first appeared in West End Extra and Islington Tribune on April 24