Althea McNish: bio
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Chaconia Medal Gold (Republic of Trinidad and
Tobago); Scarlet Ibis Award (Republic of Trinidad and
Tobago, London Mission); Doctor of Fine Arts h.c.
(University of Trinidad and Tobago); DesRCA: Designer
of the Royal College of Art; FCSD: Fellow of the Chartered
Society of Designers (& past vice-president)
|Althea McNish, a British artist and designer from Trinidad and Tobago, was born in Port of Spain and was a painter from early in her Trinidad childhood. She came to London in the 1950s and made a career in textile design, bringing tropical colour to British textiles and became Britain's first Black textile designer of international repute.|
|From the time she started her career, Althea had an impact on the British design world. In 1957, on leaving the Royal College of Art, her introduction to the commercial world of textiles by way of Liberty and Ascher immediately made her name as one of the leaders of the strong new movement in British printed textile design of the time, largely centred on her circle from the RCA.|
|This movement exhibited a new vigour in pattern and colour and a freedom from inhibition. Arthur Stuart Liberty said in later years that he saw in Althea's designs exciting colour contrasts for which the British public was then ready. He commissioned many designs from Althea for both fashion and furnishing fabrics, and she also played an important part in the new furnishing trends developed by Hull Traders, Heals, Danasco and WPM. The furnishing fabric GOLDEN HARVEST, originally designed for a new school and later produced commercially by Hull Traders, has in recent years being seen as marking a Caribbean influence in British culture, as in the exhibitions 'Remembering Slavery' at the Whitworth Art Gallery in 2007, 'Dream to change the world: The Life and Legacy of John LaRose' at the Islington Museum in 2015 and ‘Now! Now! In more than one place' at the Cookhouse Gallery in October 2016 in connection with the conference ‘Now & Then... Here & There: Black Artists & Modernism' at Tate Britain and Chelsea College of Arts.|
BBC, Feb 1973
studio setting: works by Caribbean artists
|From her early life in painting, encouraged by Trinidadian artists Sibyl Atteck, M.P.Alladin and Boscoe Holder, Althea brought to British design a tropical framework of reference and an invigorating spirit, a public example of the influence on British culture of artists of the ex-colonial peoples. A founder member of the Caribbean Artists Movement, she organised in 1973 a collection of CAM artists' work for the BBC magazine programme Full House, produced by John LaRose, proclaiming to the British public the presence of the Caribbean arts.|
furnishing fabric Cavendish Textiles
|In the context of the unacknowledged contribution and influence of the Black artist, Althea McNish had a visible effect on British textiles and thus on, and in, British culture and life. The vehicles of her influence have been the promotion of her work by notable producers, her participation in official exhibitions of British textile designers' work internationally, and her contact with the many students she has taught, visited or examined in design schools throughout the UK.|
fashion fabric Svila, Slovenia
Fede Cheti, Milan
|Althea's career has always been international. In 1963 the Cotton Board sent her on a scholarship to Europe to investigate the export potential for British printed cotton goods. Manufacturers have come to her London studio from many parts of the world to buy or commission designs for printed textiles and wallpapers, and she has travelled widely in Europe to show new collections of designs to clients in Austria, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Slovenia, Sweden and Switzerland.|
PINEAPPLES & POMEGRANATES
laminate mural in ss ORIANA, P&O Orient
|In 1959 an invitation to design for the new liner ss ORIANA led to experimental laminate panels for two of the ship's restaurants, early examples of a technique much used in the decoration of later passenger cruise liners.|
hanging, dyestuffs on velvet, for the boardroom of the British Railways Board
|In 1979 a commission for textile hangings for British Railways Board's offices inspired her to experiment with dyestuffs on fine cotton velvet to create effects of vibrant luminosity, which she used to good effect in hangings shown in The Peoples Gallery in 1982 and the Leicester Magazine Workspace in 1983.|
mural, acrylic on canvas
ss NORDIC EMPRESS, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line
|Murals and hangings for Royal Caribbean Cruise Line ships NORDIC EMPRESS and MONARCH OF THE SEAS in the later 1980s led to further works on velvet and silk and to paintings in acrylic on canvas, signalling a return to a greater emphasis as a painter in Althea's creative life.|
|Althea's attitude to her cultural affinities echo that of Trinidad itself and the great diversity of cultures in the Caribbean islands. She states a comparable pride in being a citizen of the world whilst manifestly rejoicing in the richness of her island upbringing and of her family heritage drawn from Europe, Africa and America - native American as well as imported African.|
In 1976 Althea's work as artist and designer was recognised by the
of Trinidad and Tobago when she was awarded the Republic's
Chaconia Medal (Gold)
for 'long and meritorious service to art and design' and in
1993 she received
the Scarlet Ibis Award of the London High Commission for Trinidad
for 'long and meritorious service'.
In November 2006 Althea was made an Honorary Doctor of Fine Art of the University of Trinidad and Tobago, with an oration by the eminent Trinidadian artist Pat Bishop.
In September 2012 H.E. Garvin Nicholas, High Commissioner for the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, presented Althea with an award for Achievement in the Arts as part of the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Independence of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.
Althea's work has been recognised also in the institutional world
of design, presenting
a rare Black and female face on public and professional committees
in the United Kingdom.
She early became a Fellow of the Society of Industrial Artists and
Designers (now the
Chartered Society of Designers), was a member of its Council over
a period of
22 years, with a term as a Vice-President, and was for many years
National Council and London Committee of the Design and Industries
Association. Her past public service has also included the Board of
the UK Design Council, the Governing Body of Portsmouth College
of Art (now within the University of Portsmouth),
the Research and Development Committee of the London College of
Furniture (now within London
Metropolitan University) and the Formation Committee of the London
Art and Design (now University of the Arts London). Through her
work for professional
and educational bodies, Althea has a continuing commitment to
young people entering the design world.
Silver dish by John Weiss
etched by Althea McNish
|Since 1971 Althea has worked in partnership with her husband, John Weiss, in which they support each other's design projects as well as working together on joint projects in interior design, textiles and silverware. In addition to their design work, they now collaborate on archival research on both sides of the Atlantic for John's work on the settlers of the 'Company Villages' of Trinidad (the 'Merikens', part of the 4000 Black Americans who took their freedom in the course of the War of 1812). At international conferences they tell the world about this special Trinidadian community, developing and maintaining public consciousness of these, Althea's independent, adventurous and hardworking ancestors.|
In September 1997, Professor Christopher Frayling, Rector of the Royal College of Art, said in opening Althea's solo exhibition in the College's Hockney Gallery:
"Althea came to the College with a scholarship in graphics - but decided to practise printed textiles instead, under the inspiration of Eduardo Paolozzi in particular and the colours and sensations of her native Trinidad in general. As she has put it, her tropical ideas certainly stretched her teachers at the College, and after she left in July 1957 she was immediately commissioned by Liberty's to design a new collection - an extraordinary tribute to someone who had graduated only the day before. Althea has recently written:
'On the day I
saw Liberty, my professional life started. It has been devoted to
for industry, and my designs are all meant for industrial
production - on the
day I discovered textiles I stopped painting pictures. It is only
years that commissions for murals and textile-hangings for public
and cruise liners have inspired me to move towards painting again.
I have always'
she continues, 'seen myself as a citizen of the world, drawing
from the flora and fauna of every country and the art and
artefacts of all cultures.'
The results of these recent developments are the substance of this exhibition: not culture but cultures; not one country but the world; a fusion of design and art which is at the heart of the Royal College of Art and what it continues to stand for..."
© Althea McNish and John Weiss.
jw 17 June 2015