Textile designer whose colourful creations helped banish postwar greyness.
An obituary by Penny Sparke for London’s Guardian.
The textile designer Althea McNish, who has died aged 95, was responsible for some of the 20th century’s most memorable printed fabrics. A hugely influential figure in the world of interior design and fashion, she was also the first woman from the West Indies to rise to international prominence in her field. She claimed to see everything “through a tropical eye”, and her greatest contribution was to infuse designs created in Britain with a feel of the Caribbean.
Her work from the late 1950s onwards appealed to young consumers who were desperate to move beyond the greyness of the immediate post-second world war years, and right from the beginning of her career she attracted commissions to design fabrics for big names such as Liberty and Heal’s. “She led the way, overthrowing the sterile rules of taste that had previously shaped British and international design,” said the designer and curator Christine Checkinksa.
McNish also worked on dress fabrics for Zika Ascher’s textile company, which supplied them to French fashion houses, including Dior. Her work was regularly featured in glossy magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
Non-fashion commissions also came her way, and she designed murals featuring pineapples and pomegranates for restaurants on the ocean-going liner SS Oriana (1959), velvet hangings for British Rail’s Euston offices in London (1969), and a banner for London’s Design Centre (1981). Whatever she worked on, McNish’s style brought together natural imagery and abstract forms with a distinctive interpretation of the English artistic tradition that was allied to a Caribbean-inspired colour palette.
Born in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, she was the only child of Margaret (nee Bourne), a dressmaker, and her husband, Joseph McNish, a teacher and writer. An enthusiastic painter from an early age, while studying at Bishop Anstey high school she joined the Trinidad Art Society and had her first work exhibited at the age of 16.
She worked as a cartographer and illustrator for the British government in Trinidad until, in 1951, at the age of 27, she accompanied her mother to England, where her father had already moved to work. In London she won a scholarship to study architecture at the Architectural Association, but chose instead to take a course in print studies at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts (now the London College of Communication).
She moved on to the Central School of Art and Design, where her tutor, the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, persuaded her to apply her print skills to textiles. Then, after finishing postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Art in 1957, she became a busy freelance. Her first big client was Liberty, which in 1958 commissioned her to design a range of fabrics. These included a furnishing fabric called Cebollas with a strong tropical flavour – featuring blue onions set against a brown background – and another called Hibiscus, an even bolder furnishing textile boasting bright-red hibiscus flowers set against a sharply contrasting black background.
In 1959, for Hull Traders, a company later responsible for many of the colourful and irreverent pop designs of the swinging 60s, she created a sensation with Golden Harvest, a screen print on cotton satin used for upholstery fabrics that featured a bright-orange, yellow and black graphic pattern inspired by the wheat fields of Essex, which reminded her of Trinidad’s sugarcane plantations.
By 1960 she was taking on jobs for Cavendish Textiles and then for Heal’s, for whom she designed Trinidad, a printed furnishing textile covered with a loosely sketched dense tropical forest, filled with green palm trees of different shapes and sizes. At this time she also worked for Ascher’s textile company, which commissioned her to create printed silk dress fabrics.
Other British manufacturers who approached McNish included Danasco Fabrics, for whom, in 1961, she produced Tomée, an exceptionally vivid monoprint of an abstract pattern made up of pink, orange and lemon stripes. In 1968, for the Bridlington-based firm Sanderson-Rigg, she designed a space-age-style wallpaper, named Zircon, featuring a dazzling abstract pattern coloured orange, mustard and yellow.
Throughout the 1960s McNish also ensured that she retained her links with the West Indies. She was a founding member of the Caribbean Artists Movement, active between 1966 and 1972, which sought to celebrate what it recognised as a distinctive Caribbean aesthetic, and she designed murals for the interior of the Port of Spain general hospital, as well as fabrics for Queen Elizabeth’s official wardrobe when she visited Trinidad and Tobago in 1966.
At the same time McNish’s art work was being displayed in exhibitions – beginning with Paintings by Trinidad and Tobago Artists at the Commonwealth Institute in London in 1961. Over the years her paintings and drawings were shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum (1978), the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester (2007) and, most recently, at Somerset House in London (2019). Examples of her textile design can be found in the V&A, the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture in London, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.
Through the final decades of the 20th century, whether as a juror for design competitions, attending openings of design exhibitions, or in her capacity as a vice-president and fellow of the Chartered Society of Designers and a member of the board of the UK Design Council, she was a familiar figure in the British design community. I remember her in particular at lunchtimes in the Royal College of Art’s senior common room, where her colourful clothing lit up that space.
She was awarded the Chaconia gold medal in Trinidad for her contributions to art and design, and in 2006 an honorary doctorate in fine arts from the University of Trinidad and Tobago, where she mentored many of its student designers. Most recently she appeared on the BBC4 documentary Whoever Heard of a Black Artist?, aired in 2018, and in the same year a section of the book Women Design, by the design historian Libby Sellers, was devoted to McNish and her work.
In 1969 she married the British jewellery designer John Weiss. He died in 2018.
• Althea Marjorie McNish, textile designer, born 15 May 1924; died 16 April 2020