Althea McNish

Althea Marjorie McNish

15 May 1924[1]
Died16 April 2020(2020-04-16) (aged 95)[2]
Known forTextile design
SpouseJohn Weiss (1959–2018, his death)
WebsiteAlthea McNish & John Weiss at the Wayback Machine (archived 10 September 2019)

Althea McNish FSCD (15 May 1924 – 16 April 2020) was an artist from Trinidad who became the first Black British textile designer to earn an international reputation.[3]

Born in Trinidad, McNish moved to Britain in the 1950s. She was associated with the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) in the 1960s,[4] participating in CAM's exhibitions and seminars and helping to promote Caribbean arts to a British public.[5] Her work is represented in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Whitworth Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture and the Cooper-Hewitt (Smithsonian Design Museum), among other places.[6][7][8][9]

McNish was a Fellow of the Chartered Society of Designers.[10] She was married to the jewellery designer John Weiss (1933–2018).[11]


Early years

Althea Marjorie McNish[12] was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, around 1933.[13] Her father, the writer Joseph Claude McNish, was descended from the Merikin settlers in Trinidad.[13][14][15] She painted as a child, helped with her mother's dressmaking business by doing sketches, was a junior member of the Trinidad Arts Society and had her first exhibition at the age of 16.[13][16] Her influences included local artists Sybil Atteck, Amy Leong Pang and Boscoe Holder, and European modernists such as Vincent van Gogh.[13]

Move to London

In 1951 McNish moved with her mother to London, England, to join her father there.[17][18] She already had a place to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in Bedford Square but instead took courses at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts, the Central School of Arts and Crafts and the Royal College of Art.[13][18] In her final year at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts, she became interested in textiles with the encouragement of Eduardo Paolozzi, and chose printed textiles as her subject of study on progressing to the Royal College of Art, where her talent was recognised by Hugh Casson.[13]

On graduating, she immediately won a commission from Arthur Stewart-Liberty, head of the Liberty department store, sending her the same day by taxi to Zika Ascher, who commissioned her to design a collection for Dior.[13][10][19] Successfully designing for such prestigious clients, McNish was the first Caribbean woman to achieve prominence in this field.[20]

In 1966, McNish designed fabrics for the official wardrobe of Elizabeth II's during the Queen's visit to Trinidad.[2]

She took part in the art exhibitions of the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) held in 1967, May 1968 and January 1971, exhibiting textiles as well as "plastic panels in laminate".[21] For the Caribbean edition of the BBC TV magazine programme Full House, produced by John La Rose and transmitted on 3 February 1973, she brought together the work of CAM visual artists as a studio setting for CAM writers, musicians and film-makers.[22][23] More recently, her work — represented by three printed textiles from early in her career: Golden Harvest, Pomegranate and Fresco[24] — was featured in the exhibition RCA Black: Past, Present & Future (31 August–6 September 2011),[25] organised by the Royal College of Art in collaboration with the African and African-Caribbean Design Diaspora (AACDD) to celebrate art and design by African and African-Caribbean graduates.[26][27]

Partnership with John Weiss

In 1969 she married John Weiss, architect, jeweller and historian, and worked in partnership with him from 1971.[22] They were in conversation with John La Rose on 2 February 1999 as part of the Building Britannia: Life Experience With Britain series held at New Beacon Books (other participants included Dennis Bovell, Gus John, Rev. Wilfred Wood, Aggrey Burke, Yvonne Brewster, and Alexis Rennie).[28][29]

At the time of Weiss's death in 2018, Jake Leith, former president of the Chartered Society of Designers, said: "John and Althea were great ambassadors for the UK Fashion and Textile Design Sector."[11]

McNish died in April 2020, at Spring Lane nursing home in Muswell Hill.[10]

Notable designs

Most of McNish's designs are based on nature though some use abstract themes, occasionally geometric. One of her first designs to go into production, Golden Harvest in 1957, was a screen print on cotton satin, later manufactured by Hull Traders[5] (for whom she also created eight other patterns),[30] the design being based on an Essex wheatfield but using tropical colours.[31] A number of her early designs including Tropic,[32] a dress fabric printed on silk and produced by Zika Ascher in 1959, and Gilia, a cotton furnishing fabric featuring tropical foliage in green and gold, produced by Hull Traders in 1961, are in the textile collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum.[33][34] Also in 1959, for a commission by the Design Research Unit for the new SS Oriana, which was launched in November 1959 and was the last of the Orient Steam Navigation Company's ocean liners, she produced murals for two restaurants, Rayflower[35] and Pineapples and pomegranates,[36][37] laminated into Warerite plastic panels, a line later pursued by Perstorp Group. The 1960 modernisation of the interior of the Port of Spain General Hospital, Trinidad, by the architects Devereux and Davies, included murals by McNish.[38]

In 1997, reviewing the exhibition Transforming the Crown: African, Asian and Caribbean Artists in Britain, 1966–1996, in which McNish participated at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, with other CAM artists, The New York Times reported that she "produces abstract, geometric fabric designs inspired by African motifs".[39]

In 2018 McNish was named in Architectural Digest as one of "Five Female Designers Who Changed History" (alongside Maija Isola, Norma Merrick Sklarek, Muriel Cooper, and Denise Scott Brown).[40]

McNish featured in the 2018 BBC Four documentary film Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain's Hidden Art History, in which Brenda Emmanus followed Sonia Boyce and a team she led in preparing an exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, focusing on artists of African and Asian descent who have played a part in shaping the history of British art.[41][42]


In 2022, a major retrospective of her work, entitled Althea McNish: Colour is Mine, was mounted (2 April–11 September 2022) at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, east London, sponsored by Liberty Fabrics.[43][44] Co-curator Rosie Sinclair of Goldsmiths, University of London, observes: "Perhaps following this exhibition people will take another look at furnishings and fashion fabrics and wonder why colour became such an important part of new design taste in post-modern society and think about the individuals, a design pioneer such as Althea, who made this happen."[45] Sinclair has also said: "She's a rare Black woman within international textile history. She broke boundaries."[46] Coinciding with the exhibition, Liberty Fabrics reissued a capsule collection of McNish's original designs.[47]

On 15 May 2023, coinciding with the 99th anniversary of her birth, a blue plaque was unveiled in her honour at her former home on West Green Road in Tottenham.[48][49]

Selected exhibitions

Solo exhibitions[50]
Group exhibitions[50]

Awards and accolades


  1. ^ Sparke, Penny (4 May 2020), "Althea McNish obituary", The Guardian.
  2. ^ a b "Designer Althea McNish dies", Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, 17 April 2020. According to this newspaper report (which references a release from Courtney McNish, chairman of the Merikin Commission), she was 95 when she died; however, a date of birth is not given.
  3. ^ Jefferies, Janis; Conroy, Diana Wood; Clark, Hazel (2015). The Handbook of Textile Culture. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 87. ISBN 978-1-4742-7579-8.
  4. ^ Schwarz, Bill (2003). West Indian Intellectuals in Britain. Manchester University Press. pp. 16, 28.
  5. ^ a b "Fabric, Golden Harvest". Remembering Slavery. Whitworth Art Gallery. 2007.
  6. ^ "Art notes (review)", AJR, October 2011 Journal.
  7. ^ "Sample (England), 1962", Cooper Hewitt.
  8. ^ "Printed Textile 'Caribe'", Philadelphia Museum of Art.
  9. ^ "You searched for McNish". Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (MoDA). Middlesex University. Retrieved 26 February 2020.
  10. ^ a b c "Althea McNish". Portraits: Women Designers. Arts and Humanities, University of Brighton. 2012.
  11. ^ a b Tessler, Gloria (13 December 2018), "Obituary: John Saul Weiss", Jewish Chronicle.
  12. ^ "Althea Marjorie McNISH" Archived 16 April 2016 at the Wayback Machine at Debrett's People of Today.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h Cobbinah, Angela (Summer 2008). "A Dash of Colour". Black History 365. Two (1): 5. (via Angela Cobbinah website).
  14. ^ Kamminga, Caitlyn; Walters, Adam (2016). River of Freedom. Plain Vision. p. 32. ISBN 9780997166408.
  15. ^ Bullard, Mary R., Cumberland Island: A History, University of Georgia Press, 2005, pp. 140, 320.
  16. ^ "Bringing the tropics to post-war Britain" Good At Looking, 3 August 2018.
  17. ^ "Now! Now! Artists' Biographies & Statements – Althea McNish". Black Artists & Modernism. 22 October 2016. Retrieved 19 April 2020.
  18. ^ a b Anne Walmsley (1992), The Caribbean Artists Movement 1966–1972: A Literary and Cultural Study, London/Port of Spain: New Beacon Books, p. 18.
  19. ^ Angela Cobbinah, "Obituary: Althea, textile revolutionary, brought splash of tropical colour to Britain", Islington Tribune, 24 April 2020.
  20. ^ Blair, Pat (August 1960). "Althea McNish – fabric designer". Tropic.
  21. ^ Walmsley (1992), pp. 87, 135, 150, 228, 285.
  22. ^ a b "Althea McNish: bio". AMJW. Althea McNish & John Weiss. Retrieved 14 February 2016.
  23. ^ "Full House | BBC Two England, 3 February 1973 21.00", Radio Times, Issue 2569, 1 February 1973, p. 15.
  24. ^ "RCA Black", RCA Society.
  25. ^ "Althea McNish" at Diaspora Artists.
  26. ^ "RCA Black: Past, Present & Future", African and African Caribbean Design Diaspora, 2011.
  27. ^ Goddard, Juliette, "A Cultural Diversity Affair at the Royal College of Art BLACK EXHIBITION in London", Dunia, 6 September 2011.
  28. ^ Brian W. Alleyne, "Radicals Against Race: Black Activism and Cultural Politics", Berg, 2002, pp. 145–46.
  29. ^ "Building Britannia Celebrates the Windrush Generation and its Descendants", George Padmore Institute, 22 June 2022.
  30. ^ "Althea McNish Revolutionary Fabrics & Furniture - Hull", RCA Society.
  31. ^ "Clothes, Cloth & Culture Group". Iniva. April 2015. Archived from the original on 12 January 2016. Retrieved 13 February 2016.
  32. ^ "Tropic" at V&A.
  33. ^ "Tropic". Victoria and Albert Museum. 14 January 2016. "Gilia". Victoria and Albert Museum. 16 March 2016.
  34. ^ Linten, Beatrice (3 February 1962). Prints to Catch the Eye. ((cite book)): |newspaper= ignored (help)
  35. ^ "SS Oriana: 'Rayflower' mural in Warerite by Althea McNish in the Tourist Restaurant", RIBApix.
  36. ^ Photograph of Oriana restaurant.
  37. ^ "'Oriana' - Tourist Restaurant". A postcard from the P&O-Orient liner "Oriana" of 1960: "Friendly and picturesque, this restaurant combines gaiety with unobtrusive surroundings." Designed by Brian O'Rourke.
  38. ^ "Rebuilding of the General Hospital, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, West Indies; Architects: Devereux & Davies". Interbuild: 28–30. May 1961.
  39. ^ Cotter, Holland, "ART REVIEW; This Realm of Newcomers, This England", The New York Times, 24 October 1997.
  40. ^ Stefanie Waldek, "Five Female Designers Who Changed History", Architectural Digest, 8 March 2018.
  41. ^ Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain's Hidden Art History, BBC Four.
  42. ^ Ramaswamy, Chitra (30 July 2018), "Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain’s Hidden Art History review – a powerful picture of whitewashing", The Guardian.
  43. ^ "Althea McNish: Colour is Mine". William Morris Gallery. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  44. ^ "Althea McNish: Colour is Mine | William Morris Gallery 2 April – 11 September 2022". Art Fund. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  45. ^ Cox, Sarah. "Goldsmiths lecturer curates first retrospective of textile innovator Althea McNish". Goldsmiths, University of London. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  46. ^ Sherwin, Skye (28 March 2022). "'She broke boundaries': how textile artist Althea McNish made Britain bloom". The Guardian.
  47. ^ Reid, Kareem. "The Importance of althea McNish". Liberty. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  48. ^ "Late Tottenham textile artist Althea McNish honoured with blue plaque on West Green Road". 15 May 2023. Retrieved 16 May 2023.
  49. ^ Creavalle, Dunstn (16 May 2023). "Althea McNish Blue Plaque unveiled". Soca News. Retrieved 1 June 2023.
  50. ^ a b Althea McNish Bibliography and Exhibitions, AAVAD.
  51. ^ "Afro-Caribbean Art catalogue", Drum Arts Centre, London, 1978. Diaspora Artists.
  52. ^ "Legacies: Commemorating the bicentenary of British abolition: Trade and Empire: Remembering Slavery at The Whitworth Art Gallery", Revealing Histories.
  53. ^ "Trade and Empire: Remembering Slavery", a-n The Artists Information Company, 11 January 2008.
  54. ^ Alan Rice, Creating Memorials, Building Identities: The Politics of Memory in the Black Atlantic, Liverpool University Press, 2011.
  55. ^ "RCA Black", Royal College of Art, 25 August 2011.
  56. ^ Grant, Colin (2 June 2019). "Get Up, Stand Up Now: Black British art's response to the Windrush scandal". The Guardian. Retrieved 23 April 2020.
  57. ^ "National Awards Database". The Office of the President of Trinidad and Tobago.
  58. ^ a b c "Independence Arts Achievement award for Althea". RCA Society. 8 September 2012. Retrieved 9 March 2016.
  59. ^ Doughty, Melissa (5 December 2016), "Colouring the world How textile expert changed world view", Trinidad and Tobago Newsday. Reprinted with added photographs at Repeating Islands, 7 December 2016.
  60. ^ "T&T nationals get awards in UK". Trinidad and Tobago Guardian. 7 October 2012. Archived from the original on 11 March 2016. Retrieved 10 March 2016.

Further reading