(William Morris Gallery, London, 2 April – 11 September 2022; The Whitworth, Manchester, 21 October 2022 – 23 April 2023)
Review by Lawrence Scott
It was very moving, as a Trinidadian, to see, as I came along Forest Road from Black Horse Lane Station in the early summer, the banners announcing the Althea McNish exhibition at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow. The exhibition has since moved to the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester (until 23 April 2023). ‘Colour is Mine’ the banners proclaimed, speaking Althea’s words, alongside a portrait of the young Althea.
She arrived in Britain aged 27 in 1951. She died in 2020 at the age of 95. Her international reputation forged in the 1960s and continuing to the end of her life, endures. She was the first West Indian woman to achieve international fame in her field of textiles. Althea claimed to see everything ‘through a tropical eye’, and one of her greatest contributions to British design was to introduce to it a feel of the Caribbean.
The exhibition takes us through her extraordinary beginnings in Trinidad in the 1940s and key moments in the development of her reputation in Britain, linking her work with some of the most famous names in textile design: Liberty, Hull Traders and Zika Ascher. Presently, there is a display of the Althea McNish Collection on the third floor at Liberty on Regent Street. Liberty, which bought her entire graduation collection from the Royal College of Art and commissioned her to design for their 1958 fabric collections, has sponsored the exhibition and provided the merchandise on sale. Anyone can have a small piece of Althea’s work in the swatches of fabric on sale.
I have a number of memories of Althea. The first one is of seeing her directing the mounting of an exhibition of her work at the Hotel Normandie in Port of Spain back in the 1980s or 90s. I didn’t know her then, so just stood in awe, without talking to her, as I looked on at the bolts of fabric, silks and cottons, that were being unfurled and hung, draped along the walls falling to the floor, and the undulations from the ceiling of the foyer, by a woman who knew what she wanted done. These would have included some of the many now iconic designs: Poppy Jubilee, Cebollas Garden, Chelsea Chaconia and Golden Harvest. Her husband, John Weiss, the jewellery designer, said of her work: ‘She transforms all the tiniest English flowers into tropical splendour. She tropicalizes daisies.’ These designs are some of the exhibits on display together with some documentation of her life, including clips from a film made by the British-based Trinidadian film maker, Horace Ové.
John la Rose, co-founder of New Beacon Books and the George Padmore Institute, called the early generation of West Indians ‘the heroic generation’, saying, ‘England did not make us.’ Althea was a member of the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) which included well known writers, poets and artists of the 1960s.
As CLR James, another famous Trinidadian, who came to Britain in the 1930s says in the preface to his memorable memoir, Beyond A Boundary (1963): ‘If the ideas originated in the West Indies, it was only in England and in English life and history that I was able to track them down and test them. To establish his own identity, Caliban, after three centuries must himself pioneer into regions Caesar never knew.’ Althea managed to track down and test the technology she needed for her designs, impressing the best of those who would commission her work. Her instinctual sense of colour, though, came from Trinidad. As she said, ‘Colour is Mine.’