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Althea McNish: artist and textile pioneer

Image of Althea McNish at the William Morris Gallery | Alamy

Baroness Young of Hornsey

Baroness Young of Hornsey

3 min read

The philosopher Thomas Carlyle suggested history was best understood as the "biography of great men". The House disagrees — and has invited parliamentarians this Black History Month to spotlight inspirational Black women.

“Everything I did, I saw it through a tropical eye".

Althea McNish, 2015.

The way in which the past is written up, and who it is written by, means that we are often not aware of historically significant Black individuals of national and international importance. They are not known beyond a small circle of inquisitive experts.

As we mark another Black History Month (and how I wish we didn’t still need to do this but, given how much there is still to learn and reveal, I’m glad we do) I’m struck by the continued absence of attention paid to pioneering Black women.

Bruce Castle Museum is a Tottenham gem. Sitting on the edge of a park, the museum demonstrates how to serve and engage with local communities by ensuring the richness of the area’s historic diversity is preserved for everyone. For years, the artist and designer Althea McNish lived less than a mile from the museum. McNish came to Britain from Trinidad in 1951, studying at the Central School of Art and Design, then at the Royal College of Art.

In 2019, the museum paid tribute to her achievements. But why weren’t there more people talking and writing about this woman? It is only more recently that McNish has become better known.

Since she died, there has been a major exhibition of her work at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, as well as essays in Vogue magazine and in the department store Liberty’s magazine for their customers. The Crafts Council, Goldsmiths University and The Guardian have also carried essays and tributes.

From the exhibition at the William Morris Gallery | Alamy
From the exhibition at the William Morris Gallery | Alamy
From the exhibition at the William Morris Gallery | Alamy
From the exhibition at the William Morris Gallery | Alamy


Why weren’t there more people talking and writing about this woman?

Like all good artists, she deployed her creative imagination in a variety of ways, stretching and challenging preconceived ideas. She designed and created a “bachelor girl’s room”, using the limited space to show off her eye for colour, sensing that young people in particular were looking for an escape from the drabness and sombre grey tones of post-war British design.

She also explored the concept of the paper dress, something which the fashion industry, in its quest for sustainable clothing, is still exploring today. Her fabric designs in particular projected the tropical heat and flamboyant abundance of colour in the flora and fauna of the Caribbean.

That Liberty took her work is testament to her creative authenticity and design integrity, especially as the store is often characterised as quintessentially English. It is no exaggeration to say that McNish’s work revolutionised fabric and interior design: it continues to be influential today.

Since McNish died in 2020, the artist Sonia Boyce RA has been working hard to ensure that the legacy of this extraordinary artist and designer is preserved. As a source of inspiration, who better to celebrate than someone who not only created beautiful, compelling, designs but also spoke eloquently about her experiences as a Black woman in the United Kingdom?

Baroness Young of Hornsey is a crossbench member of the House of Lords

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