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Colouring the world How textile expert changed world view

By Melissa Doughty Monday, December 5 2016

“I ENJOY it, I find it fun and I get paid for it. What more can I ask for,” Dr Althea McNish said with the broadest smile on her face. Dr McNish is in an enviable position: she found what she loved, what she was good at and made it her life’s work.

McNish loves colour. She sees her world through colour. The Trinidadian-born British textile designer addressed students of the University of Trinidad and Tobago’s (UTT) Caribbean Academy of Fashion and Design on November 28.

McNish’s accolades include being awarded the Chaconia Medal (Gold) in 1976 for long and meritorious service to design and the Scarlet Ibis Award in 1988 by the London High Commission for Trinidad and Tobago. She was also the 2006 recipient of the UTT Honorary Arts Degree.

At 83, her love for colour has not diminished. She stills paints, she told the group gathered for the Virtual Exhibition and Fashion Motivational Talk. McNish and her husband John Weiss told of her journey into the world of textile and its impact on British/ European society. She and Weiss addressed the students on November 28 at the UTT’s John Donaldson Campus, Wrightson Road. The talk and exhibition was jointly organised by UTT and the Merikin Commission.

Although her name was one the young students had hardly heard of, at the end of the virtual exhibition and motivational talk some left clearly inspired by her accomplishments.

The discussion was led by Weiss as McNish was shy of speaking.

But there was also a playfulness that comes from a successful synergy, as Weiss jokingly told the audience, “She says everything is fine.” There was, however, also great admiration for the work of his wife as he recalled with a beaming smile of the many interactions she had. McNish was first a painter in TT and was one of the junior members of the TT Art Society; being influenced by the work of Boscoe Holder, Sibyl Atteck and M P Alladin. She migrated to Britain in the 1950s and entered the Royal College of Art.

She had initially been granted a scholarship to study graphics at the Royal College but practised printed textiles instead.

Weiss told the audience when her work was seen by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi – a sculptor and artist, she was encouraged to place her work on textiles.

Immediately after leaving the Royal College in 1957 she was commissioned by Liberty’s – a large fabric and clothing company in the United Kingdom. Although it was not something she had initially envisaged, McNish’s “talent coupled with her technical skill” made her work sought after. Her work was also sought after by Ascher, another leading textile company in the United Kingdom.

Weiss noted that McNish’s work influenced every sphere of the British society at the time: body and home.

Her biography reads, “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.” So influential her work had become, McNish’s design for Ascher was worn by British actress Audrey Hepburn in the 1957 American musical, Funny Face. When, in 1966, Queen Elizabeth visited Trinidad, McNish was commissioned to provide designs for her to wear.

McNish’s popular Golden Harvest design [often used as an icon for Caribbean Influence on British Culture], Weiss said, was created when she visited a British wheat field which reminded her of Trinidad’s sugar cane.

“She was staying in the country and went into a British wheat field and tropicalised it,” he said.

McNish’s work took her to various countries in Europe; visiting countries such as Austria, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Slovenia, Sweden and Switzerland.

While, Weiss said, “some of her specialness was coming from the Caribbean her talent spoke for itself.” But at the heart of everything McNish does is colour and her love for art.

She remembered attending an event with her mother and having won a prize but above the prize sat a box of crayons and she recalled telling her mother she wanted the crayons instead.

Whenever her mother, a dress designer had clients over, she also recalled volunteering to draw the designs for her at age three.

Although both Weiss and McNish could not state whether her work influenced a Caribbean aesthetic, Weiss was confident of one thing, “it initiated a great big movement in British textiles.”


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