Althea McNish

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Althea McNish

EducationLondon School of Printing and Graphic Arts;
Central School of Arts and Crafts;
Royal College of Art
Known forTextile design
Spouse(s)John Weiss (1959–2018, his death)

Althea McNish FCSD (born c. 1933) is a British textile designer of Trinidadian origin who has been called the first British designer of African descent to earn an international reputation.[1] Born in Trinidad, McNish moved to Britain in the 1950s. She was associated with the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) in the 1960s,[2] participating in CAM's exhibitions and seminars and helping to promote Caribbean arts to a British public.[3] Her work is represented in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Whitworth Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Cooper-Hewitt (Smithsonian Design Museum), among other places.[4][5][6]

McNish is a Fellow of the Chartered Society of Designers.[7] She was married to the jewellery designer John Weiss (21 June 1933 – 9 November 2018).[8]


Althea Marjorie McNish[9] was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, around 1933.[10] Her father, the writer Joseph Claude McNish, was descended from the Merikin settlers in Trinidad.[10][11][12] 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.[10][13] Her influences included local artists Sybil Atteck, Amy Leong Pang and Boscoe Holder, and European modernists such as Vincent Van Gogh.[10]

In the early 1950s McNish moved with her mother to London, England, to join her father there.[14] 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.[10][14] 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.[10] On graduating, she immediately won a commission from Arthur Stewart-Liberty, head of the Liberty department store, sending her the same day to Zika Ascher, who commissioned her to design a collection for Dior.[10][7] Successfully designing for such prestigious clients, McNish was the first Caribbean woman to achieve prominence in this field.[15]

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".[16] 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.[17][18]

More recently, her work — represented by three printed textiles from early in her career: Golden Harvest, Pomegranate and Fresco[19] — was featured in the exhibition RCA Black: Past, Present & Future (31 August–6 September 2011),[20] 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.[21][22]

In 1969 she married John Weiss, architect, jeweller and historian, and worked in partnership with him from 1971.[17] At the time of Weiss's death in 2018Jake Leith, former president of the Chartered Society of Designers, said: "John and Althea were great ambassadors for the UK Fashion and Textile Design Sector."[8]

Notable designs[edit]

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,[3] (for whom she also created eight other patterns),[23] the design being based on an Essex wheatfield but using tropical colours.[24] A number of her early designs including Tropic,[25] 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.[26][27] 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[28] and Pineapples and pomegranates,[29][30] 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.[31]

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".[32]

Selected exhibitions[edit]

Solo exhibitions[33]
  • 2003: Althea McNish: My World of Colour: the international work and inspirations of a Black British Trinidadian textile designer. Ohio University, Athens, USA.
  • 1997: Althea McNish. Hockney Gallery, Royal College of Art, London.
  • 1982: Althea McNish. People's Gallery, London.
  • 1958: Althea McNish. Woodstock Gallery, London.
Group exhibitions[33]
  • 2011: RCA Black. Royal College of Art, London.[34]
  • 2007: Trade and Empire: Remembering Slavery. Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester, Manchester.[35][36][37]
  • 1998: Six into One: Artists from the Caribbean. Morley Gallery, London.
  • 1997: Trinidad and Tobago Through the Eye of the Artist: From Cazabon to the New Millennium 1813–2000. Commonwealth Institute, London. Exhibition in celebration of the 35th anniversary of independence of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.
  • 1997: Transforming the Crown: African, Asian & Caribbean Artists in Britain, 1966–1996. Caribbean Cultural Center, Studio Museum in Harlem, and Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York.
  • 1996: Caribbean Connection 2: Island Pulse. Islington Arts Factory, London.
  • 1986: Make or Break. Henry Moore Gallery, London.
  • 1982: Commonwealth Festival Exhibition. Brisbane, Australia.
  • 1981: INDIGO '81 International Exhibition. Indigo, Lille, France.
  • 1978: The Way We Live Now. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
  • 1978: Afro-Caribbean Art. Artists Market, London, organised by Drum Arts Centre.[38]
  • 1975: Caribbean Women Artists Exhibition. Olympia International Arts Centre, Kingston, Jamaica.
  • 1971: Caribbean Artists in England. Commonwealth Institute, London.
  • 1968: Caribbean Artists Movement. Digby Stuart College, House of Commons of the United Kingdom and London School of Economics, London
  • 1967: Caribbean Artists Movement. Theatre Royal, Stratford.
  • 1961: Paintings by Trinidad and Tobago Artists. Commonwealth Institute, London.

Awards and accolades[edit]

  • 1976: Chaconia Medal (Gold), Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, "for long and meritorious service to art and design"[39]
  • 1988: Scarlet Ibis Award, Trinidad and Tobago High Commission, London[40]
  • 2006: Honorary Doctor of Fine Art, University of Trinidad and Tobago
  • 2008: Journalist Angela Cobbinah described her as "immediately influential, helping to establish new furnishing trends as well as inspire more adventurous fashion designers further down the line like Zandra Rhodes."[10]
  • 2012: Jubilee Gala Award for Achievement in the Arts at the UK High Commission of Trinidad and Tobago, celebrating the 50th anniversary of independence.[40][41]


  1. ^ Jefferies, Janis; Conroy, Diana Wood; Clark, Hazel (2015). The Handbook of Textile Culture. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 87. ISBN 978-1-4742-7579-8.
  2. ^ Schwarz, Bill (2003). West Indian Intellectuals in Britain. Manchester University Press. pp. 16, 28.
  3. ^ a b "Fabric, Golden Harvest". Remembering Slavery. Whitworth Art Gallery. 2007.
  4. ^ "Art notes (review)", AJR, October 2011 Journal.
  5. ^ "Sample (England), 1962", Cooper Hewitt.
  6. ^ "Printed Textile 'Caribe'", Philadelphia Museum of Art.
  7. ^ a b "Althea McNish". Portraits: Women Designers. Arts and Humanities, University of Brighton. 2012.
  8. ^ a b Tessler, Gloria (13 December 2018), "Obituary: John Saul Weiss", Jewish Chronicle.
  9. ^ "Althea Marjorie McNISH" Archived 16 April 2016 at the Wayback Machine at Debrett's People of Today.
  10. ^ 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).
  11. ^ Kamminga, Caitlyn; Walters, Adam (2016). River of Freedom. Plain Vision. p. 32. ISBN 9780997166408.
  12. ^ Bullard, Mary R., Cumberland Island: A History, University of Georgia Press, 2005, pp. 140, 320.
  13. ^ "Bringing the tropics to post-war Britain" Good At Looking, 3 August 2018.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Blair, Pat (August 1960). "Althea McNish – fabric designer". Tropic.
  16. ^ Walmsley (1992), pp. 87, 135, 150, 228, 285.
  17. ^ a b "Althea McNish: bio". AMJW. Althea McNish & John Weiss. Retrieved 14 February 2016.
  18. ^ "Full House | BBC Two England, 3 February 1973 21.00", Radio Times, Issue 2569, 1 February 1973, p. 15.
  19. ^ "RCA Black", RCA Society.
  20. ^ "Althea McNish" at Diaspora Artists.
  21. ^ "RCA Black: Past, Present & Future", African and African Caribbean Design Diaspora, 2011.
  22. ^ Goddard, Juliette, "A Cultural Diversity Affair at the Royal College of Art BLACK EXHIBITION in London", Dunia, 6 September 2011.
  23. ^ "Althea McNish Revolutionary Fabrics & Furniture - Hull", RCA Society.
  24. ^ "Clothes, Cloth & Culture Group". Iniva. April 2015. Archived from the original on 2016-01-12. Retrieved 2016-02-13.
  25. ^ "Tropic" at V&A.
  26. ^ "Tropic". Victoria and Albert Museum. 14 January 2016. "Gilia". Victoria and Albert Museum. 16 March 2016.
  27. ^ Linten, Beatrice (3 February 1962). Prints to Catch the Eye. Glasgow Herald.
  28. ^ "SS Oriana: 'Rayflower' mural in Warerite by Althea McNish in the Tourist Restaurant", RIBApix.
  29. ^ Photograph of Oriana restaurant.
  30. ^ "'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.
  31. ^ "Rebuilding of the General Hospital, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, West Indies; Architects: Devereux & Davies". Interbuild: 28–30. May 1961.
  32. ^ Cotter, Holland, "ART REVIEW; This Realm of Newcomers, This England", The New York Times, 24 October 1997.
  33. ^ a b Althea McNish Bibliography and Exhibitions, AAVAD.
  34. ^ "RCA Black", Royal College of Art, 25 August 2011.
  35. ^ "Legacies: Commemorating the bicentenary of British abolition: Trade and Empire: Remembering Slavery at The Whitworth Art Gallery", Revealing Histories.
  36. ^ "Trade and Empire: Remembering Slavery", 11 January 2008.
  37. ^ Alan Rice, Creating Memorials, Building Identities: The Politics of Memory in the Black Atlantic, Liverpool University Press, 2011.
  38. ^ "Afro-Caribbean Art catalogue", Drum Arts Centre, London, 1978. Diaspora Artists.
  39. ^ "National Awards Database". The Office of the President of Trinidad and Tobago.
  40. ^ a b "Independence Arts Achievement award for Althea". RCA Society. Retrieved 9 March 2016.
  41. ^ "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[edit]

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