Althea McNish: Colour is Mine at The Whitworth is a riot of colour, especially when viewed on a dull grey Manchester day.

Born in 1924 in Trinidad to a dressmaker mother and publisher father, McNish moved with her family to London in the early 1950s. She studied screen printing at the London College of Printing and took evening classes with Eduardo Paolozzi at the Central School of Art. When Paolozzi recognised her aptitude for printing and her understanding of colour, he steered her towards textile design.

On completion of a post-grad degree at the Royal College of Art, she sold her first design. Britain was still in the dark post-war days but Arthur Stewart-Liberty, chairman of London’s Liberty department store, recognised the need for colour. He saw this in McNish, and a unique talent for using it. In McNish’s own words, “everything I did, I saw it through a tropical eye”.

This major retrospective of McNish’s work is on tour from the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London. Now at Manchester’s Whitworth, in its main gallery spaces is a wealth of fabric designs from Hull Traders, Liberty’s, and all the major players of mid-century design in the UK and beyond.

Wandering around the exhibition, it’s clear that McNish’s sketches and paintings show her design process while magazines and catalogues showcase her well-established place in the story of post-war design. In 1963, she was highlighted as a new face of British design by Vogue.

By 1966, McNish had designed a Bachelor Girl’s Room for the hugely influential Ideal Home Show in London. Now, in 2022, The Whitworth has commissioned architectural practice Studio NYALI to reinterpret McNish’s room for the exhibition. Above the entrance are McNish’s words: “My designing is functional but free, you can wear it, sit on it, lie on it, stand on it.” And inside the room you can do exactly that.

Her commercial success established by the mid-60s, McNish continued to celebrate her Caribbean roots. She was a member of the Caribbean Arts Movement in London along with other notable artists, including the writer John La Rose, sculptor Ronald Moody and painter Aubrey Williams. Significant works by members of that group accompany McNish’s work at The Whitworth, and a newly acquired portrait of McNish by her friend Sybil Atteck is on display for the first time. 

McNish’s understanding of the screen-printing process gave her a head start on most of her contemporaries as she was able to create more technically complex prints. “Whenever printers told me it couldn’t be done, I would show them how to do it,” she said. “Before long, the impossible became possible.” (Althea McNish in Women Design by Libby Sellers, 2018)

‘Marina’ printed cotton, designed by Althea McNish for Liberty, 1957. Credit: William Morris Gallery © The McNish Trust

Co-curator Rose Sinclair told Northern Soul that McNish carried an allen key in her pocket, meaning she was always ready to adjust a screen at the printers. Sinclair also explained that in later years (until her death in 2020), McNish would take the key from her pocket and it would immediately unlock stories from her career.

Sinclair’s involvement in co-curating this exhibition has been crucial. Brought up in 1970s Birmingham after a foundation course in art, she studied textiles in Huddersfield. Not until embarking on her PhD studies on black British women and their crafting design practices was Sinclair aware of the success story of this amazing black woman. Why had nobody in her long career in the textile industry ever mentioned her? The more she learned of McNish’s success and innovation, the more she found the lack of its chronicling so bewildering.

For the exhibition, Sinclair has hunted down video footage to create an unmissable reel of film including extracts from a wonderful 1973 BBC programme, Full House, celebrating Caribbean arts with sets designed by McNish. And the search goes on. McNish is known to have visited Manchester on many occasions. Sinclair hopes that, in bringing this show to The Whitworth, some of those hidden stories will resurface.

By Susan Ferguson 

Main image: Hodder/ANL/Shutterstock – Althea McNish in 1966


Althea NcNish: Colour is Mine, is at The Whitworth until April 23, 2023. For more information on opening times please click here

Rose Sinclair is currently writing a book on Althea McNish