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Althea McNish: Colour Is Mine

Nestled at the back of the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, East London, is smallish space which hosts temporary exhibitions – usually in keeping with the broad theme of the gallery itself, including textiles and fine art. Over the next few months - until 11 September, the place is bursting with the brightest, most vibrant colours, often in sharp contrast with Morris’ more subdued tones. Welcome to Althea McNish: Colour is Mine – the visually stunning exhibition we all need to kick start summer.

I'm writing Althea McNish's extraordinary story against the background of a shameful Home Office document that was recently leaked (30 May 2022) and which highlights the stark reality of deep rooted racism that brought us the Windrush scandal lies is the fact that every single piece of immigration or citizenship legislation between 1950 – 1981 was designed at least in part to reduce the number of people with black and brown skin who were permitted to live and work in the UK. This is the country Althea McNish (1924 – 2020) and her parents landed in, in 1950 - a country where they weren’t actually welcome in spite of being from the ‘commonwealth’ … and yet, like most migrants, they had so much to offer.

The Art of Textile

Althea was 27 when she travelled to London with her mother, a renowned dressmaker and designer, from Port of Spain, Trinidad, to join her father who was already here working here as a writer and publisher. Upon arrival, she promptly changed her plans to become an architect and enrolled in a commercial graphics course at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts instead. She studied screen printing, attended textile evening classes at the Central School of Art - where she met sculptor and printmaker Eduardo Paolozzi – and, in 1954, went on to win a scholarship to the Royal College of Art where she completed a post graduate in textiles. She quickly distinguished herself as artist and designer, with a particular talent for printing, textiles repeats and colourways, always experimenting with various techniques and very much in control over production processes.

“I have found that whatever I can design, I can print. I have no patience with people who say that too much technology prevents creativity …. I have made a point of keeping up

with technological developments to allow me complete freedom.”

(Althea McNish, 1996)

Within days of her graduation, in 1957, she landed her first contract as a professional designer, with a commission by Liberty and Asher to create new and exclusive designs for both fashion and furnishing fabrics. That was also the year she designed Golden Harvest - her most famous design; produced in four colours, the furnishing fabric of printed heavy cotton satin became a Hull Traders' best-seller and stayed in production until the 1970s.

While you may have come across her work at the V&A or as part of Caribbean-British Art celebration Life between Islands at Tate Britain, this is the first retrospective to mark Althea McNish’s exceptional career. And as you open the gallery door, you can feel the tropical sunshine from her native Trinidad radiate through the room – with Golden Harvest beaming at you.

As someone who grew up in an environment where fabrics and colour were a big part of life, I really loved the combination of zingy designs and intricate technical skill - in particular Painted Desert and the Summer Madness evening dress, which was inspired by a profusion of Zinnias and African Daisies in her garden in South Tottenham. The fabric was later sold by Liberty – who had quickly worked out that that post-war Britain was ready to embrace colours and Althea McNish was definitely the woman for the job, creating a wide range of popular designs, which perfectly captured a mix of Trinidadian and British influences – the wheat of Golden Harvest and daisies of Summer Madness vibrantly transformed in Caribbean flamboyance.

Textiles for Life

The exhibition continues upstairs with more fashion textiles and paintings. Walking up the stairs you are greeted by this quote:

“My designing is functional but free, you can wear it, sit on it, lie on it, stand on it.

I can see people wearing my designs all over the world

and they are in people’s homes and museums.” (Althea McNish, 1996)

… which reminded me a little of William Morris’s: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

On the first floor, you get a further glimpse of her impeccable sense of style in the ‘Bachelor Girl’ – a model room she was invited to create for London’s influential Ideal Home Exhibition in 1966 and for which she imagined a classy studio like space for an independent, creative, professional woman … like herself, unshackled from the confines of traditional familial and social expectations.

Althea McNish saw herself very much as an artist and was an active member of the Caribbean Arts Movement (CAM), founded in 1966, and which sought to celebrate and promote the work of artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians from across the Caribbean to the British public … and of course there is reference to Trinidad’s long tradition that is carnival, which features here with memories of attending Carnival, the family’s friendship with Claudia Jones and being on the Carnival Queen judging panel. The content is as powerful as it is colourful … don’t miss out on this unique and timely homage to a truly remarkable woman and artist.

The Morris Gallery

And while you’re here, it would be rude not to visit the rest of the gallery which retraces the life and work of one of Walthamstow's most famous residents, William Morris. And, although she doesn’t feature very prominently in the gallery, I have always found Jane Morris née Burden an fascinating personage. From a very poor background, she was picked out of the crowd by Morris’ Pre-Raphaelite colleague – or rival! - Dante Rossetti. Struck by her beauty, he asked her to model for him – and soon she became the muse par excellence, the epitome of ideal beauty for a whole artistic movement.

She married William Morris, who was totally besotted with her – although she admitted, after his death, not to have ever been in love with him. She had an affair with Dante Gabriel Rosetti, for whom she sat a lot and with poet and political activist Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. In fact, she made a big impression on all those who came across her – even novelist Henry James was in awe at meeting her in person. But there is so much more to Jane Morris than the male gaze. Far from being a silent muse, she was well read, fluent in French and Italian and played a far more pivotal role in the family firm Morris & Co., the Arts and Crafts movement and the development of William Morris’ politics, art and writings than she has been credited for – all while rocking polyamory!

Keep going … E17 has lots more to offer

Right behind the Gallery you'll find Lloyd’s Park, it's gorgeous - in all season - and if you’re in on a Saturday enjoy the food stalls. For great coffee / breakfast / brunch nearby try Bühler and Co or Wynwood. You can easily make a day of being in Walthamstow. Head towards the ‘village’ - via the art deco town hall - to explore the neon delights at God’s Own Junkyard, grab of gin at Mothers’ Ruin Gin Palace and or sample local breweries. From there, you are a stone’s throw away from Wood Street, its quaint market and fab street art. At the top end, on the corner of of Wyatt's lane, you'll see the Rock Against Racism mural and next to The Duke pub, the gorgeous Beryl Swain. As you look up, you can see her speeding towards you, just as she did in 1962, when she became the first solo woman to compete in the Isle of Man TT race. She pissed the patriarchy off so much that they changed the rules - apparently the sport was too dangerous for women! pffff - and revoked her international licence!

If on the other hand you’re feel like enjoying the great outdoors - head for the Walthamstow Wetlands or hop on the train to the mighty Epping Forest.

(picture gallery above in order: Lloyd's Park - behind the Morris Gallery; Walthamstow Town Hall, Neon Art at God's Own Junkyard; Mother's Ruin Gin Palace; St Mary's Church, one of the cute houses along Church path; Beryl Swain and Rock Against Racism street art in Wood Street)

Practical info

Getting to Walthamstow is easy - either on the Victoria underground line or the mainline train from Liverpool Street to Chingford.

Lloyd Park, Forest Road, Walthamstow, London, E17 4PP

Open: Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm

Free entry


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