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Althea: the original material girl

Angela Cobbinah talks to fabric designer Althea McNish, whose colourful work is included in a celebration of black creativity at Somerset House

20 June, 2019 — By Angela Cobbinah

Althea McNish in 2008. Photo: Angela Cobbinah

MORE than 60 years ago, an undergraduate of the Royal College of Art created a textile that would help revolutionise fabric design in Britain.

The student was Althea McNish, a precocious young Trinidadian with a kaleidoscope eye for colour, and the print was Golden Harvest, inspired by a day out in the Essex countryside. Now part of the V&A collections, it sold around the world and launched a glittering career that saw Althea commissioned by the likes of Dior.

Just turned 95, she is the oldest living artist to be included in Get Up Stand Up Now, Somerset House’s glorious celebration of 50 years of black creativity in Britain, an exhibition of 100 or so individuals. On display are colour variants of Golden Harvest, which Althea designed in 1957 after taking an early morning walk through swaying wheatfields, giving it a tropical twist.

“It was a wonderful experience,” she told me when I visited her last week after she’d been unable to attend the show’s opening due to illness.

“It reminded me of when I used to walk through sugar plantations and rice fields while growing up in Trinidad. I seemed lost in all that wheat. The sun was beginning to shine and I just let my imagination do the rest.”

The first black British designer of international repute, Althea arrived in England in 1951 to study textiles at the London College of Printing and later the Central School of Art, where she was tutored by the sculptor and pop art pioneer Eduardo Paolozzi. When she joined the Royal College of Art, she came under the influence of Hugh Casson, then professor of interior design, who allowed her to experiment with her ideas.

Althea was nothing if not bold and impulsive. A day after graduating, she famously headed for upmarket fabrics store Liberty armed with a portfolio of her work. It included the Golden Harvest print. Head of the firm Stuart Liberty was so impressed he commissioned her on the spot to design a new collection.

Britain at the time seemed shrouded in a permanent post-war gloom, where even the light was rationed.

“People needed more colour in their lives and I decided to give it to them,” she says.

Her stock in trade were gaudy, splashy prints of flowers or fruits and cascading abstract patterns, where colours clashed and competed for attention. Inspired by the hues of nature – whether in Trinidad or Essex – what gave her the edge was her experimentation with dyes and surfaces and her technical ability to screen print, which led to collaborations with industrial print manufacturers like Hull Traders and Heals.

“I knew how to preserve the integrity of my chosen colours so whenever printers told me it couldn’t be done, I would show them how to do it,” she once told me from her Tottenham home, where her studio was based.

Her work with Dior, for whom she also produced a new collection, enabled her to indulge in her favourite fabrics, silk and velvet, but at the other extreme she also created massive laminate panels for passenger cruise liners.

A leading member of the influential Caribbean Artists Movement of the early 1970s, which first proclaimed the presence of black artists in Britain, she helped to establish new furnishing trends as well as inspire more adventurous fashion designers further down the line like Zandra Rhodes.

As for Golden Harvest, that has been replicated so many times over that it will be instantly familiar to most in a variety of forms, from wallpaper for the humble front room to wall hangings for the official residence of Shridath Ramphal when he was appointed Commonwealth secretary-general in 1975.

Get Up, Stand Up Now: Generations of Black Creative Pioneers is at the West Wing Galleries, Somerset House, Strand, WC2R 1LA until September 15. See www.somersethouse.org.uk

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