ICONIC fabric designer Althea McNish died on April 16 in a nursing home in London. She was 95.
A release from Courtney McNish, chairman of the Merikin Commission and her nephew, said McNish had been ailing since 2018 after her husband, John Weiss, died.
London-based design historian Libby Sellers, in her book Women Design, profiled McNish in 2018, providing the information for this obituary.
McNish, a member of the Merikin community from the company villages in south Trinidad, was the daughter of writer and publisher Joseph McNish. Her mother was a dressmaker. As a child, she painted and sketched, helping her mother with outfit designs.
She was a junior member of the Trinidad Art Society and held her first show at 16. Her mentors included artists Sybil Atteck, MP Alladin and Boscoe Holder.
Her artistic abilities got her a job as a cartographer and entomological illustrator for the British Government in Trinidad.
She won a scholarship to the Architectural Association in London in 1951, but chose to go to the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts.
She became fascinated with fabric design when she went to an exhibition at the Central School of Art and Design, and did postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Art. After graduating, she was called by Liberty department store owner Arthur Stewart-Liberty, who told her he thought Britain was “ready for colour.”
Cardin, Dior, Schiaparelli, Givenchy and Lanvin became McNish’s clients. Liberty’s carried clothes with designs such as Cebollas (1958) and Hibiscus (1958).
Her 1959 prints Tropic and Giselle were in fashion magazines across Europe. Golden Harvest, designed in 1959, was one of her most celebrated pieces, inspired by a weekend walk through cornfields.
She once said: “In Trinidad, I used to walk through sugar plantations and rice fields and now I was walking through a wheat field. It was a glorious experience.”
UK architects Devereux and Davies used McNish’s murals in the interior of the Port of Spain General Hospital when it was modernised in 1960. When Queen Elizabeth II visited TT in 1966, McNish designed fabrics for her official wardrobe.
She was a founding member of the Caribbean Artist Movement and a vice president of the Chartered Society of Designers.
Her work can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Whitworth Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture and the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
In 1976 she was awarded the Chaconia Medal Gold for her contributions to art and design, and an honorary doctorate in fine arts from the University of TT in 2006.
McNish was a mentor to some of TT’s best-known designers.
Claudia Pegus was 19 when she was first connected with McNish through journalist Elma Reyes. Pegus won Miss Teen Trinidad and Reyes thought Pegus could learn a lot from McNish.
“I wasn’t in business at the time when I received her guidance. She shaped and fine-tuned my designs,” Pegus told Newsday.
She described McNish as a generous person who was a cultural ambassador for TT.
“Althea was one of our gems. She was an extremely talented person. I learned different types of fabric design techniques from her.”
Masman and theatre designer Peter Minshall was shocked to hear about McNish’s death.
In a phone interview with Newsday, he said, “Althea McNish, gosh, what a fine lady. What a fine artist. She taught at the Central School of Art and Design in London. She was my passport to Central as a student of theatre design when I went there from Trinidad at the tender age of 21.
“Thank you, Althea, from me personally, and from us all.”
General manager of the TT Fashion Company Lisa-Marie Daniel extended condolences to McNish’s family and the Merikin community. Daniel said McNish transformed the industry and paved the way for many fabric production artists.
“McNish and her work will always hold a special place in all of our hearts and we will always be very much appreciative of her support in building TT in the arts and for representing TT through her creative expression showcased in museums all over the world,” Daniel said.
McNish will be cremated on May 7 in London. The number of people at her funeral will be limited to ten because of covid19 restrictions.