On 26 July the Wallpaper History Society enjoyed an online talk presented by Rose Sinclair, discussing the extensive research she has undertaken to underpin the exhibition she has co-curated of McNish’s work at the William Morris Gallery, an exhibition supported by a grant from the Society of Antiquaries.
Whilst studying for a doctorate on Black women in design, Sinclair became fascinated by McNish’s work, and continued to investigate through archives and contemporaneous media the story of McNish’s hugely successful career that spanned the late 1950s to the 21st century.
Seeking out primary sources, such as pattern books belonging to Liberty, and samples of wallpaper, including the Palladio range, Sinclair discovered a life balanced between a Caribbean homeland and influential design input into major UK interior product houses including Heal’s, Hull Trading Company, Cavendish Furnishings, Liberty as well as others – perhaps some still to be discovered.
Sinclair’s deep knowledge of her subject allowed us insights into McNish’s technical approaches, experimentation, strong sense of colour and cultural influences. Recognised widely as an important designer, McNish was able to employ creativity in her work that would be difficult to apply now. Her designs might include up to 24 colours, which she used with a conviction and freshness, making a big impact on contemporary design. Experimenting with layers of media, including monoprints, coloured acetates and crayon, McNish created designs with depth and vibrancy.
McNish’s skills were recognised in contemporary media: she was the only female to be represented in the c1960 edition of Decorative Art 50, amongst a group of otherwise male designers noted as being the ones to watch. Her designs were included in the Ideal Home Exhibition, which was featured on BBC in full colour
for the first time in 1966. Here Sinclair discussed how the market was opening up and McNish’s designs becoming more mainstream, with her name not necessarily being attached to the designs, making identifying all her work problematic. Indeed, although McNish might name her designs, these might be changed by the retailer when the designs went into production – another research difficulty. Sinclair explained that many designs may be in stores, not yet catalogued or accessioned into collections.
Sinclair described wallpaper designs such as Zircon as being rich in texture as well as colour – almost 3D. McNish’s Palladio designs continued through the 60s, and it is not known yet exactly how many she created. In 1961 McNish complained by letter to Wallpaper Manufacturers Ltd that designers were not paid with due respect for the skills and effort that their work entailed – as Sinclair noted, something that might ring true today.
The 40-minute session was well paced by Sinclair, who clearly just touched the tip of the iceberg of her knowledge with her presentation, ending by reminding us that McNish was rooted in her Caribbean heritage, championing the work of the Caribbean Artist Movement and bringing energy arising from a strong sense of self to the commissions she undertook.
The exhibition Althea McNish: Colour is Mine, is at the William Morris Gallery until 11 September, and at the Whitworth, Manchester in autumn 2022.