Upcoming Events

The Creolisation of the English Countryside: Exploring the Textiles and Wallpaper of Althea McNish

Research Lunch – Rose Sinclair

  • 13 October 2023
  • 1:00 – 2:00 pm
  • Paul Mellon Centre

“Althea McNish came to London from Trinidad to study at the school of Graphic art at the Central School, and then won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art. Her designs are in the rich tropical colours of her native West Indies and have enormous vitality… and gaiety which one hopes against hope she will be able to maintain in the face of our saddening climate.”

“Time Present... and Past”. Adburgham, Alison, the Guardian, 26 October 1960; the Guardian and the Observer.”

Althea McNish, (1924–2020) was the first designer of Caribbean heritage in Britain to gain international recognition for her mid-century textiles designs, many of which were inspired by the Caribbean. The description of Althea McNish’s textiles as having vitality and gaiety and utilising rich tropical colours as derived from her native Trinidad is one that would continue to follow her career for the next five or so decades. McNish’s textile design work would continually be discussed in the terms of “tropicalising” the English countryside where she would take the imagery of the smallest flora and fauna found and reimagine this in new states of the imagination through her own unmistakable approach to colour, both as statement and intent.

“Tropicalisation” as the subject of McNish’s design has been an ongoing discussion; it is nothing new and is a term that has been commonly applied to other textiles such as chintz, a printed cloth designed in India and exported to Britain but modified for British tastes, or seen in Chinoiserie objects or decorations, which is the European interpretation of Chinese/Asian/Far Eastern decorative arts of the eighteenth century.

However, more recent research as a result of the recent retrospective of McNish’s work looks to question whether there is a call to look beyond the notion of whether McNish work was not just a form of “tropicalisation” and more a form of “creolisation” which entails the blending of the cultural language of her early journey of painting in Trinidad and her engagement with the “art of serigraphy” to create a new language in her approach to design that permeated her practice and positions her as a champion of the use of colour in textiles. This discussion opens the door on this debate by looking again at some of her designs for both textiles and wallpaper and asks how her designs are more than merely a tropical sojourn and become a blending of creolised cultures.

Image caption: Display of a Bachelor Girls Room at the Ideal Home Exhibition, London, England 1966. Image courtesy of colaimages / Alamy Stock Photo

About the speaker

  • Rose Sinclair's PhD doctoral research focuses on Black British women, their crafting practices and textiles networks such as Dorcas clubs and societies.

    Rose’s practice uses public engagement and participatory immersive workshops such as pop-up shops and installations in museums, e.g. V&A London, House for an Art Lover and Timespan in Helmsdale, Scotland. Her work on Dorcas clubs has featured on national TV in Craftivism: Making a Difference BBC4 February 2021.

    She co-curated the first retrospective of the work of Caribbean textile designer Althea McNish, (2 April 2022–11 Sept 2022) at the William Morris Gallery titled Althea McNish: Colour is Mine which was supported by the Society of Antiquaries through its Janet Arnold Textile Award and which was shown at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester 22 October 2022–23 April 2023. Her latest work, the first monograph about Althea McNish, for Yale Publishers is due in Autumn 2024.

    Rose has featured in several textile books, her most recent works being “Tracing Back to Trace Forwards, What it Means/Takes to Be a Black Designer(2021), in Igoe (ed.) Textile Design Theory in the Making and “Does Design Do Race” (December 2022) in Hardy (ed.) Debates in Design and Technology Education. She is on the International Advisory board for Textile: Journal of Cloth and Culture, and co-editor of the Journal of Textile Research and Practice. Rose is the current Chair of the Equity Advisory Council at the Crafts Council, a Heritage Crafts Ambassador for Heritage Crafts UK and an associate member of the APPG Group for Craft.