A fabulous exhibition on the life and work of the textile designer Althea McNish

875 Reviews

Star Travel Rating

4/5

Review type

Things to do

Date of travel

April, 2022

Product name

William Morris Gallery

Product country

UK

Product city

Walthamstow, London

Travelled with

Solo traveller

Reasons for trip

Culture/Sightseeing

Althea McNish was an unfamiliar name to me, until I visited the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London where a temporary exhibition tells her life story.

Born in Trinidad, Althea came to London in 1950 with her parents to study. On graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1957, Liberty immediately commissioned her work as they were impressed with her use of colour and vibrant designs. The exhibition is sponsored by Liberty Fabrics who have reissued a capsule collection of some of original fabric designs to coincide with the exhibition.

I started my tour in the Discovery Lounge watching a 10-minute collection of recordings and video footage which gave a good overview of her career, culminating with her last interview, shortly before her death in 2020 aged 96. Whilst she initially lived in Stoke Newington, she stayed true to the area and lived in nearby Tottenham. The ‘Lounge’ is small with just a simple bench for two to perch, so if it’s busy, you might want to revisit later.

The ground floor exhibition room was a riot of colour with wonderful displays of her fabrics and letters and photographs from her personal archive. Although she began designing dress fabrics, there was a letter of introduction from Liberty to Terence Conran expressing her wish to move into the world of furniture.

The light and airy tea room in an adjacent conservatory was bathed in colour as three rolls of fabric that Liberty have just reproduced were festooned below the ceiling.

The exhibition continued upstairs (no lift) and on the landing were designs from her expansion into commercial furnishings including passenger trains and P&O’s SS Oriana, when they wanted to make less of a distinction between first and standard class. It also told of how her designs were used on a new synthetic fabric developed by ICI called terylene because it absorbed the colour so well.

Off the landing was a ‘Bachelor Girls Room’ which reimaged a room created for the Ideal Home Exhibition in 1966 for a 27-year-old girl about town with a budget of £325 or £5,725 today. It was full of modular furniture and bright floral prints on cushions and furniture.

I took around an hour to look at the exhibition, but if you’ve made a special journey, there is lots more to see in the regular exhibition about the life and work of William Morris.

The gift shop has a good range of associated cards and books featuring her designs. Here I bought a selection of postcards which will be great as thank you cards.

The exhibition runs until 11 September 2022 and entry is free. The nearest station is Walthamstow Central.

Helen Jackson

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