Althea McNish
Doctor of Fine Art, honoris causa, University of Trinidad and Tobago
At the Graduation ceremony of the University of Trinidad and Tobago held on Saturday, 25 November 2006, Althea McNish was presented to the Chancellor of the University, His Excellency Professor George Maxwell Richards, President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, with the following oration by Pat Bishop:

Mr. Chancellor

I have the honour to present to you Miss Althea McNish for the award of the degree of Doctor of Fine Art, honoris causa.

Mr. Chancellor, Miss McNish has, for at least three decades, been one of the United Kingdom's most successful artists, enjoying important patronage both public and private. Her textile designs have become the stuff of legend and her murals are greatly and rightly celebrated.

Miss McNish was born in Trinidad and her aesthetic sensibilities have always been informed by the brilliant colour and pattern of the natural environment of her native land to a greater extent, perhaps, than even those Caribbean artists who live and work here, at home.

The poet Edna St Vincent Millay has written lines which I should like to quote, since I believe that they may help to connect this nascent University of Trinidad and Tobago, which has an avowed core interest in technology, with a textile designer – albeit one of proven distinction. The lines are as follows:

Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Falls from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts... they live unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leach us of our ill
Is daily spun; but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric ...

These lines begin to frame some terms of reference which this august occasion requires.

Indeed Mr. Chancellor, if we cannot place a perception within the context of its own resonances, then we cannot place it at all. There is no gainsaying that this is a "gifted age". It is an age of the most amazing scientific and technological and over it, the computer reigns supreme. Moreover, the poet's singular attitude to unconnected "facts" seems to underscore the potency of today's Information Super Highway. But it is also true that this age has had, and continues to have, its remarkably dark hours.

Yet the poet's metaphor offers us "a meteoric shower" so that the dark is not without relief. But despite its brilliance, that relief is also fleeting, which warns us that opportunity and advantage must be seized and combined swiftly if people like us are to find our place in today's global sun.

The pioneering activity located today in this frontier encampment is a presage of a new native courage to take advantage of our post-colonial isolations and in some way to link the intent and ambition of this University of Trinidad and Tobago with the proven achievements of Miss McNish.

But the relevance and importance of the ability to make "combinations" goes well beyond local immediate hubris since Miss McNish is herself a product of native gift, locked into historical circumstance and made to flourish.

The encouragement which the late Sybil Atteck and M.P. Alladin gave to Althea McNish when she was a junior member of the Trinidad Art Society, indicates that Trinidad and Tobago was not unmindful of her talent. It is interesting to note that the time of Atteck and Alladin was also the time of Carlisle Chang who, with Salvatori, Stollmeyer and the Holder brothers, was engaged in art making which, for the first time, sought in its various ways to engage Caribbean visual reality.

Indeed, the times were intensely nationalistic. Beryl Mc Burnie's Little Carib Theatre was similarly focused in dance and so too was the anthropologist Andrew Carr. Miss McNish therefore left for England, remarkably well conditioned by a host of local influences which, before the 1950's, could hardly be said to have existed.

However, it was study abroad at the London School of Printing which was to provide fundamental technical skill training for her craft, a métier which was further honed at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. But this training was not all that created the "loom" from which the fabric of Miss McNish's celebrity would derive.

The threads of opportunity which she seized included her significant acceptance of advice which the late Sir Eduardo Paolozzi gave her. This most significant of post-war British artists recommended that Miss McNish should concentrate on printed textiles. Paolozzi not only taught at the Central but had, for a while, actually started a company named Hammer Prints which made and sold textiles, wall paper and tiles featuring silkscreen images. The influences on his own work ranged from Surrealism, Dada and Pop art and his interest in strange artefacts and exotic forms was to touch a contemporary nerve.

Analysing the sources of an artist's choices is almost always a risky business and, in any event, life is lived at many levels of reality. It is therefore clear that a certain logic and even a certain vision of the artist and her work is hidden, often unconsciously, behind each aspect of art practice. There is every reason, therefore, to refer to the possibility of influence of whatever kind upon an artist's work with an abundance of caution. Moreover, the sense of ontological depth to metaphor or visual image is always mysteriously allusive and illusive to both artist and audience.

However it was in 1957 that Miss McNish graduated from the justly famous Royal College of Art and was immediately commissioned by both Liberty and Ascher, after which her freelance career has never really faltered. Now the Royal College of Art has been described as being a "special kind of ideas factory". It is the world's only wholly postgraduate university institution, specializing in teaching and research across the disciplines of fine and applied art, design, communication and the humanities. Royal College graduates have become leaders in the creative industries and the contribution of RCA graduates to the economic rise of such enterprises in the UK has been explosive. According to a 2002 survey, over 90% of RCA graduates are employed at a level appropriate to their qualification, in areas directly related to the discipline which they studied at the College. Such a situation must seem wildly unreal to Trinidad and Tobago today since the local artist can usually find employment only as a teacher or else he must abandon art altogether! Yet the creative industries contribute over £21 billion to the City of London, making artists an essential part of the success of that city's very modern economy.

James Dyson, Ridley Scott, David Adjaye, Zandra Rhodes, Tracey Emin and David Hockney are all RCA graduates – as is Trinidad's accomplished jeweler, Barbara Jardine.

Mr. Chancellor, the rise of 'useful' art in London did not happen by chance. Post-war, war-weary Britain was as grey as its climate! The arrival at the RCA of professors like the iconic dressmaker, Janey Ironside, was to give rise to designers such as Mary Quant and her mini skirt and 'Swinging London' was on its way. Britain needed colour and Althea McNish was there to satisfy that need with her big, beautiful splashy prints of every kind of flower and tropical pattern imaginable. In establishing need and opportunity as partial indices of explaining the success of Althea Mc Nish, we are also bound to point out that there were entrepreneurs who were anxious to commission her work. Trinidad and Tobago has never yet managed to produce the likes of Liberty of London which is still, today, an extraordinarily grand store.

Liberty's reputation does not rest on the cheap, the imitative or the glitzy. Instead, its glamour derives from generations of insistence upon carrying only the finest lines. An early supporter of the Arts and Crafts movement, Liberty's, as exemplified by the Liberty print, became synonymous with textiles of authenticity, integrity and design, all evolving from best practices. Here indeed is an example of "Wisdom enough to leach us of our ill ..."!

In other words, the imperatives of the time, the confluence of training and circumstances, and the opportunity to turn them to economic advantage provided Miss McNish with her own "loom", with which to weave and craft her talent into those legendary lengths of cloth for which she is so justly famous.

Mr. Chancellor, it is not by happenstance that I have chosen to reflect on metaphors of looms, of weaving and of fabric in order to provide some context for our appreciation today of Miss McNish. In a most literal and immediate sense, textiles are the business for which she has become legendary - textiles and those vivid murals which adorn the interiors of various ocean liners.

But for Trinidad and Tobago, the birth of this new University places the possible confluence of art and technology tantalisingly close at hand. Moreover, the University makes plain that its mission is to develop effective entrepreneurial capacity. For the artist/designer, could it be, as Nina Simone sings in the song that:

There's a new day comin'
And it's just around the bend,
There's a new day comin'
This one's comin' to an end ... ?

Petrochemicals are a major component of dyes for textiles - as indeed they are of synthetic fabrics. Nor should it be forgotten that the Caribbean can produce, and has produced, commercial quantities of sea-island cotton, reckoned by many to be the best in the world. Natural dye stuffs which abound in our tropical rainforests point a future for the region that may be both technologically based and which may also be handmade. In an age of mass production, the world has learnt to place finely created work of the hands at the upper end of the trade. Indeed, all of these islands' natural resource base are as yet unexploited in the way that Liberty and Ascher dealt with Miss McNish.

Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
falls from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts… they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leach us of our ill
is daily spun; but there exists no loom
to weave it into fabric.

Mr. Chancellor, we have in Miss Althea McNish the perfect model of the loom which all artistically gifted people like ourselves have so desperately needed for so long. That "meteoric shower" of advantage now seems to lie almost within our reach! Perhaps in Miss McNish figuratively, as well as in actual terms, we have found a way forward. Let us link the example of her career to the process of crafting of our very own loom. Today Mr. Chancellor, we must be inspired by the example set by this distinguished artist and use it as a catalyst for those innovative and entrepreneurial directions which this new University of Trinidad and Tobago can and must take to so that we may all, in our various ways, begin to bring the natural talent of our people to fruition.

Miss McNish has already received the Chaconia Medal (Gold) from the Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. She has been, throughout her career, an independent Visitor to design colleges and departments on both sides of the Atlantic and her record of service to intuitional management in education is very long. Her counsel on professional design matters is sought by the Board of the U.K. Design Council, the Chartered Society of Designers and the Design and Industries Association and indicate the high regard in which she is held in her adopted homeland. Yet she has never lost her sense of rootedness in the Caribbean aesthetic reality. Visits back home and associations with Caribbean people in London – such as those in CAM – The Caribbean Artists Movement - could act as stimuli, validation, and justification.

May I turn once more to poetry for those words of significance which I do not have the gift to craft myself? Lines this time by William Butler Yeats:

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Mr. Chancellor, it is an honour, it is a pleasure, (and I know that I speak here for all our gifted people who would also wish to be able to use their hands in the making of fine artistic product) to ask you to confer on Miss Althea McNish the award of the degree of Doctor of Fine Art, honoris causa.

Pat Bishop TC
Port of Spain
November 2006
revised 21 March 2007