To mark the Windrush anniversary, Gloria Tessler remembers her late friend, Althea McNish.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Empire Windrush which first docked in Tilbury on June 22, 1948. What should be a happy event, celebrating the diversity of culture in Britain, has been marred, of course by the trauma experienced by the Windrush generation, after the shocking revelations of how so many of them were deprived of their citizenship and deported back to the Caribbean, birthplaces which many could barely remember. And of course, it has still not been resolved.
But then I think of my late friend, the vivacious and gifted textile designer Althea McNish, a child of Windrush, whose Tottenham home she shared with her husband, the Jewish architect and jewellery designer John Weiss, who has just been honoured with a blue plaque. The day the plaque was unveiled at their house in West Green Road was a celebration of multiculturalism, joy and sheer Caribbean spirit; there was music, calypso singing, and a sense of warmth and welcome. The blue plaque was unveiled on the 99th anniversary of Althea’s birth, as a purple curtain, a colour she would have loved, was slowly unfurled to whoops of joy from those who came to join the street party. They included the staff and students of Earlsmead Primary School and Haringey Council – all involved in launching a long, local focus on Althea’s work leading to her centenary in 2024.
The Nubian Jak Community Trust facilitated the plaque’s installation with funding from London Unseen – part of the Mayor of London’s Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm. In a tweet, Jak Beula of the Trust said: “Althea’s impact on the capital resonated for over half a century, and we trust the plaque will help in making her legacy better known and no longer unseen to future generations.” She was the first Black British textile designer to earn an international reputation. The plaque describes her as a Pioneering Designer of Textiles, Murals and Wallpapers and Prolific Painter. Lived and had her studio here for over 60 years.
In many speeches outside their Tottenham home, both she and John were remembered with affection and respect. And it struck me how much John had subsumed his own career into Althea’s; the many books he had begun, exploring her Caribbean past, never finishing any of them – as far as I know – despite endless entreaties to do so. Althea’s work has been shown in many art galleries, most recently at the William Morris, but also the Tate and the V&A, and her textiles were produced by various leading companies, including Sandersons and Liberty’s, where she had introduced a range of vibrant colours in the 50s, shocking many out of their post-war, pastel torpor. Her secret: she always brought her Trinidad roots to her work. And John was praised for sharing her vision, “her tropical eye.”
I brought John’s cousin Sheila Twena, to the unveiling of the blue plaque. She insisted on coming wearing Althea’s colours, shocking pink with a bright red fascinator. “I want to celebrate Althea in the colours she loved best,” she told me, as she happily mingled with the crowds.
Both John and Althea died a few years back; John first from pancreatic cancer, and Althea at 95, from Alzheimer’s in 2020. But the plaque reminded me of their parties, the lounge filled with coloured cushions; John cooking exotic food in the messiest kitchen ever, with interminable Jewish explanations, Althea showing us the loom she worked on in her upstairs studio, while numerous cats took up residence.
John was discursive in nature, academic, a designer of quite masculine silver jewellery, but also a beautiful sunburst necklace that my husband gave me, and that I treasure. As a couple, they were a beacon of simple love and community, at a time when it could not have been easy for a Jewish man and a Black woman to marry and celebrate their lives together. But they proved how diversity can work when nourished in a creative, fulfilling environment.
After the murder of John Floyd, the rise of Black Lives Matter, the culture cancelling and the terrible injustices faced by the Windrush community – Althea’s community – both she and John demonstrated a positive energy of hope and open-mindedness. Perhaps she was luckier than most, her talents were recognised and relished. She was like Joseph in her coat of many colours – she would be adorned in everything from brilliant fuschia to crimson, emerald and oranges. As a young woman, she must have been extremely attractive; when I came to know her, she would sport colourful wigs, which burnished her height in contrast to John, who was smaller in stature with a long, white beard.
But what was so special about this rare couple was something quite transcendental. Others will moan about racism against blacks, against Jews, and these two would have experienced more than their fair share of it, given their generation. But neither ever spoke of racism or antisemitism. Only life, love, art and friendship mattered. They found it in the noisy diversity of West Green Road. Althea, who vaguely claimed she had “Jewish roots somewhere” – personified Solomon’s tribute to the Jewish woman in his Eshet Chayil – the woman who “laughs at the time to come.” Because she was always laughing.