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Clarice Cliff (1899-1972) English Ceramic Designer

If you've ever been to an antiques auction, fair or antique shop and some really bright, larger than behive_honeypot_crocus.jpg life pottery catches your eye from about 30 feet away, do not be troubled, you're just heading for the Clarice Cliff stand. Interest in Clarice Cliff has skyrocketed in recent years to the point where, because of the huge number of different shapes and designs she produced, whole sales and auctions are devoted entirely to her wares. This 'enchantment' with her work has elevated prices to phenomenal levels for rarer pieces, like the 'Inspiration' series (1929-31), and the 'Appliqué' range (1930-1). clarice_cliff.jpg At the other end of the scale, small objects and anything from the 'Crocus' pattern (1929-63), which was her number one best-seller, are usually the most affordable.

Where did this fascination come from?
The Art Deco style of the 1920's and 30's, derived its name from the 1925 Paris Exhibition - the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. cupandsaucer_gayday.jpg This was the first truly modernistic style of the 20th century, which boasted bold, bright colours and decorative designs using geometric shapes, crystallizing historical styles into a modern mode.

"Cliffware" was rather gaudy, cheap and cheerful, practical and plentiful. But the designs were perceived by the big retailers of the day as attractive novelties. Shops like Harrods, Liberty, Selfridges and Lawleys managed to sell large quantities with very little effort. That it was bought with such vigour may have been due to the contrast of the predominantly darker hues of earlier Victorian styles and the sense of optimism that prevailed after the horrors of WWI.

pepperpot_autumn.jpg The success of Clarice Cliff is even more extraordinary when you consider how unusual it was at that time for a woman to gain such prominence in any field, let alone win the admiration and respect of so much of the arts world. She became the people's designer, her motto of, 'a woman designing for the modern woman', and the idea of filling homes with colour, assured her a following and instant fame. She truly was the "Sunshine Girl".

preservepot_bonjour_crocus.jpg What a change we have seen in recent years. As with much else from the Art Deco period (1910's-30's), little interest was shown among dealers and collectors and interest in Cliff pottery did not really take off until the early 80's. With hindsight, of course, British Art Deco ceramics are now virtually synonymous with Clarice Cliff. She revolutionised British pottery, and Art Deco generally is now very much in vogue, with prices rising rapidly.

Born in the pottery town of Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent, to Harry, an iron moulder, and Ann (nee Machin) Cliff, Clarice was raised with 7 brothers and sisters. She left school at 13 and went to work at Linguard, Webster & Co, as an apprentice enameller. preservepot_rhodanthe.jpg After learning freehand enamel painting she was hired, first by Hollingshead & Kirkham as a lithographer, and then by Arthur J Wilkinson's Royal Staffordshire Pottery (est.1885) in Burslem, working under the guidance of Jack Walker from 1917. Her artistic flair soon came to the attention of Colley Shorter, head of Wilkinson's pottery, who allowed her to attend evening classes at the Burslem School of Art.

sugarsifter_bizarre_limberlost.jpg Wilkinson's bought the Newport Pottery (est.1920) in Burslem and after returning from studying sculpture in 1927 at the Royal College of Art, London, Clarice was to set up in her own studio, there to experiment and design her own pieces.

British ceramics during the Art Deco period had so far remained essentially traditional. That was until Clarice Cliff came along and started painting them up in bright colours, developing new ideas and adopting some that emerged from the Paris Exhibition, such as her Egyptian style. Newport blanks were given unique styling using bold designs and abstract patterns in vivid colours with bold brushwork. By 1929 the Newport Pottery was given over entirely to the decoration of her work which was marketed under the names such as "Bizarre" and "Fantasque". She employed a small, highly skilled team of paintresses affectionately known as "Bizarre girls" and having standardized both the patterns and colours, Clarice was promoted to Company Art Director the following year.

sugarsifter_capri.jpg Several famous contemporary artists lent their name to this explosion of colour and diversity of designs, between 1932 and 4. Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970), one of Britain's best loved artists, famous for her oil paintings of the ballet, the circus and gypsy life. Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) the English painter and decorative designer, and elder sister of Virginia Woolf, and Paul Nash (1899-1946), the famous English Great Wars artist, to name three.

Production stepped up to a colossal rate and Clarice went on to design around 500 shapes of pottery, including candlesticks, bookends, plaques, plates, figurines and masks, and 1000 pattern designs, among the most famous being Crocus, Gayday, My Garden, Sunray, Latona, Inspiration, Autumn and Appliqué.

At its height in the early 30's, the Newport Pottery had a workforce of hundreds, producing these new modern shapes and designs. Other manufacturers and designers were quick to follow suit in an effort to cash in on this success during the economic recession of the mid 20's.

So, you're thinking of buying? What to look out for:
  • What you like. I've always maintained this should be the prime consideration of any collector.
  • If you intend trading, then bold, geometric patterns, unusual shapes and vivid colours will always command a premium over the traditional, common shapes.
  • Condition is everything. Values drop enormously for damaged or restored pieces. Check thoroughly all edges of spouts, handles, lids, bases, piercings, tips, rims and knobs. Check edges of painted areas and all unpainted areas of the honey-glaze body, as restoration here is extremely difficult to do invisibly, and so is easier to spot.
  • Clarice Cliff had an adventurous spirit and anything that 'speaks' of her in this way will always be worth owning.
  • Colour. The earthenware body is covered in a warm, yellow honey glaze, which gives the background its ivory colour seen on many Cliffware pieces.
  • Brushstrokes. Enamel paint was hand applied quite thickly, leaving behind characteristic brush strokes in the designs.
  • Decorations. Many designs were outlined in black or other colours.
Beware of fakes.
Cliffware fakes abound. Even so, all but the best are easiest to spot, as they usually lack the bright and vibrant colours normally associated with Bizarre wares. vase_crocus.jpg Check pieces very carefully for washed-out colouring, inferior design, poor quality painting and an uneven or murky glaze. This kind of pottery is now worth faking, which is evidenced by the recent revival of Cliff popularity, where the best or rarest pieces are reaching high prices at auction, so watch out!

That which spawned the Art Deco movement, was probably also the reason for its demise, and the Clarice Cliff domination of it was about to be rocked. With the outbreak of WWII in 1939, pottery manufacturers, as well as most other industries, suffered severe shortages of raw materials and manpower, which had a detrimental effect on output. War has a tendency to alter the public perspective, particularly afterwards, and Clarice found that following the war the same appetite for change that made her famous, had moved on, as mass produced ceramics was pushing out the hand painted wares of the 30's. vase_fantasque _broth.jpg Most of the pre-war production never got started again and while some of the old paintresses were re-enlisted, it wasn't a serious attempt to recreate earlier successes.

Clarice married Colley Shorter in 1940. They didn't have any children and after the war pottery production carried on with various 'crocus' lines, albeit at a reduced rate, up until Colley's death in 1963. Now aged sixty-four, Clarice found it increasingly difficult to run both factories, and the following year she made the decision to sell Wilkinson's and Newport to the Midwinters Pottery (est.c.1910). She retired to her house in Clayton, Stoke-on-Trent and lived there until her death on 23 Oct 1972, following a brief illness.
Midwinters became part of the J&G Meakin Pottery (est.1851) in 1968, who were in turn taken over by the Wedgwood group in 1970.

Now that the world has been reawakened to the extraordinary beauty of the work of Clarice Cliff, those early designs have maintained their appeal and are among some of the most collectable Art Deco contemporary art. Some 80 years after the original pieces were painted; many of the rarer examples are, pound for pound, worth more than gold. How Bizarre is that!

Author: Phil Chave

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Comprehensively Clarice Cliff: An Atlas of 2,000 Patterns, Shapes and Backstamps
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Clarice Cliff:
The Art of Bizarre

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Clarice Cliff:
The Bizarre Affair

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Collecting Clarice Cliff Pottery: 2007 Collectors Guide CD

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