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Clarice Cliff: doyenne of ceramic designers whose work is still fresh

By Christopher Proudlove ©

by Christopher Proudlove�
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We tend not to think about it but given time, antiques collectors will look back on the first few decades of the 21st Century and marvel at how life was then, probably in much the same way that we do today about the 1920s Art Deco period. What they will be collecting is anyone’s guess, and if I knew, I’d be stockpiling now.

If I was clever, I’d be trying to come up with a catchy term that best sums up the mood of the era. “Nouveau Elizabethan”, perhaps, or “Deco Revival” or, God forbid, “eBayian”, so-called after all the people who buy and sell “eBayiana” on the Internet.

What will be interesting, from an historical point of view, is whether or not today’s collecting trends stand the test of time. Will people still be going daft about Doulton, bonkers about Beswick and crazy about Clarice Cliff?

The cynics say the price spiral cannot continue. Hard-bitten collectors have a foot in two camps: on the one hand, as supply of the best stuff continues to dwindle, they hope beyond hope that they can continue to afford to add to their respective collections. On the other hand, if prices decline, so their investments become ever less sound.

It’s a brave man who makes a prediction, and I ain’t. But a conversation with a local auctioneer this week added another dimension to the conundrum: the popularity of Deco antiques looks set to continue for at least as long as the fashion to make our homes unfussy, uncluttered and unique.

Adrian Byrne, of Chester fine art and antiques auctioneers Byrne’s, was in the middle of cataloguing a single-owner collection of Clarice Cliff ceramics. They had been sent for sale by an owner living on the North Wales coast.

Almost 60 lots of the pottery is about to come back on to the market for the first time in years after being in the private collection of someone who spared no effort to seek out and own the best.

He said: �This is some of the best Clarice Cliff I�ve been asked to sell for as long I can remember. The collection was assembled by a local man who really did appreciate just how important a figure Clarice was in the field of 1920s ceramic design. After years of collecting, however, he has run out of space in his home to display the museum-quality pieces to their full potential, so he has decided the time is right to give other collectors the opportunity to enjoy them as much as he has.”

So who was Clarice Cliff?
She was born on January 20, 1899, in Tunstall, one the five towns of Arnold Bennett’s Potteries. Father was an iron moulder, and she was one of seven children who, like most youngsters in the Potteries in those days, started work as an apprentice at the age of 13 in the local pot bank, Lingard, Webster and Co.
She had shown an aptitude for drawing while at elementary school, so it was a natural progression to learn freehand painting on pottery without the aid of printed or drawn outlines to follow.
After the customary three-year apprenticeship as an enameller, she left to learn lithography with Hollinshead and Kirkham and at the same time enrolled on a study course at Tunstall School of Art. On her 17th birthday she again changed her job, joining A.J. Wilkinson and Co. as a lithographer.
Her career with Wilkinson’s Royal Staffordshire Pottery at Burslem was to last a lifetime and its managing director, Colley Shorter, was later to become her husband.
Clarice�s artistic ability was first noticed by Shorter’s brother-in-law, Jack Walker, who was decorating manager at the Wilkinson pot bank. By chance he saw one of her drawings of a butterfly on a piece of lustreware and from then on, she was allowed to experiment.
In 1927, she was accepted by the Royal College of of Art in London to study sculpture, but she returned to Burslem after only a few months away and set up a studio in the Newport Pottery showrooms which had been acquired by Wilkinson.
Within a few months she had added original and extravagant decoration to the firm’s traditional wares which were so popular that new lines had to be hidden away for fear industrial spies would steal them and sell them to rival companies.
With a handful of girls working for her, she hand-painted 60 dozen pieces of existing stock and sent them out for market testing in 1928. Clarice called this early ware “Bizarre” and after a cautious reception from the trade, the market testing was an enormous success, selling out instantly. A year later, in 1929, the entire Newport factory was given over to producing Bizarre pottery.
Output between 1929 and 1935 was prodigious and the ware was being shown at most of the big exhibitions. For the big occasions, Clarice would take a group of her Bizarre Girls, as she called them, to bedeck the display and promote sales.
They would be dressed in smocks, large neck bows and artists’ berets, accompanied by a “pantomime” horse called Bizooka, from which hung examples of the ware.
In 1940, Colley Shorter’s first wife died after a long illness and he and Clarice married that same year at Staffordshire Register Office.
By 1941, however, the Bizarre shop was forced to close when output from the Newport factory was given over war work for the Ministry of Supply. After the war, a combination of diminished appeal, dearer raw materials and shortage of trained labour led to the demise of the ware.

He would say that wouldn’t he. But it was another remark that made me stop and think. Adrian added: �Clarice Cliff pottery is an investment which is always going to give a good return. Its perennial appeal is based on its timelessness in terms of design and aesthetics. For a home with modern interiors or based on an Art Deco theme, it�s the perfect accompaniment.”

And there you have it. Could this be the answer? And could this be the reason why Clarice Cliff will only ever get more expensive? Who knows, in 2105 all the best stuff might well be in museums.

The answer then might well be to buy now while stocks last. They’re not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but Clarice’s crocks were always expensive and were aimed at the Harrods market, not Woolworth�s.

But they were good fun. What makes them so appropriate today is their angular designs and bright, gay, hand-painted decoration. There’s something very cool and chic about laminate floors, plate glass and chrome furniture and leather chairs. Light, neutral colours are demanded by interior designers, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of characterless uniformity.

Introduce half a dozen examples of Clarice Cliff into an interior and no one could accuse you of being characterless.

Go back 30 years and the world had forgotten Clarice Cliff. Her weird, brightly coloured pottery was consigned to the top shelves of junk shops and if anyone was mad enough to want to buy it, it was theirs for a few shillings. Today, all that has changed. In these minimalist times when d�cor is pruned back to bare essentials and sleek, clean lines are de rigueur, Clarice�s so-called Bizarre pottery is totally at home.

Clarice�s gaudy Bizarre pottery was once derided by the purists. Then in 1972 the directors of Brighton Museum and Art Gallery organised the first Clarice Cliff exhibition.

Clarice provided notes for the accompanying catalogue and also donated some pieces from her own collection, but she never attended and shied away from the publicity. The exhibition wowed visitors who were intrigued to learn this doyenne of Staffordshire’s Pottery Ladies was still alive. Her death the same year served only to heighten their interest

In the following year, the London gallery, L’Odeon, staged a major exhibition of Clarice Cliff which was attended by many of the Bizarre Girls. They were an intensely proud and loyal band of paintresses who were considered among the elite of their day in the Potteries.

Blockbusting London sales of her ceramics followed, the first at Christie�s in June 1983, which put Clarice�s name back on the lips of collectors worldwide, particularly among the younger generation looking to invest in antiques.

Today she is lauded as one of the most influential ceramic artists of the 20th Century.

Pictures show, top: Clarice�s crocks, left to right: a Wilkinson Meiping vase, in the Melon pattern, circa 1930-32, (Estimate �700-1,000); a Newport Meiping vase, decorated in the Whisper pattern (�1,500-2000); a Newport conical sugar sifter, in the Blue Autumn pattern, circa 1931, (�800-1,200); a Newport vase in the Sunray pattern, circa 1929-30 (�600-900)

Below, left to right:
Plate glass, chrome and black ash furniture makes the perfect backdrop for Clarice�s crocks. Left to right, top: a Newport Lotus jug, decorated with the Sliced Fruit pattern, circa 1930, (estimate �700-1,000); a Newport Meiping vase, decorated in the Whisper pattern (estimate �1,500-2,000). Middle a Newport biscuit barrel decorated in the football pattern, circa 1929-30, (�1,000-1,500); a Newport Coronet jug, in the Orange Picasso Flower pattern, circa 1930, (�500-800). Bottom: a Wilkinson vase in the Melons pattern, circa 1930-32 (�800-1,000).

Centuries collide: left, Clarice�s Newport Meiping vase, decorated in the Whisper pattern (estimate �1,500-2,000); right, a Wilkinson vase in the Melons pattern, circa 1930-32, (�800-1,000),

Prices are going up for investors with ultra modern homes. From bottom: a Newport Lotus jug, decorated with the Sliced Fruit pattern, circa 1930, (Estimate �700-1,000); a Newport Meiping vase, decorated in the Whisper pattern (�15,00-2,000); a Wilkinson vase in the Melons pattern, circa 1930-32, (�800-1,000). Furniture from Chattels The Furnishers, 42 City Road, Chester

chattels 24chattels 8chattels 3

Tags: Art Deco · Ceramics · Clarice Cliff · Pottery

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