November, 1997, a Clarice Cliff Age of Jazz figure set a new record -- selling to a
determined American collector at Christies for over $20,000. Earlier the same month,
a huge 15" hexagonal vase in the rare and highly desired Football pattern sold in a
northern English auction room for $3800. Amusingly, it had come from a solicitors
office where a valuation expert had noticed the brightly colored vase being used as a
doorstop. The years as a doorstop had resulted in damage to the base but the vase still
sold well above estimate after determined bidding from collectors and dealers. Clarice
Cliff seems to be either idolized as an icon of the English Deco period or regarded as
something of an aberration by design pundits of the period. Her life and her role in
twentieth century British design history have been hotly debated. From the headline in a
1929 newspaper "Bizarre looks like a Russian ballet masters nightmare" to
the headline in a 1993 Daily Mail "How an affair with a married man and the
Bizarre Girls made Clarice Cliffs fortune" she has continued to attract
notoriety. In 1931, the Pottery Gazette hailed Clarice as "a pioneer of
advanced thought" and assured buyers that her work represented heirlooms of the
Clarices story is well known. She was born in 1899 and grew up in a typical
Potteries working class family. As one of eight children she was expected to go out to
work at the earliest opportunity and at thirteen she left school and joined Lingard,
Webster and Company. She was meant to apprentice for seven years in order to learn the
skill of the enameller or free hand painter and for a five-and-a-half day week she was
paid one shilling. With so many men off at war she was able to move first to Hollinshead
& Kirkham and, in 1916, to A.J.Wilkinson in the lithography department. Although she
is often called an overnight success, in fact she spent four years hand painting, keeping
pattern books and gilding before her work was noticed. One night when she had stayed after
work, the decorating manager saw the plate she was decorating and showed it to the
managing director, Colley Shorter.
By late 1925 Clarice Cliff was considered Mr. Colleys protégé. She moved into a
small apartment in Hanley much to her familys disapproval. At the same time Colley
Shorter gave Clarice an office next to his at the Newport Pottery. Clarice and Colley
spent more and more time behind the closed door of her studio. Neither her fellow workers
nor the other directors approved of this relationship and Clarice grew more and more
isolated. Colley Shorter decided that Clarice needed formal training and paid for her to
go to the Royal College of Art in London for three months in 1927. In the fall she was
sent to Paris where she roamed the galleries and museums seeking ideas. Once again events
conspired in Clarices favor. Just as the war had secured her a place at
Wilkinsons, so in 1926 the General Strike in England had extended coal shortages.
Factories were desperate for ware to sell. When Wilkinsons bought Newport Pottery in
1920, they inherited many hundreds of pieces of pottery which were still sitting in
various stockrooms around the factory. In a letter to the Brighton Museum in 1972, Clarice
said that "this huge stock had always interested me and presented a challenge."
She was given permission to set up a small studio and she and fifteen-year-old Gladys
Scarlett set about covering the ware with brightly colored geometric decoration.
Soon five more girls joined them, and Clarice set up a system for outlining, enameling
and banding. The girls were told by Clarice to use the paint thickly and make the brush
strokes obvious, the reverse of their usual instructions. Colley was working at the same
time on a marketing plan and decided the ware should have a name. Clarice settled on
"Bizarre". Next Colley sent Clarice and a couple of the Bizarre girls to London
to be photographed demonstrating the hand painting of Bizarre ware in a shop window. In
September the true test came. Wilkinsons salesman, the very skeptical Ewart Oakes,
was sent off with a carload of "Bizarre". He sold out before the end of the
week. In retrospect it is truly incredible how quickly things moved after that.
Colley was a master of the art of modern advertising. He planned his
"Bizarre" campaign with great skill. Newspapers and womens magazines often
featured photographs of Bizarre girls sitting in a shop window painting. The girls would
sit dressed in artists smocks with big black bows at the neck and berets on their
heads demonstrating their work. Colley hired well-known personalities to come to the shows
and be seen and photographed buying pieces of Clarices "Bizarre". The
constant creation of new patterns was a successful method of keeping "Bizarre"
in the public eye. In 1931 Clarice and Colley had the idea of installing a radio in the
shop so the Bizarre girls could listen to music while they painted. Whether productivity
really did go up 25% is irrelevant; once again they achieved a wave of publicity.
Photographs of the girls working on Bizarre ware were always good for the order book and
Colley and Clarice were brilliant at capturing the publics attention.
The simple geometric patterns which Clarice designed were easily learned by her
semi-skilled fourteen year old girls and she decided to move on to other designs. The
Crocus pattern was instantly successful, and remained a best seller for the factory into
the 1960s. Early in 1929 demand was so great for "Crocus" that a separate shop
was set up underneath the Bizarre shop and at its peak employed twenty girls. Collectors
today revere Clarice for patterns like Sunray and Lucerne, but it is patterns like Crocus
and Ravel which kept the factory working.
Newport Pottery made such enormous profits in 1929 that Colley Shorter decided to issue
a new series of designs under the name "Fantasque". It was classed as part of
the Wilkinson production for tax purposes. This was simply bookkeeping; all the ware was
still decorated in the Bizarre shop. The first Fantasque range consisted of eight patterns
including such popular ones as Umbrellas and Rain, Broth and Fruit.
now 25 girls and boys working in the Bizarre shop -- most of them sixteen years old or
younger. They were arranged according to their jobs with the front benches occupied by
outliners who passed their work on to enamellers. The banders and liners sat at the back
and finished the decorating process. The vast stock of old Newport ware was running down
and Clarice was busy creating new shapes more in keeping with her designs. The whole of
Newport Pottery was soon given over to the production of Bizarre ware. By the start of
1930 the biscuit and glost ovens were manned 24 hours a day. By 1931 the 25 boys and girls
had grown to 150. It is impossible to describe all the patterns and shapes which Clarice
designed or supervised in the next few years or the speed at which events moved. In an
interview at the time Clarice was asked about design ideas and she said some weeks were
better than others. That week she had only come up with twelve new designs!
Usually Clarice would assign a particular pattern to one outliner -- from working
through the pattern to filling all the orders. When a pattern became too much in demand
for one girl to do, others were trained to work alongside. Look closely at several pieces
of a pattern like Trees and House and you will begin to see the different styles of the
girls. Part of the charm of Clarice Cliff lies in the minute variations in
pattern resulting from different paintresses copying them at different times. Sometimes
the girls worked from memory when the pattern book was unavailable -- the results can
sometimes be quite varied but always interesting.
The first of the Applique range was designed in April 1930. The range was more
expensive to produce since so many colors were used and it sold for about 25% more than
Bizarre. It did not sell particularly well and was mostly phased out by 1932. At the start
of 1931 Clarice came up with two Fantasque landscapes -- Autumn and Summerhouse. Autumn
sold very well for more than a year and then Clarice replaced it with Pastel Autumn and
Orange Autumn to create a new market. She was very skilled at alternating colorways in
order to rekindle interest in a pattern. Before the end of the year among the patterns she
had introduced were Red Roofs, Farmhouse, House and Bridge and Gibraltar.
It is difficult to imagine in todays climate of committee design, just how
quickly Clarice and Colley responded to the need to create new products for a depressed
marketplace. Clarice was even more productive in 1932 if this were possible. Floral
patterns included Nasturium, Canterbury Bells, Chintz and Hollyrose" Fruit patterns
like Apples, Oranges and Lemons and Pastel Melon were introduced. Landscapes were even
more prolific--Limberlost, Poplar, Pink Roof Cottage, Moonlight, May Avenue, and Pastel
Autumn and Orange Autumn. Only one year later, fashions had changed, people no longer
wanted her brilliant colors and Clarice introduced her last true Bizarre landscape
With the ever-deepening worldwide depression, Clarice could no longer afford to fail
and this may have created the climate for the uninspired patterns of the latter half of
the 1930s. By 1935, even the name "Bizarre" had been phased out and the pottery
was simply marked "Clarice Cliff, Newport Pottery or Wilkinson Ltd.,
England"(the whole subject of backstamps is enormously complicated and if interested
you should consult The Bizarre Affair).
In November 1939 Colley Shorters wife died after a lengthy illness. Colley and
Clarice married secretly a year later. Neither Colley nor Clarices family approved
of the relationship and they had few visits from family members. After the war Colley
spent time overseas trying to stimulate sales. Late in 1949 he and Clarice went to Canada
and the United States, giving interviews and taking orders. Although Crocus was still
being produced, most of the other post-war ware -- with the Clarice Cliff signature above
Royal Staffordshire Ceramics -- seems to bear no relation to her earlier work and has
never been considered collectible. After Colleys death Clarice sold the factory to
Roy Midwinter and lived a reclusive life at Chetwynd until her death in 1972.
Clarice Cliff was unique. She chose to interpret art deco in her medium -- ceramics --
with vivid colors and strong lines unlike any seen before. For a very few brief years she
was encouraged to try anything -- no matter how extreme -- and try anything she did. She
said in 1930 that "color seems to radiate happiness and the spirit of modern
life" and somehow that is what she created with her pottery -- joy and a sense of
limitless possibility. When you look at a piece of Clarice Cliff Pottery you can almost
see that room full of young boys and girls listening to the radio, gossiping about the
dance to come, and painting as fast they can. Bevis Hillier argued that "the cosy
genius...continues to appeal because there are moments when one feels like cosiness rather
than angst, profundity or high art." Clarice Cliff was a cosy genius
who made people feel brighter in the darkening 1930s. Clearly her work is having the same
effect in the 1990s.
Tales of Clarice Cliff Collecting
Some years ago in London, a South African collector told me about the "Latona
Dahlia" teaset he had discovered. A lady called him about "a teaset with flowers
on" and when he arrived it was a 23 piece teaset in a pattern so rare that one piece
causes excitement. When he asked how much she wanted she said it had been a wedding gift
and was not for sale...but that she would trade it for a new microwave which she had seen
in a nearby store. He said he ran so fast to the store and then back carrying the
microwave that he thought he might collapse before the teaset was his!
Len Griffin, the president of the Clarice Cliff Collectors Club, and the
researcher of most of the current information on patterns and shapes, tells the story of
the elderly lady who put two 18" YoYo vases in "Latona Roses" out for the
garbage men to pick up. Luckily her neighbor rescued them and suggested she get them
valued. They sold for $16,000 and she was able to buy the council house she had lived in
for so many years.
A friend of mine showed me a tiny figure of a horse he had picked up in a garage sale
in London, Ontario for under one dollar. I sent off a picture of his discovery to Len
Griffin; he thinks it may be part of the 1930 Impressions series made by Clarice herself.
Very few of these pieces exist and most are in the Brighton Museum. How did this one end
up in Canada and who knows what it is worth?
Just before Len was to give a talk in New Zealand early in 1996, a woman showed him a
miniature teaset in Honolulu pattern. This unique set had been sent to her mother in South
Africa along with a personal note from Clarice, suggesting that some day they might use it
to have tea together. More than sixty years later, both mother and daughter had come along
to hear Len speak and tell him this incredible story!
Tips for collectors:
More and more collectors are using the Internet to buy internationally. This can be
wonderful since it gives you an opportunity to buy in places like New Zealand and South
Africa where you may not be willing or able to travel. It also means that you must have
great faith in the seller. You may be wise to establish return policies in advance and in
writing before you send off for a very expensive piece of Clarice Cliff from a dealer you
know nothing about.
Clarice prices seem to climb higher every year but, unless your budget is without
limit, you would be wise to study the auction catalogues from the past ten years very
carefully. Ten years ago the price for Lotus jugs was incredible, then the prices dropped
and they have slowly edged back up. Three years ago anything from the Applique range went
through the roof and yet at the 1996 auction at Christies, a number of pieces
remained unsold. Ten years ago you could easily assemble a collection of conical sugar
dredgers for a few hundred dollars each. Today a rare conical can cost from $3000 and up!
Sometimes in North America dealers price anything with a Clarice Cliff backstamp as
though it were a wonderful hand-painted bit of Bizarre. Like most Staffordshire potteries
after the war, the Wilkinson factory suffered hard times and they produced anything they
thought would sell. Although the pieces may have a Clarice Cliff backstamp, few of them
were designed by Clarice and they are not of interest to most serious collectors who are
looking for the hand painted wares from the late 1920s to the mid-1930s.
If you like the idea of Clarice Cliff, but simply cannot afford to spend $1000 on a
sugar dredger, or $20,000 on an Age of Jazz figure, the 1992 and 1993 Wedgwood
reproductions might interest you. They were issued in a limited edition of 500 and are
carefully marked. When they were introduced they sold anywhere from $125-400.
Interestingly, the November 1997 auction at Christies South Kensington included a
section of these Wedgwood reproductions. The Solditude vase (see photograph)
was $325 originally, but sold for $865 five years later. There was also a range done by
Midwinter in 1985 but these do not turn up very often especially in North America.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York brought out a series of pieces loosely based on
Clarice Cliff designs several years ago and they are still in production in the
Philippines today and featured in the MOMA catalogue. The pieces are easily distinguished
from 1930s Clarice -- they are impressed with the date and MOMA and the body is much
lighter than the originals.
Unlike the carefully marked reproductions, fake dredgers have started to appear.
As prices for Clarice Cliff continue to go up, it was inevitable that fakes would start to
turn up. In December, 1994 the first fake conicals appeared at a "deco" antique
fair in England. Since then, a number have been sold in Red Roofs, House & Bridge,
Orange Erin and Sungay. Len Griffin, head of the Clarice Cliff Collectors Club, suggests
that although the shape is quite well modeled the quality of the painting is poor. The
body feels good but the base rim is ground flat -- instead of the rim it should have --
and the holes go too far up to the top. The banding is wavy and there are gaps between
colors which is not true of the originals. The dredgers simply look too shiny and there
are no scratches and no wear. It is very difficult to match Clarices colorways with
todays paints, so look at each piece carefully. Beware of that bargain in the flea
market; by now the fakes will have made their way to America.
Lotus jugs have turned up in Orange Roof Cottage and Orange Erin. Unlike genuine
Clarice Cliff where the decoration is applied within an outline, these fakes are only
partly outlined and have areas of decoration applied freehand. Yet another favourite trick
of fakers is to take a genuine Clarice Cliff mid-1930s plain or banded dinner plate and
add an enamel pattern to the center. If you look closely you should be able to see the
mistakes in color and pattern. Another clue is the impressed date stamp on the underside
of the plate. If it is 36 or 37 and you know the pattern dates to 1930, it may be worth
looking more closely.
Because prices for Clarice Cliff are so high, obviously more and more pieces are being
restored. As long as they are properly marked and priced, this is not an issue. You should
always look very closely at the tips of conical sugars and the spouts of tea and coffee
pots. Ask the dealer if he/she knows of any restoration. The more pieces you look at and
handle, the better able you will be to spot repairs.
If you are relatively new to Clarice collecting, you should spend some time reading
some of the books and studying the pictures. It is very easy to buy a mismatched cup and
saucer or jampot and lid.
Patterns vary enormously in price and it is worth finding out exactly which patterns
are most valuable. Often dealers who dont specialize in Clarice price similar pieces
around the same price. If you happen to stumble on two plates, one Coral Firs and one May
Avenue, would you know which one to buy if they were both priced at $500? If you see a May
Avenue plate for $500 please give e-mail me!
Art Deco: Identification and Price Guide, by Tony Fusco (Avon Books 1993)
Art Deco Tableware, by Judy Spours (Rizzoli Publications 1988)
Clarice Cliff, by Willem J. Terlouw (Museum het Princessehof 1994)
Clarice Cliff, by Peter Wentworth-Shields & Kay Johnson (LOdeon 1976)
Clarice Cliff: The Art of Bizarre, by Len Griffin, Pavilion Books, (publication date
Clarice Cliff: The Bizarre Affair, by Leonard Griffin, Louis Meisel and Susan
Pear-Meisel (Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1988)
Clarice Cliff Price Guide, (Francis Joseph Publications June 1995)
Collecting Clarice Cliff, by Howard Watson (Kevin Francis Publishing 1988)
Fantastic Flowers of Clarice Cliff, by Len Griffin, Pavilion Books, 1998
Potters and Paintresses: Women Designers in the Pottery Industry 1870-1955, by Cheryl
Buckley (The Womens Press Ltd. 1990)
Taking Tea with Clarice Cliff, by Len Griffin, Pavilion Books, 1996
The Rich Designs of Clarice Cliff, (Rich Designs Publishing November 1995)
The Wonderful World of Clarice Cliff, by Howard and Pat Watson (Kevin Francis
Some of these books are available in our bookstore.
Clarice Cliff Collectors Club
Fantasque House, Tennis Drive, The Park
Nottingham England NG7 1AE
Clarice Cliff Auctions
Michael Jeffery/Mark Wilkinson
Christies South Kensington
85 Old Brompton Road
London SW7 3LD
65-69 Lots Road
Chelsea London SW10 0RN
For Further Information:
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