Clarice Cliff
Susan Scott

Clarice Cliff    In November, 1997, a Clarice Cliff Age of Jazz figure set a new record -- selling to a determined American collector at Christie’s 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 solicitor’s 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 master’s nightmare" to the headline in a 1993 Daily Mail "How an affair with a married man and the Bizarre Girls made Clarice Cliff’s 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 future.

Clarice’s 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. Colley’s protégé. She moved into a small apartment in Hanley much to her family’s 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 Clarice’s favor. Just as the war had secured her a place at Wilkinson’s, so in 1926 the General Strike in England had extended coal shortages. Factories were desperate for ware to sell. When Wilkinson’s 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. Clarice Cliff

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. Wilkinson’s 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 women’s 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 Clarice’s "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 public’s 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.

clarice3.jpg (18089 bytes)There were 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 today’s 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 Bridgewater.

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 Shorter’s wife died after a lengthy illness. Colley and Clarice married secretly a year later. Neither Colley nor Clarice’s 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 Colley’s 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 Christie’s, 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 Christie’s 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 Clarice’s colorways with today’s 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 don’t 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!

Further Reading

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 (L’Odeon 1976)
Clarice Cliff: The Art of Bizarre,
by Len Griffin, Pavilion Books, (publication date June 1999)
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 Women’s 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 Publishing 1992)

Some of these books are available in our bookstore.

Collectors’ Club

Clarice Cliff Collectors’ Club
Fantasque House, Tennis Drive, The Park
Nottingham England NG7 1AE

Clarice Cliff Auctions

Michael Jeffery/Mark Wilkinson
Christie’s South Kensington
85 Old Brompton Road
London SW7 3LD

Eric Knowles
Bonhams
65-69 Lots Road
Chelsea London SW10 0RN

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