|Died||23 October 1972 (aged 73)|
Clayton, Staffordshire, England
|Known for||Ceramic designs and other artworks|
|Spouse||Arthur C A Shorter|
Cliff's ancestors moved from the Eccleshall area to Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent, around 1725. Cliff was born on the terrace of a modest house in Meir Street on 20 January 1899. Her father, Harry Thomas Cliff, worked at an iron foundry in Tunstall. Her mother Ann (née Machin) washed clothes to supplement the family income. They had seven children.
At age 13, Cliff started working in the pottery industry as a gilder. She added gold lines on pottery of traditional design. Later, she learned freehand painting at another potbank. She also studied art and sculpture at the Burslem School of Art.
In 1916, Cliff relocated to the factory of A.J. Wilkinson in Newport, Burslem, to increase her career opportunities. Most of the young women in the Staffordshire Potteries would continue working in the area of the task they had first mastered in order to raise their income above the rate of 'apprentice wages'. Cliff chose not to follow this traditional path, instead she acquired many skills such as modeling figurines and vases, gilding, keeping pattern books, and hand-painting ware. Hand-painting included outlining, enameling and banding (drawing radial bands on plates or vessels). In the early 1920s, decorating manager Jack Walker brought Cliff to the attention of one of the factory owners, Arthur Colley Austin Shorter. Shorter nurtured her skills in ceramics and gave her space to explore her own ideas. He was married, but later married Cliff after his wife died (Cliff and Shorter were married in December 1940). Over time, Cliff developed her skills and succeeded in studying at the Royal College of Art and visiting Paris.
In various styles, the first printed 'Bizarre' back stamp was used on Clarice Cliff ware from 1928 to early 1936. Cliff was given a second apprenticeship at the age of 25 (1924). She worked at A.J. Wilkinson's, primarily as a 'modeler' and worked alongside factory designers John Butler and Fred Ridgway. They produced conservative, Victorian-style ware. Eventually, Cliff's wide range of skills was recognized, and in 1927 she was given a studio at the adjoining Newport Pottery, which Arthur Colley Austin Shorter had bought in 1920. Here, Cliff was allowed to decorate some of the old defective 'glost' (white) ware in her freehand patterns. She used on-glaze enamel colors for these, which enabled a brighter palette than underglaze colors.
She covered the imperfections in simple patterns of triangles, in a style that she called 'Bizarre.' The earliest examples had a hand-painted mark, usually in a rust-colored paint: 'Bizarre by Clarice Cliff," she wrote, and sometimes she added 'Newport Pottery' underneath. To the surprise of the company's senior salesman Ewart Oakes, it was immediately popular when he took a carload to a major stockist. Clarice was joined by young painter Gladys Scarlett, who helped her with the ware. Soon, a more professional 'back stamp' was made, which carried Cliff's facsimile signature, and proclaimed "Hand Painted Bizarre by Clarice Cliff, Newport Pottery England."
This back stamp led to Bizarre being used as an umbrella name for her entire pattern range, so the factory had to refer to the first pieces with the simple triangles as Original Bizarre.
In March 1927 Shorter sent Cliff to the Royal College of Art in Kensington, for two brief periods of study in March and May. These dates are recorded in the Royal College of Art archive and were also remembered by Gladys Scarlett in 1982, as she was briefly left alone at Newport to paint the new 'Bizarre' ware.
Starting in 1927, Cliff was credited for shapes she designed, such as her Viking Boat flower holder, though her modeling for the factory is recorded in the trade journal only as far back as 1923–24. From 1929 onward, the shapes took on a more 'Modern' influence. They were often angular and geometric, and some got, what was to be later termed Art Deco, designs. Abstract and cubist patterns appeared on these shapes, such as the 1929 Ravel (seen on Cliff's Conical shape ware), which was an abstract leaf and flower pattern named after the composer. The image shows a conical coffee pot as well as a sugar bowl and cream holder with four triangular feet, another of Cliff's Bizarre shape ideas which proved popular with 1930s customers. Ravel produced between 1929 and at least as late as 1935.
In 1928, Cliff produced a simple, hand painted pattern of Crocus flowers in orange, blue and purple. Each flower was constructed with confident upward strokes and then green leaves were added by holding the piece upside down and painting thin lines amongst the flowers. The Crocus pattern was completely hand-painted, and the vibrant colors led to large sales.
Initially, Cliff had just one young decorator produce Crocus, Ethel Barrow. But by 1930, a separate decorating 'shop' was established underneath the top floor of the building which housed the 'Bizarre' shop, and Ethel trained young painters on how to paint the pattern. Twenty young women painted nothing but Crocus for 5½ days a week for much of the 1930s. Crocus was unusual because it was produced on tableware, tea and coffee ware, and 'fancies' (which included novelty items made primarily as gift ware). The pattern had many color variations, including Purple Crocus (1932), Blue Crocus (1935), Sungleam Crocus (1935), and Spring Crocus. Crocus continued to be produced after WW2, and the final pieces with Clarice Cliff marks were made in 1963. However,Midwinter bought the factory and continued to paint the pieces to order until as late as 1968.
By 1929, Cliff's decorators had grown to a team of around 70 young painters. Of those, 66 were women (called 'Bizarre girls') and 4 were boys. Many of these workers were traced in the 1980s and 1990s and they totaled over 100. Their names and work for Clarice Cliff were recorded in the centenary book.
The factory produced a series of small color printed leaflets (quite unusual for this time) which could be obtained by post, or picked up from stockists. This promotional device was successful, and one young girl's only task was to put the leaflets in stamped self-addressed envelopes sent to the factory. At this time, many women would buy pottery by 'mail order' picked from advertising magazines. The series of leaflets, each of which covered a range of pieces in a similar style or set of colors, included the patterns Bizarre, Fantasque, Delecia, Appliqué, Inspiration, Crocus & Gayday, but contained other design patterns as well. The original leaflet for the Appliqué patterns featured just two, Lucerne and Lugano, but Cliff's career witnessed 14 Appliqué patterns that had been designed by 1932: Avignon, Windmill, Red Tree, Idyll, Palermo, Blossom, Caravan, Bird of Paradise, Etna, Garden, Eden and Monsoon in addition to the original two.
The Fantasque range evolved between 1928 and 1934 and mainly featured abstracts or landscapes of cottages and trees, as well as some Art Deco inspired patterns. The first Fantasque landscape pattern was Trees and House, which sold well from 1930 until at least 1934. However, it was the slightly later, more sophisticated Autumn pattern issued near the end of 1930 which was more popular. Originally created in red, coral-green, and black, from 1930 to 1931 many colorway variations appeared. The rarest is the red colorway, shown on a 13-inch (330 mm) wall plaque. The best selling version at the time was one with trees in blue, green, and yellow. All these variations are seen as collectibles.
In 1930, Cliff was appointed as Art Director at Newport Pottery and A. J. Wilkinson, the two adjoining factories that produced her wares. Her work involved spending more time with Colley Shorter, and this gradually developed into an affair, conducted in secrecy. The couple worked closely together on creating awareness of 'Bizarre ware' to catch the attention of buyers in the middle of a major financial depression. Colley Shorter registered Clarice's name and even some of her shapes. It was her ability to design both patterns and also the shapes they were to go on that distinguished Cliff above any other designers in the Staffordshire Potteries at this time. Her first modeling in the mid 20s was of stylized figures, people, ducks, the floral embossed Davenport ware of 1925. But in 1929 at the same time as she started the colourful cubist and landscape designs, Cliff's modeling took on a new style. This was influenced by European originals by Désny, Tétard Freres, Josef Hoffmann and others, that she had seen in design journals including 'Mobilier e Décoration'.
Between 1929 and 1935 Cliff issued a mass of shape ranges, including Conical’’ (see photo below), ‘’Bon Jour/Biarritz, Stamford, Eton, Daffodil, and Trieste. In each of these there were tea and coffee ware shapes, but the first two were so popular that biscuit barrels, sugar sifters, bowls and vases were issued to enlarge the range. Bon Jour had 20 shapes created during 1933, with about 10 more being added in 1934. There were also many other innovatively shaped vases, bowls and 'fancies', such as the Liner vase, Flower tube vase and the (now rare) Lido Lady ashtray and Age of Jazz musicians and dancers.
Through the depths of the Depression Cliff's wares continued to sell in volume at what were high prices for the time. Her Bizarre and Fantasque ware was sold throughout North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, but not in mainland Europe. In Britain many top London stores sold it, including Harrods. Some of the other London stockists have long since closed, but the list is impressive: "& Co., Lawley's, Bon Marche, John Lewis Peter Robinson, Selfridges, John Barker & Co., Warring & Gillow and Gorringe's". However, the extant order books of the period confirm that Bizarre ware was never sold at Woolworths as some have erroneously stated.
Further vividly colored patterns, such as Melon and Circle Tree appeared in 1930. Cliff devised many ways of marketing these: in-store painting demonstrations, for which Cliff chose just the prettiest of her painters and most famously she and Shorter had the idea to actually pay major 1930s celebrities to endorse the ware. This was done both in magazine articles and by appearances at large stores. The celebrities included "actresses Adrienne Allen, Marion Lorne, Marie Tempest, the BBC presenter Christopher Stone, musical comedy star Bobby Howes". Even Sir Malcolm Campbell who had just broken the world land speed record appeared at a promotion at the First Avenue Hotel, London in 1930.
Cliff's worldwide impact was made clear by a story in the Pasadena Evening Post in California. It pictured her with a five-foot-high 'horse' made entirely of Bizarre ware which had been made to promote the ware in Britain. It was in this article, that Cliff made what has become her most famous quote: "Having a little fun at my work does not make me any less of an artist, and people who appreciate truly beautiful and original creations in pottery are not frightened by innocent tomfoolery."
Between 1932 and 1934 Cliff was the art director for a major project involving nearly 30 artists of the day (prompted by the Prince of Wales) to promote good design on tableware. The 'Artists in Industry' earthenware examples were produced under her direction, and the artists included such notable names as Duncan Grant, Paul Nash, Barbara Hepworth, Vanessa Bell, and Dame Laura Knight. The project 'Modern Art for the Table' was launched at Harrods London in October 1934 but received a mixed response from both the public and the press, though at the same time Cliff's own patterns and shapes were selling in large quantities around the world.
Cliff's patterns are highly stylized and interpreted in strong colors, such as the 1933 Honolulu pattern. The trees are enameled in red (coral) orange and yellow. Cliff produced a colorway variation on this by simply changing the trees to shades of blue and pink, and this was then called Rudyard after a local Staffordshire beauty spot.
Clarice Cliff's fame and success in the 1930s are hard to fully appreciate now, but at that time there was no such thing as 'career women'. The publicity she received in the national press was unprecedented. Research by a PhD student into the contemporary press between 1928 and 1936 found "360 articles about Cliff and her work were published in the trade press, women's magazines, national and local newspapers." This was put into context when he pointed out that in the same period, Susie Cooper, another Staffordshire ceramicist and designer, had "fewer than 20 reviews, all bar one in the trade press".
Despite all the publicity she received, Cliff was actually camera shy, and in most cases the images of her pottery were what dominated the women's magazine of the day. One picture which shows Cliff informally was taken when a South African stockist of her ware, from Werner Brothers, visited the factory on a buying trip. Cliff is seen with the 3-year-old daughter and wife of the stockist. After the visit Cliff sent the daughter a present of a miniature child's tea set painted in her Honolulu pattern.
In the mid 30s tastes changed and heavily modeled ware came into vogue. The My Garden series issued from 1934 onwards led the way, with small flowers modeled as a handle or base on more rounded shapes. These were fully painted in bright colors – the body of the ware was covered in thin color washes – 'Verdant' was green, 'Sunrise' yellow and so on. The range included vases, bowls, jugs, a biscuit barrel, and proved very popular as gift ware. It was produced in more muted colors, right until the start of the war in 1939.
Other modeled shapes included the 1937 'Raffia' based on traditional basketware by Native Americans, decorated in a similar style to them with small blocks of color. More popular was the heavily modeled Harvest ware, jugs and bowls modeled with corn and fruit. After the war this range was heavily marketed in North America (very patriotically) as England. This later modeled ware attracts relatively low prices at auction.
In 1940, after the death of Ann Shorter, Colley's wife, he married Cliff and she moved into his home at Chetwynd House on Northwood Lane in Clayton, Staffordshire. This Arts and Crafts home had been designed in 1899 and was one of the earliest commissions of the British architects Parker and Unwin (Richard Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin) who were later heavily involved in the Welwyn Garden City project.
During World War II only plain white pottery (utility ware) was permitted under wartime regulations, so Cliff assisted with management of the pottery but was not able to continue design work. Instead she concentrated her creative talents on gardening and the massive 4-acre (1.6 ha) garden at Chetwynd House became her shared passion with Shorter.
After the war, although Cliff was occasionally nostalgic for the 'Bizarre' years, as witnessed in personal letters to friends, she seemed to be realistic and accepted the commercial taste was for conservative ware. Clarice seemed to enjoy playing a lesser role at the factory, knowing that she could not recapture those crazy days of the thirties. Much of the postwar production went to Australia, New Zealand or North America, where the taste was for formal ware in traditional English designs such as Tonquin rather than the striking patterns and shapes that had established Cliff's reputation; thus she was never to return to creative work. The postwar ware has little value at auction.
A. J. Wilkinson and their Newport Pottery continued to sell ware under Cliff's name until 1964. The death of Colley Shorter in 1963 led Cliff to sell the factory to Midwinter in 1964 and she retired, becoming somewhat of a recluse. However, from December 1971 to January 1972, the first exhibition of Clarice Cliff pottery took place at Brighton, East Sussex. Cliff reluctantly provided comments for the catalogue, though she refused an invitation to go to the opening.
The exhibition was prompted by enthusiastic collectors, including Martin Battersby, an early devotee of 20s and 30s design, the first author on that period to publish major works, and a devotee of Cliff's ceramics. Then, on 23 October 1972, Cliff died suddenly at Chetwynd House.
Revival of interest in her work
The exhibition and the first book published privately in 1976 'Clarice Cliff' by Peter Wentworth-Sheilds and Kay Johnson (L'Odeon publishing) marked the start of a major revival of interest in Cliff's work, which has continued to be sought after by Art Deco ceramic collectors ever since.
In 1982 the original Clarice Cliff Collectors Club was formed and promoted her and her work throughout the world. The club founder had appealed in the Staffordshire Evening Sentinel for anyone who worked with Cliff to contact him and was delighted when he found 28 former workers. Still calling themselves the 'Bizarre girls' even in their mid-1970s and early 1980s Cliff's former painters were delighted in the interest in the pottery they had hand painted 50 years earlier. They attended the annual meetings of the club, and were to be involved in many television and radio programs about Cliff, and a mass of books that appeared. Many of their memories were recorded in the CCCC Reviews from 1982 to 2004. The club also held meetings and exhibitions in Britain, North America, Australia and New Zealand.
The Stoke-on-Trent meetings visited the old painting shop of Bizarre ware by the canal at Newport, Burslem, from 1987 to 1997, ironically the only building left standing on the site. It was demolished by Wedgwood in 1997, and the land sold for housing.
In 1985, a series of pieces were produced under the title The Bizarre Collection, with the mark for the "Royal Staffordshire Pottery by Clarice Cliff", and marketed by the Midwinter pottery. These pieces were all hand painted, unlike some of the later production Wedgwood, and faithfully respected the original designs and production methods with the exception of the crocus conical sifter. The production actually took place on the same premises as the original production line of the Newport pottery.
The three principal designs produced were Honolulu on a 12-inch Mei Ping vase, Summerhouse on a 13-inch wall plate and a striking version of Umbrellas and Rain on a conical bowl. These pieces can be identified with a tiny impressed "85" for the year of manufacture. There was also a selection of six conical sugar sifters, again hand-painted, with the exception of the aforementioned Crocus which was lithographed. Whilst the purists still scoff at these pieces some 30 years later they are actually a very accurate representation of the originals they were copied from and in themselves are now becoming sought after not least because they allow collectors to acquire excellent pieces and a more affordable price.
A chain of mergers finally led to Wedgwood owning the Clarice Cliff name, and from 1992 to 2002 they too produced a range of reproductions of the highly sought 1930s pieces. These were made to a high quality, and were produced in small numbers for sale to collectors who could not find (or perhaps could not afford) the most striking original pieces.
The first pieces produced included a ginger jar in House and Bridge, a large shape 14 vase in Solitude, a Stamford shape teapot milk and sugar in Pink Roof Cottage, a Conical bowl in Tennis, and a wall plaque in Lightning. From 1996 to 2002 pieces were made for CCCC members and these were also sold at major Wedgwood rooms. The hand painted pieces ceased production in 2002 but ware with printed (not hand painted) patterns were made in larger quantities by Wedgwood during and after this time.
These reproductions should not be confused with forgeries (of which a number are found), the Wedgwood ones are clearly marked as 'Wedgwood Clarice Cliff'. An original Cliff painter Alice Andrews, then in her 80s, was employed to appear at launches of the ware in stores throughout Britain.
Status as an artist
In the mid-1990s Cliff's position as a major artist of her era was confirmed when she was included in major international reference works: the massive Dictionary of Art by Macmillan Publishers, and Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon by K. G. Saur Verlag.
The work of the CCCC culminated with the centenary exhibition Clarice Cliff, the Art of Bizarre at the Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent. Nowadays, with 26 years of experience the club is based online (see below). It should not be confused with an organisation who used the same name from 2001 after registering it in 1997.
The CCCC was then the consultant for the BBC Radio 4 drama The Bizarre Girl, written by Lizzie Slater which was described as "an uplifting drama exploring the dramatic rise of Clarice Cliff from the shop floor to Company Art Director – illustrating how a working-class Staffordshire girl brought modern art to the people." The drama was broadcast in December 2000.
In 2002, Peter Wentworth-Sheilds and Kay Johnson, the authors of the original 'Clarice Cliff' book from 1976, returned to Britain to lecture at a CCCC event at Christie's, South Kensington. They spoke about the early days of collecting when their first purchase had been "a Summerhouse Athens jug for 7 shillings and 6 pence, 35 pence". Peter had actually spoken to Cliff on the phone, but she had declined to be interviewed. They revealed that they had both been working for Stanley Kubrick when they wrote their book; Kay was Kubrick's personal assistant, and as set designer Peter had been able to decorate a room in A Clockwork Orange with a frieze he has designed based on original landscapes by Cliff.
Rare combinations of shape and pattern attract very high prices at auction. The world record price for a piece of Clarice Cliff is held by Christie's, South Kensington, London, who sold an 18-inch (460 mm) 'charger' (wall plaque) in the May Avenue pattern for £39,500 in 2004. Shortly after this the same auction house sold an 8-inch (200 mm) vase in Sunspots for £20,000.
A rare Red Autumn shape 369 vase sold for £4900 at Fielding's auctioneers, Stourbridge in the West Midlands, and Woolley and Wallis auctioneers Salisbury sold a 3-inch (76 mm) high miniature vase in Café (used as a salesman's sample in the 1930s) for a staggering £3000. In May 2009 an eighteen-inch charger in the May Avenue pattern sold for £20,500 at Fielding's auctioneers.
In 2009, Will Farmer of the BBC Antiques Roadshow and members of the Clarice Cliff Collectors Club unveiled three plaques. These were on her birthplace, Meir Street, Tunstall, her second home on Edwards Street, Tunstall and the site of Newport Pottery by the canal in Burslem where her Bizarre ware was decorated. These were featured in special Antiques Roadshow programme that December.
In September 2009, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London opened its 'New Ceramics Galleries' and Cliff's work was chosen to be included: "There will be two rooms displaying 20th-century collections. One will show ceramics made in a factory context and will include objects by designers such as Susie Cooper and Clarice Cliff".
- "History of Clarice Cliff, one of the World's Most Influential Ceramics Artists". claricecliff.com. Retrieved 24 February 2017.
- Wentworth-Sheilds Peter, Johnson Kay: Clarice Cliff, L'Odeon publishing 1976/1981
- Graves, A. (2004-09-23). Cliff, Clarice (1899–1972), ceramic designer and art director. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 19 Jan. 2018, See link
- The decorating shops in many Staffordshire factories were almost totally staffed by women on seven year 'apprenticeships' who were called hand painters. The term is still correct in Staffordshire, though the art of hand painting onto ware is now rarely seen commercially.
- Wentworth-Sheilds Peter, Johnson Kay: Clarice Cliff, L'Odeon publishing 1976/1981
- A Staffordshire term for a pottery factory, probably because they had a 'bank' of clay for making the 'pots'.
- Griffin Leonard, Meisel Louis and Susan: Clarice Cliff the Bizarre Affair Thames & Hudson London / Abrams New York 1988/1995
- Griffin Leonard: an interview with Gladys Scarlett in 'The Clarice Cliff Collectors Club Review magazine'
- Griffin Leonard: The Fantastic Flowers of Clarice Cliff Pavilion/Chrysalis 1998/2001
- Slater Greg, Brough Jonathan: Comprehensively Clarice Cliff: Thames and Hudson 2005
- Griffin Leonard: Clarice Cliff the Art of the Bizarre Pavilion/Chrysalis 1999/2002
- Griffin Leonard: The Complete Book of Appliqué 1989/1994 published privately by the original Clarice Cliff Collectors Club
- Griffin Leonard: Clarice Cliff the Art of the Bizarre (chapter 'Dramatic Art Deco') Pavilion/Chrysalis 1999/2002
- For Bon Jour range illustration see p.53: Griffin Leonard, Meisel Louis and Susan: Clarice Cliff the Bizarre Affair Thames & Hudson London/Abrams New York 1988/1995
- Knight Lynn: p.167 Clarice Cliff biography Bloomsbury Press 2005
- Knight Lynn: Clarice Cliff biography Bloomsbury Press 2005
- 'Pasadena Evening Post' story 1931
- Griffin Leonard: Clarice Cliff the Art of the Bizarre (chapter Bizarre meets Bloomsbury) Pavilion/Chrysalis 1999/2002
- Woodward Dr. Philip: writing in The Bizarre Art of Clarice Cliff (Pavilion/Chrysalis 1999/2001)
- Griffin Leonard: Taking Tea with Clarice Cliff (Pavilion/Chrysalis 1996/2002
- Griffin Leonard Clarice Cliff: The Fantastic Flowers of Clarice Cliff Pavilion/Chrysalis 1998/2001
- Doreen Mann (née Jenkins) writing in Fantastic Flowers of Clarice Cliff Pavilion/Chrysalis 1998
- Slater Greg, Brough Jonathan: p. 266 Comprehensively Clarice Cliff: Thames and Hudson 2005
- Battersby Martin: The Decorative Thirties Studio Vista publishing 1969/1976
- The 'Review' magazine of the Clarice Cliff Collectors Club: 1997
- The Original CCCC Review magazine 1992–1999
- Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon: K. G. Saur Verlag 1998, Germany. Dictionary of Art: Macmillan, London 1996
- The Original CCCC 'Newsletter' October 2000
- Ramachandran, Naman (17 March 2021). "'Bridgerton' Star Phoebe Dynevor, Matthew Goode Lead Sky Original Biopic 'The Colour Room'". Variety.
- Original CCCCC 'Review' magazine – Summer 2002
- Guatelli Sevi, Griffin Leonard: p. 264 (for a similar example) The Best of Clarice Cliff Best 50 publishers 2008
- Guatelli Sevi, Griffin Leonard: p. 183 The Best of Clarice Cliff Best 50 publishers 2008
- Various: auction reports on www.claricecliff.com in 2008.
- Catalogue, 'CCCC sale No. 3' on 30 May 2009, at Fieldings of Stourbridge
- Stoke-on-Trent Sentinel – 3 August 2009 and reports on www.claricecliff.com.
- Victoria and Albert Museum, press release by Meera Hindocha, 17 September 2009
- The Original Clarice Cliff Collectors Club Founded 1982. Registered under the Business Names Registration Act 1982. No. 2803197
- Stoke-on-Trent Museums See Clarice Cliff's designs, plus the World's Finest Collection of Staffordshire Ceramics at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.