Kya deLongchamps takes a peek at the pottery of Clarice Cliff, produced with naughty glee!
“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,”— Clarice Cliff, Pasadena Evening Post (1931).
There are few people who peek right out at you from their work with such naughty glee as Clarice Cliff.
Like it, loathe it, her early work from the late 1920s through the 30s is still startling with searing colour, bold shaping and a brassy originality.
Active artistically from 1922 to 1963, Cliff had a modest start in the terraces of Stoke-on-Trent surrounded by the high, smoking chimneys of potting factories. She had two aunts already employed as painters, and from an early age would have observed at their elbow the traditional decorating skills expected on polite Edwardian ware.
She started her working life at 13, at a time when girls were apprenticed into one dedicated area of modelling or decoration and generally stayed there until they married or retired. Clarice was determined on a career, not a job.
She spent her nights studying art and sculpture at Burslem School of Art, while working by day at the AJ Wilkinson factory, an exhausting regime conducted by bike, and propelled by her ambition and emerging talent. She astutely volunteered for a wide range of tasks around the factory’s departments, learning to sculpt, banding by wheel, gilding, conquering the art of enamelling and mastering each field.
There she also met the co-owner of the factory, Colley Shorter, who by happy chance recognised and promoted her for her obvious abilities. Her move to the sister factory at Newport allowed Cliff to creatively experiment on defective, (glost white), wares using her own designs to disguise damage committed during the firing process.
As the pieces were already finished and sealed, she painted directly on the glazes in bright jewel colours that throbbed with the vibrant spirit darting across the nightclub floors of the 20s. Cliff and her companion, Gladys Scarlett, worked up an avant-garde triangular motif, and the tension of these challenging designs tempered with the familiar hand-painted tradition made these works immediately popular with commercial buyers for Newport.
Cliff’s name in facsimile was emblazoned in a confident script, and bizarre by comparison to what was formerly available. Bizarre became the generic name for a huge family of patterns.
Cliff received a discreet leg-up in the male-saturated environment of the design from her lover, Colley Shorter. Despite his marriage to the long- suffering Ann, his continued interest in Clarice at a personal and professional level, gifted her two terms at the Royal College of Art in Kensington. She took full advantage of these diamond bright opportunities, injecting the wider world of modern music, art, dance, Cubism and abstraction right back to the darting, billowing, Charleston-agitated lines of her work.
During 1927-1929 startling new pottery in angular and conical shapes credited to her, appear at Newport. These revolutionary designs were executed through ordinary objects, such as toast racks, honey pots and vases, and easy for her girls to paint with a steady hand. As her botanical Crocus and architectural Fantasque designs became wildly sought after, the team of painters at the factory soared to 70 full-timers over several floors.
The names of her wares were flirtatious, optimistic, full of the colour lacking in the depression years, and her public couldn’t get enough. Melon; Circle Tree; Ravel; Delicia; Palermo — they spoke of a continental exoticism, that hid the fact European retailers were somewhat sniffy about her work.
A canny business woman, Cliff mastered the art of marketing and self-promotion, with painting demonstrations staged in the ritziest of department stores in London. Her most alluring young painters and paid celebrities, grinned widely for the cameras and applied some high colour to the articles that followed.
Within a decade, Cliff’s commercial and visual savvy paid off, and her collections went worldwide. She was reviewed and celebrated with unprecedented fervour for a female designer of tableware. By 1930 she was art director of both Newport Pottery and A J Wilkinson.
In the mid-30s a more lumpen style of modelling in muted colours including ‘My Garden’ came into vogue. Produced alongside the more dramatically abstract designs, these rather sentimental pieces have their own collectors. They are not to everyone’s taste, certainly not mine. In general they remain affordable.
Collecting Clarice Cliff is not as expensive as you might imagine, as her work was prolific, (18,000 pieces a week in the early 30s), and successful right up into the mid-1960s. If you want the jazzy pieces, rare and large examples of her work in perfect condition command a premium, but smaller pots such as cruets, single plates, and later mid-30s work with less flash are offered everywhere from general antiques dealers to Ebay.
Wedgewood obtained the rights of reproduction and from 1992 to 2002 produced a number of quality hand painted pieces, (rather than later printed ware), bearing her name and that of Wedgewood on a clear back-stamp. These are also highly sought after.
To find out more about the woman and her work, pick up a copy of Lynn Knight’s celebrated biography, Clarice Cliff, eBook €10.82 (Eason).
Andrew Muir, a specialist dealer, hosts the primary website for her work including the CCC Museum. www.claricecliff.com.
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