Clarice Cliff, chinaware artist

01:00 Fri 29th Mar 2002 The AnswerBank

Whenever set designers are required to evoke a feel of the 1930s they will almost certainly include some brightly coloured, geometrically-shaped, china. In the English-speaking world, this will almost invariably have been designed by, or copied from, the designs of Clarice Cliff, and for many, Clarice Cliff is Art Deco china.

Q. Who was she

A. As a designer of chinaware Clarice Cliff was unique: colourfully hand-painted her work captured zeitgeist of her time, and today her pottery has become part of the descriptive shorthand for the period between the wars. The artistic merit of her work may be arguable - and the quality of the china itself is not always of the best - but her innovation and vision, and her ability both to lead and satisfy public taste is impressive. And, importantly, her work has now become very collectible.

Q. How about a potted biography

A. Cliff was born in 1899 and lived all her life in the Potteries, that part of Staffordshire around Stoke-on-Trent that for centuries has been the centre of the china industry in Britain. From a modest home, she left school at 13 and was apprenticed to an enameller, moving on after three years to a lithographers (designs on chinaware are, for the most part, transferred by means of lithographs and are not hand-painted).

She was able to take advantage of the opportunities that the shortage of men during the First World War gave women in the workplace and quickly took an opportunity with a larger company, AJ Wilkinson, in the decorating department. It was not long before her talent was recognised and she was encouraged to produce designs of her own, using old stock from the newly purchased Newport Pottery. In 1927, the company sent her to the Royal College of Art in London for a few months to hone her skills, then set her up in a small studio attached to the pottery and gave her the freedom to pursue her designs and ideas.

Her first commercial designs were called Bizarre Ware, and her team of all-female painters were called the Bizarre Girls. The designs were completely different to anything already on the market, using bold geometric designs and shapes and vivid colours. Bizarre Ware was very successful and was soon being sold in the top department stores in the UK, the USA and in Australia - it was always more Harrods than Woolies. As a key part of the marketing effort, the Bizarre Girls toured the major stores and trade fairs, giving demonstrations of their techniques. The entire Newport Pottery was soon turned over completely to the products and Cliff was made art director of the company.

Wilkinson also used her designs on their standard chinaware, and the designs themselves became much less geometric and more decorative, though always highly stylised and always much copied. The success continued through the 1930s - and it was no mean feat to keep a factory in full employment producing luxury china through the Depression. After the Second Word War, during which production ceased, through to the 1950s, fashions had changed and her designs were more subdued and less successful.

Q. How many designs did she come up with

A. All in all, she produced some 360 designs, and they were used on all manner of wares.

Q. And the latter part of her life

A. She always lived a quiet life, eventually marrying her boss, Colley Shorter, in 1940 when she was 41, after the death of his wife. He died in 1963 and Cliff died in 1972.

By the time of her death, she was able to witness the first stirrings of the collecting fever that has since taken hold. The first major retrospective of her work was held in 1971 at Brighton, Sussex, for which she was interviewed. There have since been many exhibitions, books and TV programmes covering her work.

Q. What should potential collectors know about her

A. In the 1930s, many fashionable homes had Cliff's work, and the remnants of these everyday sets of chinaware were coming onto the second-hand market from house clearances by the end of the 1960s. Their colour and vitality resonated with the taste of the period and her work began to command high prices - for instance, a single plate was fetching as much as �10 at flea markets. Thirty years on and that same plate is worth well over �100 and some of the rarer, more desirable pieces will change hands for many, many thousands.

Although AJ Wilkinson has now disappeared, many records remain extant, and it is relatively easy to trace the complete catalogue of her work.

Take a look at the Clarice Cliff Collectors Club site at http://www.claricecliff.com/

and the Clarice Cliff site at http://www.claricecliff.co.uk/

See also the answerbank article on Art Deco and Art Nouveau

For more on Arts & Literature click here

By Simon Smith

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