9 February 2008
Clarice was born in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent, England, the daughter of Harry Thomas Cliff and Ann Machin; her father was the great-great-great grandson of Thomas Wedgwood IV (1716-1773), the eldest brother of Josiah Wedgwood the famous potter.
At the age of 13 she started working in the potteries. She studied at the Burslem School of Art in the evenings.
Her first job was as a gilder, and once she had mastered this she changed jobs to learn freehand painting at another potbank, then moved to A.J. Wilkinson's in 1916, to improve her chances of becoming a modeller.
This was an unusual start to an unusual career: most 'pottery girls' mastered a particular task and then stayed with that to maximise their income as they were paid by the piece. However, Clarice was ambitious and prepared to take wage reductions to start at the bottom to acquire a new skill, in the process acquiring a wide range of expertise including outlining, tubelining, enamelling, banding and modelling.
Eventually, Clarice's wide range of abilities were recognised, and she was given an opportunity to decorate some of the factory's defective 'glost' (white) ware in her own freehand patterns. She covered the imperfections in simple patterns of triangles, vividly coloured in a style that was to become known as 'Original Bizarre'. To the surprise of the company's salesmen, this was immediately popular. She was provided with her own studio and another painter to assist, but this rapidly expanded to a team of around 70 young painters, mainly women but four boys - they hand painted the wares under her direction.
Between 1928 and 1936 she evolved a new range called Fantasque which featured cottages and trees, and then many Art Deco inspired patterns. These have proven particularly collectible nowadays. Through the depths of the Depression her wares continued to sell in volume at what were high prices for the time. Her Bizarre and Fantasque ware was sold throughout the world, North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, but not in mainland Europe. In Britain many top London stores sold it, including Harrods, but never Woolworths as some have stated.
In 1930 she was appointed Art Director to Newport Pottery and A. J. Wilkinson's, the two adjoining factories that produced her wares. Her work involved spending more time with the factory owner Colley Shorter, and this gradually developed into an affair, conducted in secrecy. In 1940, after the death of Ann Shorter, Colley's wife, they married and Clarice moved into the Shorter home, Chetwynd House, where she developed a strong interest in the extensive gardens.
During World War 2 only plain white pottery was permitted under wartime regulations, so Clarice assisted with management of the pottery but was not able to continue design work.
After the war, most production went to the US market where the taste was for formal ware in traditional English designs, rather than the striking patterns and shapes that had established Clarice's reputation. Thus she was never able to return to creative work. A.J.Wilkinson and their Newport Pottery continued to sell ware under Clarice’s name until 1964 when the factory was sold to Midwinter who also continued to use the 'Clarice Cliff' brand on some pieces.
Clarice's earliest Bizarre pieces from 1927 are the traditional shapes decorated in strongly geometric patterns of diamonds and triangles in bold contrasting colours, and now called 'Original Bizarre'. This early ware is usually stamped 'Bizarre' and sells for moderately high prices at auction.
By 1929 Clarice was designing her own shapes, often very angular and high Art Deco. Abstract and cubist patterns appeared on these, such as Ravel, seen on Clarice's Conical shape ware.
Clarice's are highly stylised and interpreted in strong colours, such as the 'Honolulu' pattern. Typically stamped 'Bizarre' or 'Fantasque', rare combinations of shape and pattern can attract very high prices at auction
She had become popular, with more rounded shapes, often with small flowers modelled as a handle or foot and only these were painted in detail.
Other series from this period include 'Harvest' which has detailed modeling, This late 1930s ware attracts relatively low prices at auction, though becoming more valuable.
After the second world war, although Clarice had less creative input into the ware her 'Clarice Cliff' mark was frequently added to the standard ranges made by the factory. This postwar ware has little value at auction.
In 1972, the first Clarice Cliff exhibition took place at Brighton, East Sussex, for which she provided comments for the catalogue. I was at school at Lancing College and went to Brighton for the afternoon and visited the exhibition and miss meeting her by a day..this is where my passion all started for her ceramics..Later that year Clarice died suddenly at Chetwynd House. This exhibition marked the start of a major revival of interest in Clarice's work, which has continued to be sought after by Art Deco Ceramic collectors.