The Pottery of Clarice Cliff: energizing, enduring
By Robert Reed
Nearly a century after she began her remarkable work, the pottery of Clarice Cliff remains energizing and enduring.
Acclaimed as the ‘poet in pottery,’ this British potter turned designer was one of the most prolific and profound artists of the 20th century. Her boldly marked, brightly colored wares were the ultimate in Art Deco.
“Beyond the traditional shapes, she designed many futuristic or otherwise innovative forms, such as beehive-shaped honey pots, cone-shaped sugar shifters, and highly stylized geometric versions of conventional items,” notes Miller’s Antiques Encyclopedia, edited by Judith Miller.
Clarice Cliff rose to fame during the 1920s and the 1930s. Her dazzling touch, which others have praised as streamlined or even ‘jazzy,’ delighted admirers for many decades.
Born as the 19th century ended in the Staffordshire region of England, she was one of eight children in her family. By the age of 13, this gifted child was painting pottery at a local factory. A few short years later, she was a full-time apprentice lithographer at the A.J. Wilkinson Royal Pottery.
Some accounts indicate Cliff took night classes at a nearby art school while working as a lithographer during the day. Her efforts apparently succeeded and she began working with some of the firm’s leading designers.
Early in the 1920s, at a time when Cliff was already accomplished enough to be allowed to sign her own very distinguished work, the firm purchased the newly defunct Newport Pottery.
Initially, the newly acquired plant held a warehouse of thousands of unfinished wares. Versions vary as to what happened next. Some accounts say the ever-resourceful Cliff was given permission by Wilkinson management to decorate the pieces as she saw fit. Slightly differing accounts suggest Cliff was assigned to the task because of her considerable talents with brightly colored enamels.
At any rate, the results were amazing and soon Cliff and staff were producing beautiful pieces of tableware in flowing geometric patterns.
By 1927, she had her own studio at Newport, and the following year she launched the hand-painted Bizarre range of ware. Described as both “inexpensive” and “cheerful,” it was immediately successful. The richly colored designs were brightly emblazoned upon the original creamy background for a profound effect.
The ultimate Art Deco statement
“Bizarre, the trade name for her most successful range, accurately describes the tea wares of that period of extremes, when square plates and cups with triangular handles went side by side with teapots in the shape of cars and trains,” praised the best-selling Treasures In Your Home, edited by Michael Wright, Treasures added further that Cliff’s amazing designs, “colorful and contemporary –decorated with dynamic but crudely painted patterns – were vastly popular” with the consumers of that era.
Still another range of ware, Fantasque, was also produced from the Newport warehouse stock and also hand-painted by teams under Cliff’s direction. It too became very well received in the marketplace.
The commercial success of Cliff’s dramatic works moved the firm to appoint her to the full title of artistic director in 1930. Very soon, more than 100 decorators would be under her artful direction in producing a vast array of bold and colorful designs.
There were variations as well.
Reportedly, when the company was looking for a design that would appeal to the tempting Canadian export market, Cliff and her crew presented the unusual and moveable Teepee or Wigwam teapot. Like so many of her earlier designs, it was highly successful.
Moreover, there were cut-out silhouette figures. The Age of Jazz series featured pieces painted and decorated on both sides. Two figural couples, for example, were shown dancing the tango yet forming a sort of plaque.
“The Cliff wares,” writes Garth Clark in the book The Artful Teapot, “inexpensive, colorful, and unconventional, were surprisingly popular and by the outbreak of World War II in 1939, which effectively brought the enterprise to an end, Cliff was employing almost 300 people to paint tea and dinner services.”
After the war ended, there was somewhat of a revival of Cliff’s ware in the early 1950s. In the book Pottery: Modern Wares 1920-1960, author Leslie Pina notes that the potter’s Sun Kissed series did very well. It incorporated some of the earlier and notable designs. Further, it used black transfer outline images of vegetables and fruits along with hand-painted colors.
Ultimately, Cliff designed more than 500 shapes from Bonjour to Stamford, and produced more than 2,000 patterns from Applique to Solitude. She also occasionally used designs by then contemporary artists such as Laura Knight in the Circus series and Paul Nash.
Traditionally, all of the Cliff wares were marked with the printed signature or the earlier C.C.
Clarice Cliff died in 1972.
Robert Reed can be contacted at: email@example.com
Tips on cleaning art pottery
by Rhiannon Ross
You’ve invested in that fine piece of art pottery but how do you clean it?
Durwin Rice, a decoupage artist and Discover design columnist (‘The Artistic Antique’), says for mild surface dirt, home cleaning generally is safe.
“Most pottery has a glaze on it, so it can be washed using a soft cloth with mild soap and tepid or lukewarm water,” he says.
Rice cautions against using harsh detergents or bleach in an attempt to remove more serious stains.
“Never use anything abrasive on pottery,” he says. “If it doesn’t wipe off easily, seek professional restoration. And never, under any circumstances, wash art pottery in the dishwasher.”
Rice says he also uses cosmetic brushes to remove dust from crevices or finer details on pottery.
When displaying art pottery, avoid placing it in direct sunlight, Rice adds.
“I don’t put anything in the sun, including myself. You see what it does to people. The sun is brutal,” he says. “Plants like the sun because they make food from it. But sometimes even they don’t like the sun.”
Rhiannon Ross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clarice Cliff Collectors Club
The Clarice Cliff Collectors Club seeks to educate its members about Bizarre pottery; provide information on price trends and rarity; and offer a venue for collectors to share their mutual interest.
Leonard Griffin founded the club in 1982. He is the author of The Rich Designs of Clarice Cliff, Taking Tea with Clarice Cliff, The Fantastic Flowers of Clarice Cliff, and Clarice Cliff: The Art of Bizarre. He also collaborated with Louis and Susan Meisel to produce the definitive book, Clarice Cliff: The Bizarre Affair.