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Collecting Clarice Cliff

clariceIts all in a name. Bright coloured pottery, typical of the 1930’s Art Deco period is synonymous with Clarice Cliff. Is it a co-incidence she was born 20th January 1899 in Tunstall, Staffordshire, the most northerly of the six pottery towns in the Midlands of England? Clarice was the daughter of Ann and Harry Cliff and had two brothers and five sisters.

Having left school at the age of thirteen, she started an apprenticeship with local potters learning her trade. At the age of sixteen she began working for the A.J. Wilkinson Company in Burslem. The Managing Director of the Company, Colley Shorter was informed of her talent by her decorating manager Jack Walker, and soon sent her to the, Royal School of Art in London to further develop her skills.

The result was that the company set up a separate studio from which she could experiment with new designs. Clarice was a skilled potter, and it wasn’t until 1925 when she was exposed to the Exposition Internationale of Arts Decoratifs et Industrialies Modernes in Paris that her creativity came into full bloom. This was the international exhibition during which the Art Deco and “modern” style burst onto the international design scene, and Clarice was fascinated by the geometrically grounded modern designs being introduced for all the necessary amenities of daily life. Wilkinson had always encouraged Clarice to design her own lines, and she was offered an even greater opportunity to create when Wilkinson purchased the Newport Pottery. Clarice took Newport “blanks” and began decorating her own unique and whimsical designs.

In 1928 she began producing one of her most favoured lines “BIZARRE WARE” which she continued until around 1937. She had an all female group of potters known as the “Bizarre Girls” who travelled to country trade fairs to promote the lines. Clarice used the geometric shapes of Art Deco, but she also worked in shapes of figures as well as abstract shapes. During the depression of the 1930’s she managed to produce bright cheery designs of couples dancing with vibrant colours and shapes so collectable today.

Additional artists were hired to produce Clarice Cliff designs by hand on the company’s products, and the “Crocus” pattern became one of her all time best sellers. The success of Clarice Cliff ceramic designs during this period gave her great success and prominent recognition in the arts world, still unusual for a woman during the 1930’s.

With the outbreak of the Second World War all pottery manufacturers were faced with restrictions and shortages, which effectively put an end to the colourful hand painted pottery of the Thirties. Clarice Cliff and Colley Shorter were married in 1940, soon after the death of his first wife, who had been an invalid for many years. The Newport pottery was taken over as a government store and by the time the War ended Clarice discovered that tastes had changed and mass production methods pushed out hand painted pottery. Colley Shorter died in 1963, after which Clarice Cliff left the business world, selling the two firms to Midwinters in 1964 and living quietly in retirement in the suburb of Clayton, south of Stoke-on-Trent. She died on 23 October 1972 after a brief illness. Midwinters was merged with J & G Meakin in 1968 and became part of the Wedgwood Group in 1970. Since then Clarice Cliff wares have become highly collectable, with prices running into thousands of pounds for exceptional pieces. Clarice Cliff designed over 500 shapes and 2000 patterns. Shape pattern and condition determine collectability.

Sought after shapes include the “Conical” range with cone-shaped bowls, vases and teaware with triangular handles or feet, as well as the “Bonjour” and “Stamford” ranges. Rare, desirable patterns include “May Avenue”, “Appliqué”, “Inspiration”, “Sunray”, “Mountain” and “Solitude”. Novelties, such as the sought after “Age of Jazz” figures and her facemasks are very desirable.

• Check the weight of the piece. Fakes often feel far too heavy or too light.
• Check the quality of the paintwork. Fakes are often poorly painted or badly banded.
• Check the vent holes on the tip and the refill hole in the base; fakers usually get the sizes of these holes badly wrong!
• Check the colour of the glaze. Most CC sifters from this era have a ‘Honey’ type glaze, not a white one.
• Be wary of the price. A real ‘Red Roofs’ sifter is worth between 1,200 and 1,800 UK Pounds in the current market, depending on condition.

• In November, 1997, a Clarice Cliff Age of Jazz figure set a new record -- selling to a determined American collector at Christie’s for over $20,000.

Earlier the same month, a huge 15” hexagonal vase in the rare and highly desired Football pattern sold in a northern English auction room for $3800. Amusingly, it had come from a solicitor’s office where a valuation expert had noticed the brightly colored vase being used as a doorstop. The years as a doorstop had resulted in damage to the base but the vase still sold well above estimate after determined bidding from collectors and dealers.

Clarice Cliff seems to be either idolized as an icon of the English Deco period or regarded as something of an aberration by design pundits of the period. Her life and her role in twentieth century British design history have been hotly debated. From the headline in a 1929 newspaper “Bizarre looks like a Russian ballet master’s nightmare” to the headline in a 1993 Daily Mail “How an affair with a married man and the Bizarre Girls made Clarice Cliff’s fortune” she has continued to attract notoriety. In 1931, the Pottery Gazette hailed Clarice as “a pioneer of advanced thought” and assured buyers that her work represented heirlooms of the future.


Some years ago in London, a South African collector told me about the “Latona Dahlia” tea set he had discovered. A lady called him about “a tea set with flowers on” and when he arrived it was a 23 piece tea set in a pattern so rare that one piece causes excitement. When he asked how much she wanted she said it had been a wedding gift and was not for sale...but that she would trade it for a new microwave which she had seen in a nearby store. He said he ran sofast to the store and then back carrying the microwave that he thought he might collapse before the tea set was his!

Len Griffin, the president of the Clarice Cliff Collectors’ Club, and the researcher of most of the current information on patterns and shapes, tells the story of the elderly lady who put two 18” YoYo vases in “Latona Roses” out for the garbage men to pick up. Luckily her neighbour rescued them and suggested she get them valued. They sold for $16,000 and she was able to buy the council house she had lived in for so many years.

Just before Len was to give a talk in New Zealand early in 1996, a woman showed him a miniature tea set in Honolulu pattern. This unique set had been sent to her mother in South Africa along with a personal note from Clarice, suggesting that some day they might use it to have tea together. More than sixty years later, both mother and daughter had come along to hear Len speak and tell him this incredible story!

Clarice prices seem to climb higher every year but, unless your budget is without limit, you would be wise to study the auction catalogues from the past ten years very carefully. Ten years ago the price for Lotus jugs was incredible, then the prices dropped and they have slowly edged back up. Three years ago anything from the Applique range went through the roof and yet at the 1996 auction at Christie’s, a number of pieces remained unsold. Ten years ago you could easily assemble a collection of conical sugar dredgers for a few hundred dollars each. Today a rare conical can cost from $3000 and up! Sometimes in North America dealers price anything with a Clarice Cliff backstamp as though it were a wonderful hand-painted bit of Bizarre. Like most Staffordshire potteries after the war, the Wilkinson factory suffered hard times and they produced anything they thought would sell. Although the pieces may have a Clarice Cliff backstamp, few of them were designed by Clarice and they are not of interest to most serious collectors who are looking for the hand painted wares from the late 1920s to the mid 1930s.

If you like the idea of Clarice Cliff, but simply cannot afford to spend $1000 on a sugar dredger, or $20,000 on an Age of Jazz figure, the 1992 and 1993 Wedgwood reproductions might interest you. They were issued in a limited edition of 500 and are carefully marked. When they were introduced they sold anywhere from $125 – 400. Interestingly, the November 1997 auction at Christie’s South Kensington included a section of these Wedgwood reproductions. The Museum of Modern Art in New York brought out a series of pieces loosely based on Clarice Cliff designs several years ago and they are still in production in the Philippines today and featured in the MOMA catalogue. The pieces are easily distinguished from 1930s Clarice -- they are impressed with the date and MOMA and the body is much lighter than the originals.

Because prices for Clarice Cliff are so high, obviously more and more pieces are being restored. As long as they are properly marked and priced, this is not an issue. You should always look very closely at the tips of conical sugars and the spouts of tea and coffee pots. Ask the dealer if he/she knows of any restoration. The more pieces you look at and handle, the better able you will be to spot repairs. If you are relatively new to Clarice collecting, you should spend some time reading some of the books and studying the pictures. It is very easy to buy a mismatched cup and saucer or jam pot and lid.

SOME CLARICE CLIFF PATTERNS: - Bizarre - Applique - Crocus - Fantasque - Latona - Delicia - Diamonds - Gardenia - Gibraltar - Honolulu - Kandina - Japan - Oasis - Raffia - Swirls - Viscaria - Xavier - Yoo Hoo


The Collector Issue 20


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