"Colourful Clarice Cliff" Index page for A.J.Wilkinson
Why did Clarice Cliff become so famous?
Leonard Griffin, author of five books on Clarice, and founder of the Clarice Cliff Collectors Club, talks about the woman behind the art.
When I bought my first piece of Clarice Cliff pottery in 1979 many antique dealers had not even heard of her. Some referred to her ‘Clarence’ Cliff! The startling contrast between designs such as Crocus and Lugano; or shapes such as her Yo Yo vase and the very traditional My Garden ware, was puzzling. How could ONE person have designed such a diversity of designs?
At the time there had been just one book about her, published in 1976 and was out of print. However, I finally managed to get a copy of the L’Odeon Clarice Cliff book, and devoured its contents eagerly. The more I learned about her pottery and life the more I become thoroughly engrossed. This was a very exciting time as many of the pieces I found were not in the book. What were to become her most famous creations, the classic Age of Jazz figures, were shown only in archive black and white photographs. It was clear there was much to discover.
Such is the ‘spell’ cast by Clarice’s art that today posters, books and her personal possessions are all sought by enthusiasts. Yet the early eighties saw a quiet build in interest, so fortunately I managed to assemble a collection in the days when pieces cost tens of pounds, rather than thousands. To answer the many mysteries about Clarice and her pottery, I started the Clarice Cliff Collectors Club back in 1982. Seeing the vast diversity of shapes and designs in other people's collections made me realise it might take years to catalogue them all, and I am still trying to complete this task 18 years later.
I began to research Clarice’s work in Stoke on Trent, where between 1982 and 1988 I traced over 30 of Clarice’s original paintresses. They had been just 14 years old when they joined her between 1927 and 1936, so were robust, lively women, surprised at the interest in their work. On my trips to Stoke I also discovered both the old decorating shop at Newport Pottery and the original tip where the breakages, ‘shards’ were dumped! I still cherish a box with hundreds of pieces of ‘broken Bizarre’ ~ another collector’s foible!
Soon, I had so much new information that I decided to write a book of my own on Clarice, but no British publisher could be interested. Then, fate played its part; American collectors Louis and Susan Meisel approached me. Our mutual love for Clarice’s work inspired us to produce a new book. We added new shapes, new designs, new names to Clarice’s story. And for the first time, we illustrated the Age of Jazz figures! Bizarre Affair was published in 1988 and is still in print today. It added a hint of the personal story behind the amazing pots, as the title referred to the affair Clarice had with the factory owner Colley Shorter. Bizarre Affair exhibitions were staged at the National Theatre, London, and Warrington Museum, and yet more devotees discovered Clarice. The poster has already sold for £20 to £30, and an original edition of the book now sells for up to £50.
Since 1988 the ceramics world has never been the same: suddenly Clarice was really discovered! But she was certainly not the chosen ‘doyenne of British ceramics amongst academics and ‘serious‘ writers. Luckily, ceramics collectors chose not to listen to the critics.
Christies in South Kensington introduced sales of just Clarice Cliff pottery in 1989. They were amazed to find that hundreds of enthusiasts arrived on viewing and sales days, and ‘celebrity collectors’ were soon spotted. Cliff devotees were rumoured to include Jerry Hall, Dawn French and Whoopi Goldberg.
Clarice’s pottery was exported to many countries, including the USA and Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, so collectors and auctions are found around the world. Indeed, the current World record is for a teaset sold by Christie’s in Melbourne in 1999 for £17,500!
Most recently, the phenomenal prices have appeared on eBay. There are usually over 250 pieces of Clarice Cliff on offer and a humble four inch high Beehive honeypot in Carpet sold for an astounding £2530 ($4050).
I only ever intended to write one other Clarice book, for her Centenary year of 1999. I had my plans mapped-out as early as 1994.. but suddenly, such was the interest in her, that I wrote three books between 1995 and 1998. In schools, thousands of youngsters did art projects based on her designs or shapes, and at the other end of the spectrum, newly retired people were studying her work because they found her bright, primary colours rejuvenating.
Clarice’s unique contribution was to bring colour into the lives of everyday people. And she was also the first woman to produce her own shapes en-masse in a Staffordshire ‘potbank’ ~ hundreds of them! She designed over 20 teapot shapes alone, and companies adapted her designs; not only on pottery, but on aprons, tea towels, doormats, trays, calendars, even biscuit tins! This spate of look-alike ware cashed–in on Clarice’s style, much in the same way that ‘Mockintosh’ appeared to copy the unique style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Some collectors may find it hard to accept that thousands of plates with her patterns printed on them have been produced, but it is an affordable way of buying her Art, otherwise she might be another renowned, but distant designer from another era. She really is the people’s designer from the Thirties: her work was aimed at a mass market then, and the ‘magic’ still works! As prices continue to rise, it is still possible for new devotees to buy actual hand-painted reproductions of her work by Wedgwood. These represent an affordable way to enjoy her amazing shapes and patterns. Ironically, Wedgwood has employed a team of young decorators to produce these piece, and they are based in Tunstall, Clarice’s home town!
Clarice’s Centenary year was 1999, and she was finally acknowledged for her achievements in her home town of Stoke-on-Trent. The Wedgwood Museum held an exhibition Clarice Cliff : The Art of Bizarre for six months. It was visited by 100,000 people including her original painters - the Bizarre ‘girls’- now all in their eighties. They became the focus for the public interest and adulation Clarice never really had.
Perhaps one pivotal reason Clarice Cliff has become so famous is because she was just an ordinary person with whom we can all strongly identify. She was modest about her achievements to the last, refusing to go to an exhibition of her work in 1972 just before her death. Her ‘girls’ tell us that she would have been ‘stunned’ at the interest now. But it was inevitable for someone who, in a few years created a range of over 400 different shapes which could be ordered on any of over 500 major designs. No other Potteries designer ever achieved this unique skill of being both a prolific modeller of shapes and creator of designs: her fame is based on sheer talent.
Clarice’s Centenary has gone, but her ‘star’ continues to rise. In the first auction after Centenary year her pottery has not only maintained its high prices, but suddenly made many new record prices. Lotus jugs, one of her most available shapes, were sold for £7000 to £8000 in standard designs. An Age of Jazz figure, that we did not really know a great deal about in 1982, made a world record price of £15,500 ! One of my first members had paid £20 for hers in the seventies. Clarice would have ’chuckled’, for she was an artist who thoroughly enjoyed her work. She herself said in 1933: "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 a little innocent tomfoolery."
The Clarice Cliff Collectors Club is at www.claricecliff.com
Credits: Images of Clarice Cliff and Colley Shorter are © Leonard Griffin® and Pavilion Books 1998/1999 Credits: Images of Wedgwood Clarice Cliff reproductions © Leonard Griffin® and Josiah Wedgwood® Credits: Clarice Cliff pottery images, and 1988 ‘Bizarre Affair’ poster © Leonard Griffin® and Clarice Cliff Collectors Club
Questions, comments, contributions? email: Steve Birks