Clarice Cliff

Clarice Cliff

Clarice Cliff was born in January 1899 in Tunstall, Staffordshire and died in Newcastle-under-Lyme in October 1972. The fourth of eight children of an iron-moulder, Clarice Cliff started working at the age of 13 as an apprentice enameller. At 17 she joined A. J. Wilkinson's Royal Staffordshire Pottery as a lithographer, where her drawing ability was soon noticed. She attended evening classes at Burslem School of Art from 1924-1925 and studied sculpture at the Royal College of Art in 1927, but returned after only a few months to set up a small studio in Wilkinson's Newport Pottery, decorating traditional white-ware.

In 1927/8 a market testing of 60 dozen pieces of "Bizarre Ware" was organised by Colley Shorter. Wilkinson's salesmen were shocked by the extreme boldness of Miss Cliffs designs and further astonished by the rapidity with which they sold. Handpainted Bizarre, the name chosen by Colley Shorter, the managing director of Wilkinson's, to cover the whole range, was launched. In 1930 she was made Art Director of the firm and in 1940, following the death of his first wife, she married Colley Shorter.

The enthusiasm which greeted Bizarre generated a burst of creative activity. By 1931 Miss Cliff was supervising a workforce of up to 1000 at the Newport Pottery, with 150 boys and girls trained in the decorating shop, producing new modern shapes and designs.

Between 1932 and 1934 Miss Cliff became involved in an historic but short lived attempt to combine the forces of the Pottery and Glass Industries and contemporary artists. Thomas Acland Fennemore, Art Director of E. Brain & Company, Foley China, together with the artist Graham Sutherland and the designer Milner Gray, invited leading artists of the day (themselves included) to contribute designs to be made in bone china by Foley and in earthenware by Wilkinson's. Miss Cliff had misgivings and insisted the list be extended to include other artists with a more popular appeal, such as Laura Knight and Frank Brangwyn. Although most of the artists concerned merely decorated blanks, with which they were supplied, Laura Knight was able to design her own shapes, known as Circus. The completed designs toured the country, having been shown first at the Harrods Exhibition of 1934.

During the 1930's, and to reflect changing tastes, the patterns and shapes produced by Wilkinson's were to vary greatly, and in 1935/6 the Bizarre umbrella name was dropped; pieces then being marked Clarice Cliff. With the outbreak of war in 1939, creative output of the factory ceased, with much of the workforce being drafted into the Armed Forces.

Wartime restrictions on decorated pottery were to continue into the 1950's and the factory was never to produce pottery in the style or quantity of the pre-war period. Much of the design work was to pass into other hands, with Clarice and Colley spending less time at the factory and more time travelling and promoting the wares of A. J. Wilkinson.

In 1961, Colley was to fall ill and he died in 1963. Clarice Cliff decided the time had come to retire and the factory sites were sold in August 1964 to Midwinter's, thus ceasing the production of all original Clarice Cliff wares. With the factory site sold, there was to be no successor to Clarice Cliff and the production of original Clarice Cliff ended.

W.R. Midwinter's merged with Meakins in 1968, who in turn were absorbed by the Wedgwood group in 1970. The factory sites have now been redeveloped for housing.

In 1971, Clarice Cliff was acknowledged as a major art deco designer by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, when a large number of her pieces were included in their influential World of Art Deco Exhibition. With interest rising in her pre-war work, later in 1971, Miss Cliff was persuaded to write her own memoirs. Sadly age had started to affect her memory and some of the information Miss Cliff wrote is we now know  inaccurate.

In October 1972, Miss Cliff died at Chetwynd House, her home since 1940. She was found by her gardener sitting in her favourite chair listening to the radio.