Clarice Cliff, born in 1899, started learning the skill of enameling at the age of 13. She began working as a lithographer for A.J. Wilkinson, Ltd, Royal Staffordshire Pottery in Burslem, England later in her teens.
“She attended evening classes at Burslem School of Art from 1924 to 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,” according to The Clarice Cliff Website.
Origins and History
Warman’s Antiques & Collectibles 47th Edition edited by Noah Fleisher shares that Cliff’s artistic vision was given a canvas when a warehouse filled with undecorated jugs, vases, candlesticks, and bowls was acquired when A.J. Wilkinson purchased the adjacent Newport Pottery Company. Her “Bizarre” and “Fantasque” pieces, among others, were borne out of that stockpile of blanks, and the Newport factory eventually became home to her design and decorating team.
The name Bizarre Ware was coined by Colley Shorter, managing director for Wilkinson, who was instrumental in introducing Cliff’s work to the world. The name covers a host of pieces made with different patterns painted on varied shapes. It was immediately in demand and quickly sold out.
The early pieces were decorated by Cliff, but by 1930 she was promoted to Wilkinson’s art director and supervised a large staff working together to keep up with demand. As tastes changed moving through the decade, the blanket Bizarre name was dropped, and new shapes and designs were introduced.
“We progressed to circles and squares and simple landscapes—all within the operative's capabilities. These cried aloud for shapes other than the traditional and so the conical shape was evolved. As we grew, so did the number of shapes, and the number of boys and girls we trained increased to about 300 (this did not include makers, who increased also). We were copied by so many that we had to eventually patent many shapes. Even the Japanese copied some,” said Cliff in a 1972 interview in conjunction with an exhibition of her work at the Brighton Museum. Her wares were also exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum the same year, and are now held in museums around the world.
Cliff later married Shorter after his wife passed away in 1940. Wartime demands took the factory’s employees away, and production remained quelled even moving into the 1950s. Cliff accompanied Shorter to promote the company’s wares more frequently, and the couple spent more and more time away from the factory. Cliff retired after Shorter died in 1963 and the company was sold.
Collectors began to really notice Cliff’s work in the late 1960s and early 70s. Her artistry was highlighted for the American public in the “World of Art Deco” exhibition organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1971, according to ClariceCliff.com, a membership site for collectors of Cliff’s work. Cliff died peacefully in her home in England in 1972.
Values and Reproductions
Fans of colorful pottery and Art Deco collectors alike will pay good sums to own early Clarice Cliff pieces. It’s not uncommon for a single piece to sell in the hundreds, and some of the best Deco designs easily sell for thousands when sold at auction.
Where there are demand and value, there will also be fakes, forgeries, and confusing reproductions. “There are several potential problems with Cliff pottery: 1) New decorations on old undecorated blanks; 2) New marks on old unmarked decorated pieces; and 3) Application of forged old marks to new legitimate reproductions,” according to a Real or Repro feature published online by RubyLane.com.
In 1985, commemorative pieces made by Midwinters, the company that acquired the business from Cliff in the early 1960s, were made and dated accordingly on the bases. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York also had a number of items resembling Cliff’s work made in 1993 and those were also dated as such on the bottom of each piece. The problem is that forgers have figured out how to fill in those incised marks and apply a fake mark that looks very much like an original.
The best way to avoid fakes and forgeries is to study the newer pieces alongside originals before making a purchase. Books like Warman’s mentioned above along with high-end auction house records available online are good resources for this study. Buying from a reputable pottery dealer or auction house is also recommended, especially when spending thousands on what you believe to be a special Clarice Cliff example.