Ron Greedy was originally drawn to Cliff’s bold shapes, patterns and colours while trawling Sydney’s antique stores, particularly Copeland and de Soos, in the mid-1970s; when collecting Clarice Cliff was on the cusp of gaining momentum, particularly in Britain.
Cliff was the most successful ceramic designer working in Britain between 1927 and 1939. She was the first British ceramicist to develop Art Deco patterns and shapes for commercial production and her colourful designs, made by A.J. Wilkinson, influenced tableware produced by other Staffordshire factories. Cliff was also the first woman industrial designer and, eventually, the first woman art director in the Staffordshire potteries.
Born in Tunstall (Stoke-on Trent) in Staffordshire, Cliff (1899-1972) left school at 13 to apprentice as a gilder with the local pottery, Lingard, Webster & Co. She later worked as a lithographer at Hollishead & Kirkham and studied at the Tunstall and Burslem art schools before joining the A.J. Wilkinson pottery in Burslem in 1916.
In 1920 Colley Shorter, co-director of A.J Wilkinson, acquired Newport Pottery, a smaller factory adjacent to Wilkinson’s. Intending to introduce new ranges of quality earthenware, he offered Cliff a further apprenticeship as a modeller. Wilkinson’s most prestigious range at the time was ‘Tibetan’ and a massive ‘Tibetan’ jar painted by Cliff was selected as a highlight of the firm’s trade shows including their stand at the Sesqui-Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1926.
While the Tibetan range was not modelled by Cliff, her own modelling and decorating style began to emerge around this time as documented by her ‘Age of Jazz’ figures and first triangular vases. In 1927, Cliff completed short courses in modelling and drawing at the Royal School at Art in London and later also studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in Bloomsbury. In 1930 she was appointed art director of Newport Pottery.
‘Bizarre’ was the name of Cliff’s first range, which was launched in October 1927, featuring designs of brightly coloured triangles and banding that covered entire surfaces of plates, vases and other ware; it was named ‘Original Bizarre’ from 1930. Despite the economic recession that followed the General Strike of 1926, Cliff’s ‘Bizarre’ range was immediately successful and she gathered a team of young women decorators at the Newport Pottery to paint them with deliberately exaggerated brush strokes. The spontaneous brushwork was to complement Cliff’s modernist patterns and to draw the attention of buyers to freehand painting; an unusual feature on contemporary industrial pottery which was mostly decorated with prints or sprayed (aerographed) with enamel colours.
Commercial interest in ‘Bizarre’ was so strong that by 1928 orders were being sent to North America, South Africa, Brazil, Cuba and Holland. At least one design, an orange, green and black coffee set, had reached Australia by 1928 where it was retailed by Thomas Webb & Sons in Melbourne. Marketed with great style by celebrities of the day and through demonstrations in department stores and at trade shows, from 1928 ‘Bizarre’ became the umbrella title for all Clarice Cliff ware until 1936. After this date, her new designs were more often transfer-printed than painted.
Cliff was a prolific and versatile designer, keenly responding to changing market demands. Her first floral patterns, as well as the first Art Deco shapes, were added to the ‘Bizarre’ range in 1928. The same year saw introduction of the ‘Fantasque’ range as a Wilkinson’s product but made at the Newport Pottery – the candlestick decorated with a ‘Melon’ pattern of 1930 from the Greedy collection is a fine example.
A.J. Wilkinson was sold in 1964 and by the end of the decade Cliff’s ceramics, particularly those made in the 1920s and 1930s, had begun to be collected. First exhibitions of her work at the Brighton Museum in southern Britain in 1972 and at the L’Odeon Gallery in London in 1976, stimulated further interest as did several books about Clarice Cliff published in the 1980s and 1990s. The original Clarice Cliff Collectors Club was established in 1982 in Britain. Between 1992 and 2002 Wedgwood produced a range of handpainted Clarice Cliff reproductions in limited editions, which were followed by mostly transfer-printed versions.
A selection of Clarice Cliff ceramics from the Greedy Collection is on display on Level 3 of the Powerhouse Museum until December 2009.