The bold designs of Clarice Cliff's Art Deco ceramic ware have been sought-after since the 1920s. Here we present a primer on her life and work, illustrated with pieces from the André Aerne Collection, sold to benefit the Muskegon Museum of Art
The striking creations of trailblazing British ceramic artist Clarice Cliff have acquired something of a cult following — celebrity collectors include Vogue editor Anna Wintour and actress Whoopi Goldberg — and can fetch anything from $100 to $30,000. Ahead of our upcoming online sale, Clarice Cliff Ceramics: The André Aerne
Collection, from 14 to 25 August, we trace the extraordinary life of the pioneering icon, and offer an expert guide to collectors of her wares.
No ordinary factory girl
Clarice Cliff was one of seven children born into a working-class family in 1899 in the industrial town of Tunstall in Staffordshire, in the Midlands of England. ‘Her father worked in the iron industry and her mother took in washing to supplement their income,’ explains decorative arts specialist Natalie Voorheis. At the end of the 19th century there were no fewer than 13 pottery works in Tunstall and, as was usual for girls at the time, Cliff was sent to work in the potteries at the age of just 13.
But Cliff was to prove no ordinary factory girl. ‘Most of her peers would have sat tight after landing a job like this, but a few years later she took the unconventional step of moving to another factory, A.J. Wilkinson’s,’ the specialist continues. ‘It meant a long commute, but her new employer offered better career opportunities.’
Sent to the Royal College of Art
Cliff was ambitious, and at the Wilkinson factory she began to ‘collect’ skills in the workplace — modelling figures and vases, gilding, keeping pattern books, painting by hand, and working with the all-male team of designers to learn as much as she could. The head of the Wilkinson factory, Colley Shorter, recognised her talent and enthusiasm, and sent her to the Royal College of Art in London for three months — followed by a trip to Paris to take in the latest fashions.
Upon Cliff’s return, he gave her a studio of her own. ‘It was here that she would create the famous “Bizarre” line of wares in 1927,’ says Voorheis. ‘She was in charge of a team of workers, dubbed “the Bizarre Girls”, who would paint her designs by hand onto iconic Deco forms.’
‘Women were rarely modellers — let alone designers’
‘Factory work was strictly hierarchical, with jobs delegated along gender lines. Women were rarely modellers — let alone designers,’ Voorheis explains. Yet Cliff’s ability and drive enabled her to break through such historic contraints. When she became a designer each of her pieces was stamped with the Clarice Cliff signature, and soon she became a household name.
‘She was one of the first women of the potteries to launch a line under her own name like that,’ says Voorheis. ‘These days the idea of the personal brand — such as Orla Kiely or Jo Malone — is so central to the fashion and art industries that we do not question it. But when Cliff first achieved her success in the 1920s, there was not much precedent for a young woman from a working-class family becoming a designer, and branding her work with her own name.’
A crowd-pleasing talent
As well as her talent for designing vibrant patterns that appealed to the masses, Cliff’s success owed much to Colley Shorter’s gift for marketing. ‘He was a total master of modern advertising,’ Voorheis says. ‘He hired well-known personalities to come and be seen and photographed buying pieces of Cliff’s “Bizarre” ware, and he held painting demonstrations in prominent department stores that would draw crowds of people.’
Cliff’s constant stream of new and exciting designs kept her firmly in the media’s eye, and the newspapers loved her rags-to-riches story. The Daily Mirror newspaper in England described her (rather patronisingly) as ‘one of the romances of the pottery trade’ who had started out as ‘a humble little gilder in a china factory’.
Influenced by Cubism and De Stijl
While Cliff was undoubtedly inspired by the Art Deco designs of the 1920s, she also looked farther afield for ideas — namely, the avant-garde movements of Cubism and De Stijl. Many of her wares have distinctly modernist shapes and visible brushstrokes, something that was discouraged from the usual lines of production and which demonstrates her pioneering vision.
‘She made things that were designed to be used in the home — tea and coffee sets, candlesticks, vases, plates — but she also wanted women to have access to interesting and colourful things,’ Voorheis explains. ‘Not everyone would have known what the Cubists were doing but she was heavily influenced by them, and so it made its way into the homes of ordinary people.’
The Vogue editor’s choice
Cliff was a prolific artist and produced many hundreds of designs during the inter-war period, but her style remains immediately recognisable. ‘Some of the common threads are bright colours, patterns and interesting shapes,’ says the specialist. ‘They're vibrant and light-hearted — I think that’s why they’re still so appealing.’
When the fashion documentary The First Monday in May was released in cinemas in 2016, fans of Vogue were treated to a view of Anna Wintour’s office and New York home — revealing the magazine’s influential editor-in-chief to be an avid collector of Clarice Cliff ceramics. ‘There were all these minimal, neutral furnishings, highlighted by stunning pops of colour provided by Cliff’s designs,’ Voorheis says. ‘Cliff’s ceramics are timeless.’
Although these pieces were designed and bought to function as household items, they are now considered to be important examples of British Art Deco style.
In museum collections
‘Whenever you’re collecting something, it’s really important to buy it because you love it,’ advises our specialist, ‘but you should also learn about the patterns and shapes that characterise Clarice Cliff’s output. Once you know more about her work it’s great fun to discover patterns you recognise, and perhaps even to collect by hunting down one example of each set.’ Although much Clarice Cliff is in private collections, it is also to possible to see examples in museums such as the V&A in London and The Met in New York.
A special gift — for less than $1,000
Christie’s upcoming online sale offers a perfect entry point into Cliff’s work. ‘This collection is the first dedicated Clarice Cliff sale to take place in Christie’s New York, and represents an exciting opportunity for new buyers,’ says Voorheis. ‘There are many pieces that will be available for less than $1,000 and bids will begin at just $100. I think these pieces will appeal especially to those who are decorating or looking for a special gift.’
Whereas many of Cliff’s pieces are discoverable at the more affordable end of the market, some of her designs — usually those that had a smaller production run — fetch much higher prices. ‘Christie’s holds the auction record for a Clarice Cliff piece — a 1933 charger called ‘May Avenue’ that was inspired by a Modigliani painting. It achieved £39,950 at Christie’s South Kensington back in 2003.’
Something beautiful to live with
As with any work of art it’s important to check for authenticity, damage and repairs. ‘Always read condition reports and reach out to the specialists involved who will be happy to assist you — and look for the mark. You want it to have an authentic Clarice Cliff script signature on the base and for the glaze to be in good condition,’ Voorheis explains.
‘Condition is important, but beyond that it’s just what you find attractive and would like to live with. Essentially, it’s a totally fun and relatively easy category to collect — and just beautifully decorative.’